Monsters: An etymological and cultural reading of the ‘freak’ in the Middle Ages

Monsters: An etymological and cultural reading of the ‘freak’ in the Middle Ages

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Monsters: An etymological and cultural reading of the ‘freak’ in the Middle Ages

By Irina Metzler

Manifold, Vol. 1:1 (1994)

Introduction: Watching the film Freaks (USA, 1930s) at the start of the symposium on The Body reminded me how little the attitudes towards the physically Other people had changed in six or even seven hundred years. Both Freaks’ commentator/ voice-over to the historical introduction to the film’s theme and the theological-philosophical literature of the high Middle Ages share the same patronising (= fatherly-moralizing) and apologetic tone. Apologizing for what? For the insult to the natural order of things as created by God which the “freaks” cause in the case of the medieval authors? For the affront to the sensibilities of the viewer in the case of the film’s commentator? That the medievals did not interpret “freaks” as an insult to creation is the theme of this paper, showing that medieval thought on the disabled body was not as “backward” as the Dark Ages school of popular historical perception teaches; nevertheless, the differences between the underlying concepts of medieval and contemporary notions of physical disability should not be disregarded.

The exterior mirrors the interior, or: let me gaze at your body and I will gaze at your soul. Such could be a summary of the medieval view regarding the body-soul relationship. The state the soul is in, good or bad, makes an impression on the body and vice versa, an ugly, diseased or deformed body makes the spirit bitter and twisted, while an angelic appearance encloses an angelically pure soul (apart from the frequent occasions when the Devil or any of his host of demons, evil spirits, succubi, incubi…. [and women in general, it seems] fools a person by hiding their evil soul in a beautiful body). Therefore the body can be read as an external sign for what is really important, namely the soul. The beginings of the Renaissance changed little about this attitude. So Paracelsus (in the early 16th century) held that the external form was a sign (or Zeichen, signum, signatum, signum signatum, signatur) of the inner quality.