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Of Giants

Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages

1999
Author:

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

Of Giants

Considers what monsters tell us about identity in the medieval period.

A monster lurks at the heart of medieval identity, and this book seeks him out. Reading a set of medieval texts in which giants and dismemberment figure prominently, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen brings a critical psychoanalytic perspective to bear on the question of identity formation-particularly masculine identity-in narrative representation. This is a compelling inquiry into the phenomenon of giants and giant-slaying in various texts from the Anglo-Saxon period to late Middle English, including Beowulf, several works by Chaucer, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Of Giants is a joy to read. Cohen is one of a small number of young medievalists who are already bringing about a large change in the discipline. His book will be required reading for any medievalist wanting to keep abreast of new theoretical developments in the field.

Robert Stein, Purchase College, SUNY and Columbia University (MUST list both of his affiliations!!)

A monster lurks at the heart of medieval identity, and this book seeks him out. Reading a set of medieval texts in which giants and dismemberment figure prominently, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen brings a critical psychoanalytic perspective to bear on the question of identity formation-particularly masculine identity-in narrative representation. The giant emerges here as an intimate stranger, a monster who stands at the limits of selfhood.

Arguing that in the romance tradition of late fourteenth-century England, identity is inscribed on sexed bodies only through the agency of a monster, Cohen looks at the giant as the masculine body writ large. In the giant he sees an uncanny figure, absolutely other and curiously familiar, that serves to define the boundaries of masculine embodiment. Philosophically compelling, the book is also a philologically rigorous inquiry into the phenomenon of giants and giant-slaying in various texts from the Anglo-Saxon period to late Middle English, including Beowulf, Chrétien de Troyes’s The Knight and the Lion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, several works by Chaucer, Sir Gowther, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and more.

A significant contribution to our understanding of medieval culture, Of Giants also provides surprising insights into questions about the psychosocial work of representation in its key location for the individual: the construction of gender and the social formation of the boundaries of gender identification. It will engage students of the Middle Ages as well as those interested in discourses of the body, social identity, and the grotesque.

ISBN 0-8166-3216-2 Cloth £00.00 $47.95xx
ISBN 0-8166-3217-0 Paper £00.00 $18.95x
240 Pages 5 black-and-white photos 5 7/8 x 9 May
Medieval Cultures Series, volume 17
Translation inquiries: University of Minnesota Press

Of Giants

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is associate professor of English and human sciences at George Washington University. His books include Monster Theory (Minnesota, 1996).

Of Giants

Of Giants is a joy to read. Cohen is one of a small number of young medievalists who are already bringing about a large change in the discipline. His book will be required reading for any medievalist wanting to keep abreast of new theoretical developments in the field.

Robert Stein, Purchase College, SUNY and Columbia University (MUST list both of his affiliations!!)

Cohen’s book is a significant contribution to the study of monstrosity in the Middle Ages. Of Giants explores the variousness of medieval masculinities as well as some of the central nightmares and dreams that conjoin them. It’s a book that can also be quite enchanting; Cohen is very good at offering the pleasures of surprise and recognition.

Louise O. Fradenburg, University of California, Santa Barbara

A small book on large creatures is a good thing. Cohen’s book brings the monstrous and the sexual into various points of contact or contingency that can yield provocative and perceptive analysis….Cohen has a voracious, even gargantuan appetite for cultural references, both medieval and contemporary, textual and theoretical…this makes [him] an illuminating and pellucid critic.

Speculum

Of Giants uses contemporary psychoanalytic theories to investigate the figure of the giant, his duality, and how that duality continues to appeal to the human psyche.

Years Work in English Studies

This intelligent and provocative book is certainly one of the two best recent works on the subject of monstrosity (the other being Andy Orchard’s Pride and Prodigies). Its wide-ranging theoretical base makes it, in my opinion, much superior to studies by David Williams, Claude Kappler, and Claude Lecouteaux. Readers of Cohen’s book will find little which is tendentious. Anyone interested in giants in English literature would do well to buy and read this attractively produced and stimulating book.

John B. Friedman

Of Giants

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: The Intimate Stranger

1. The Ruins of Identity
2. Monstrous Origin: Body, Nation, Family
3. The Body in Pieces: Identity and the Monstrous in Romance
4. The Giant of Self-Figuration: Diminishing Masculinity in Chaucer's "Tale of Sir Thopas"
5. The Body Hybrid: Giants, Dog-Men, and Becoming Inhuman
6. Exorbitance

Afterword: Transhistoricity
Notes
Bibliography
Index