by Sherry C.M. Lindquist and Asa Simon Mittman, D. Giles Limited, June 2018. 175 p. Ill. ISBN 9781911282181 (h/c), $39.95.
Reviewed September 2018
The subject of medieval monsters is not a new topic in the literature; as far as book publications there are many notable works exploring medieval beasts, monstrosity, and the grotesque in the Middle Ages. So, what does this volume add to the conversation?
Lindquist and Mittman’s volume is unique, as it was published to accompany the major exhibition by the same name at the Morgan Library & Museum and provides over ninety beautiful illustrations highlighting the Morgan’s manuscript collections. In keeping with medieval traditions of illustration, diverse monsters playfully amuse themselves in the margins as they do in medieval maps and manuscripts. The volume is organized with an introduction, then thematically (“Terrors,” “Aliens,” “Wonders”), with an afterword, exhibition checklist, a helpful guide to further reading, and a bibliography. Both authors are professors and art historians whose research and previous publications deal with the obscene and heretical (Lindquist) and the monstrous in medieval art (Mittman). Colin B. Bailey, the director of the Morgan, wrote the foreword, and fantasy fiction writer China Miéville, who’s novel Kraken won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, wrote the preface. Most charmingly, the book is dedicated to Mary Shelley on the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein.
The topics covered are wide ranging in theme but all fall under the idea of the Middle Ages as a time when demonizing the “other,” or seeing the “other” as monstrous, was the norm. The introduction and preface cover the cultural roles and importance of monsters in the Middle Ages and the present. The section “Terrors” discusses monstrosity and the particular function of terror that monsters held in medieval art and history in order to visualize the relationship between them and the ruling classes. The section “Aliens,” possibly the most noteworthy section, covers the concept of “otherness” in relation to the Eurocentric view of foreigners, enemies, the exotic, or the sexually dangerous. These often included women, Jews, Muslims, and others marginalized by society. The section “Wonders” addresses wonder as an emotional response that monsters caused, therefore playing a part in how they were defined and represented by viewers and artists in the Middle Ages.
The volume is recommended to all academic libraries. The content would be of interest to art, cultural, and medieval historians, and the further reading guide is a great starting point for both graduates and undergraduates, as well as those interested in conducting further research. The illustrations are charming and surprising, and give readers a good sense of the diverse manuscript holdings at the Morgan.