Monstrous Women in Middle English Romance: Representations of Mysterious Female Power

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Winner of the D. Simon Evans Prize in Medieval Studies
This study treats the appearance of the monstrous woman in Middle English romance narratives as a self-conscious literary trope that reflects on, and often criticizes, the grounds of philosophical, cultural, and narrative discourse that place women both inside and outside medieval culture, constructing them as Other by biological and social difference yet relying on them for the reproduction and healthy maintenance of the male-governed social order.
Building on current monster theory and adding to research on medieval women in literature, this study reclaims the Middle English romance as a sophisticated literary strategy that, in its narrative reflexivity—and its use of a fictionalized thirdspace—reveals how medieval rhetoric essentially makes women into monsters.


“Dr. Urban’s study is at once an elegantly provocative yet accessible introduction to these unusual works, and a many-sided consideration of the challenge that all these works raise. As she argues, all of these in different ways present powerful but monstrous (or monstrous but powerful) women whose appearances in a number of medieval English romances bespeak a settled view both of women’s uncategorizable or unexpected powers, and, consequently, of women’s 'monstrous' status in the terms of the 'everyday' world of male-centered authority.” – Prof. Andrew Galloway, Cornell University

“The various romances and other texts with which Professor Urban is concerned have received relatively little critical attention since these are texts which do not lend themselves well to the kind of close reading which was and in many respects still is the most conventional way to approach medieval literary texts. The larger critical perspective which Professor Urban offers is thus particularly valuable since it suggests ways of approaching these texts, ways of reading them which were not available to previous generations of critics. Texts like Melusine or the "Man of Law's Tale" seemed essentially opaque to modern readers, but it is clear from Professor Urban's study that they are very rich and interesting indeed when read as texts expressing and illustrating deep cultural and political anxieties about the role of women who are simultaneously foundational and yet excluded from the normative political and social order. This is an important study which should be widely read in classes concerned with feminist theory and medieval romance.” – Prof. Thomas D. Hill, Cornell University

“Urban suggests that female monsters create a new space, a thirdspace, in which the constructiveness of patriarchal society is critically exposed, predicating this epistemological operation on the establishment of the absolute Other, woman. This new monograph impresses the reader with its solid combination of recent theoretical approaches to monstrosity with a careful, sound reading of the relevant Middle English texts.” – Prof. Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona

Table of Contents

Foreword by Professor Andrew Galloway
Introduction: Monsters, Women, and the Work of Romance
Monstrous Women in Medieval Literary Traditions
Monster as Signifier
Women and Medieval Misogyny
Romance in England and its Relationship to Women
The Fictional Possibilities of the Medieval Romance
1. The Fate of Melusine in England
Melusine’s Origins
Melusine’s Analogues in Art and Myth
Woman, Monster, Evil
Introducing Melusine
2. Melusine’s Monstrosity
Melusine’s Fairy Heritage
Melusine’s Serpent Form
Melusine as Courtly Paragon
Melusine’s Transformations
Melusine’s Crime
Melusine’s Legacy
Melusine’s English Reception
3. The Rehabilitation of Medea
Backgrounds to the Middle English Medea
Chaucer’s Medea
Gower’s Medea
Caxton’s Medea
4. Exiled Queens and Monstrous Matriarchs
Meaningful Violence
Problematic Virtue and Monstrous Queens Gower’s Constance: Moral Motherhood
Chaucer’s Custance: “Grace” and “Place”
Monstrous Relations: Fairy Births and the Threat of Incest

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