Making Sense of Monsters
When Asa Simon Mittman contemplated how to start the first day of class in his “Medieval Art” course, he envisioned opening with a photo of a medieval shield. As students admired the gold and the jewels, he’d explain how it was actually an accessory of intimidation and the intersection between its implied power and violence.
Then, he’d switch to a photo of the 2017 marches in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacists and neo-Nazis took to the streets to support a modern-day movement. Wielding torches, shields, and helmets reminiscent of medieval days, they intended to strike a similar chord of dominance and influence.
“The seventh century is alive and well in many ways,” Mittman said. “Work we do in this class is directly germane to our current world. We’ve become a climate of othering. We are talking about a strategy that carries on into the present with depressing relevance.”
The professor and department chair knew his point could be offensive, but as an art historian who specializes in both medieval times and monsters, he is determined to champion the ongoing relevancy of his discipline.
“Here is the thing about monsters: We as humans are always working incredibly hard to define ourselves. We are always making posturing statements about who we are as individuals, as communities, as nations, as races, as religions, as genders, as sexualities,” he said. “How do we figure out who we are? We define ourselves by means of difference.”
Monsters, he said, become the definition of that difference.
Shedding light on that concept is the theme of his exhibit, Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders, which opened in July at The Cleveland Museum of Art after a successful debut last summer at The Morgan Library in New York. The exhibit, a project more than five years in the making, is the first of its kind in North America and perhaps the world.
Monsters, Mittman explains, are beings humans call into existence exclusively to create the notion of what it means to be human. As such, he said, could there be any more important discipline to study?
“If you had told me early on that was a job I could possibly have—monsterologist or whatever—I would have dedicated my life early on to pursuing it,” he said.
He’s not aware of any culture in the world that doesn’t have monsters. While their importance seems to ebb and flow, the middle ages were a time when they showed up in every cultural product, from books to architecture and textiles to jewelry. Even monstrous music exists.
Using those artifacts and a volume of textual references, Mittman worked with his friend and colleague Sherry C.M. Lindquist, the Dorothy Kayser Hohenberg Chair of Excellence in Art History at the University of Memphis, to co-curate their landmark exhibit.
They divided it into three categories. “Terrors” are frightening creatures designed to inspire fear or awe, often used by those in power to prop up their authority. “Aliens” reflects the concept of “outsider or foreigner.” The exhibit’s third element, “wonders,” refers to things people would marvel or wonder at.
The rhetoric is yet another focus of Mittman’s expertise. The historic and modern terms humans use to describe other groups shed light on language’s intentions and implications.
“Aliens in another context is the term used to describe immigrants to our country, described with the same word we use to describe the horrifying, multi-mouthed, acid-for-blood, plant-its-young-in-human-bodies xenomorph from the Alien franchise,” Mittman said. “Should we use the same term to describe that and human beings?”
Similarly, he said, that concept has been used for centuries to “other” Jews, Muslims, sexual minorities, and women—all represented as monsters by the normative ruling elite. The vile and pernicious strategy of abjection, rejection, demonization, and dehumanization has a profound and continued legacy today.
“While monster is not a verb, I’d like it to be one. I’d like to say we ‘monster’ at something in the same way we marvel at something or wonder at something,” he said.
The exhibit was largely built from items from The Morgan Library’s collection of manuscripts, with additional items such as sculptures and tapestry borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston Museum of Fine Art.
The show’s opening was a highlight in what so far has been an incredibly fun career, Mittman said.
His foray into the field as a professional discipline was the product of happenstance during his PhD program at Stanford. He was looking at depictions in maps about what existed at the edge of the world, when he realized the answer was “monsters.”
“We can’t separate them,” he said. “Where people view their locations and where they view other people is fundamentally tied to how they view other people and how they view themselves,” he said. “Maps are a diagram of people’s worldviews, and monsters are exactly the same thing.”
What turned into an idea for a paper became his dissertation and then his first book, Maps and Monsters in Medieval England.
“Whatever you study, if you know enough about it, you would discover it is the hinge pin on which the entirety of the culture of the world turns,” he added. “Monsters are most certainly that.”
For a while, Mittman was dedicated to developing the field of monsters as a legitimate study. He gave about 50 talks in the United States and Europe over the course of five years, “preaching my own odd gospel,” he said. With friends, he founded MEARCSTAPA, an acronym that stands for Monsters: The Experimental Association for the Research of Cryptozoology through Scholarly Theory And Practical Application, and he began to teach classes on monsters.
“That was my main project for a while, to invent that field,” he said. “But we kind of succeeded. The study of monsters is a perfectly normal and reasonably legitimate thing now.”
The overwhelmingly positive response to his exhibit demonstrates that many share his fascination. After Cleveland, Medieval Monsters will make a final stop at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, and Mittman is glad it gets to expand its audience.
Unlike an academic book which may only be read by a small group of people, the exhibit exposed thousands of people to the world of monsters and demonstrated how they are both horrifying and fascinating in ways that have not dimmed for thousands of years.
At the time they began assembling artifacts for it, he had no way of knowing Charlottesville would happen. Today, as the long spikey tail of this history seems to repeat itself and the monsterization of “others” continues, Mittman is glad that the focus of his attention is not a “dusty curio on a curiosity shop shelf.”
“I think the job of a historian is to always have a kind of binocular vision, where you have one eye on the past and one eye on the present,” Mittman said. “Monsters need to become integral to the way that we approach the study of culture, history, and humanity because they are such an integral part of that. They have a huge amount to teach us.”