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The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature.


The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature. By Dorothy Yamamoto. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 2000. xii+257 pp. 45 [pounds sterling].

Dorothy Yamamoto's study is unusually readable, perceptive and interesting. Although she takes a fashionable subject, that of the 'other' (beast, wild man or woman) and is evidently aware of the critical possibilities of topics such as marginality and the body, she avoids the snare of densely theoretical prose to offer insightful and approachable readings. She presents lucidly the values placed on different kinds of body: high and low, central and peripheral, male and female. Her work is 'eclectic' (p. 226) and can sometimes seem fragmented: she does not claim to offer a comprehensive overview of the topic, but offers examples and literary readings on a range of aspects. Though not always original, the analysis is consistently interesting. The focus is on later Middle English, particularly romance, literature: the Anglo-Saxon fascination with the 'other', most evident in Beowulf 's monsters and monstrous hero, is not treated here. Some French and Latin analogues are considered.

Yamamoto begins with an examination of the bestiary tradition, which offers the 'ground rules' (p. 12) of human and animal relations; she emphasizes in particular the convention of humanizing animals or treating them in terms of their usefulness to man. A recurrent theme is the influence of the bestial world on definitions of the human. Animals are viewed positively when they offer analogues or lessons to human society, but are feared or scorned when they cross boundaries of behaviour. Yamamoto explores the significance of two contrasting kinds, birds and foxes, that 'play out an especially elaborate metaphorical role' (p. 33). Birds, despite their difference in kind, are viewed as most closely echoing human, particularly noble, behaviour: Chaucer's Squire's Tale and Parliament of Fowls provide sophisticated literary examples. The fox, by contrast, becomes a complex symbol of deceit, his wiliness rendering him the subject of fables and fabliaux; his literary role, as the Roman de Renart demonstrates, is not just to provide comedy, but also to allow for moral lessons and social criticism.

Yamamoto then moves to heraldry and hunting, arts that employ animals in symbolic and ritual ways. She demonstrates the power and significance of heraldic device, and, by contrast, the effect of creating a literary hero like the Man in Black in the Book of the Duchess, who does not wear any heraldic symbol. The art of hunting provides a natural complement to heraldry: animals again play metaphorical roles, while the hunt is also an important literary topos. Yamamoto considers the hunt in some detail, relating the establishment of forest law and the institution of hunting rituals to marking and 'maintaining boundaries' (p. 102) between animal and human, and exploring the significance of different kinds of prey. She focuses on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to argue that the parallelism between the hunt and bedroom scenes is less clear-cut than is often assumed, and captures well how the 'bodily' (p. 130) nature of Gawain's test is illuminated by the hunting scenes. She offers, too, a reading of the Knight's Tale, where animal images play a crucial role, reflecting on Theseus's kingship and the status of those participating in the tournament, but also demonstrating, in the identification of Palamon and Arcite with lower animals, the difficulty of defining the boundary between man and beast.

The final chapters treat two marginal human figures, wild men and women. Wild men transgress boundaries; they are 'liminal between the known and the unknown' (p. 147). Men define themselves through the encounter with what they are not, though all men can become wild through passion. Yamamoto focuses on the hairiness of wild men as the emblem of their otherness, often associated with sexual threat. Wild men serve in particular to point up the courtly, though as this study shows, in sophisticated works such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Sir Orfeo, interest is created through the intersection of wild and courtly. Yamamoto presents women too as transgressors of boundaries: this last chapter, more theoretical than the rest, is also less satisfying, perhaps because here the discussion is generalized to consider women's separate spheres and the ways femininity can oppose knighthood. The figure treated at length is Melusine, the strange serpent-woman, creator of the Lusignan dynasty, a figure herself peripheral to English romance. The reader may regret the absence of Grendel's mother, or of violent transgressors like Judith, though Josian in Beves gets a mention. One might also wish for a discussion of the many enchantresses and faeries of romance, from Launfal's alternately loving and violent faery mistress, to Morgan le Fay with her rival courtly world, or Malory's Hellawes, who, when she fails to possess Launcelot's body dead or alive, dies of unrequited love.

More might be made of the role of landscape in the depiction of those who transgress boundaries: do forests, deserts, and exotic lands produce different kinds of 'other'? Further consideration needs to be given to contrasts between genres: the 'other' plays notably different roles in saints' lives, where it is either divine or demonic, and romances where it is ambiguous and amoral, often dangerous but also potentially positive; more discussion of the marvellous would be useful. This slim volume merits expansion, but is approachable and lucid, addressing a fascinating topic in such a way as to provoke interest and encourage further study.


University of Durham CORINNE SAUNDERS
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Author:Saunders, Corinne
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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