Domesticating the Monster: Transformation, Identity, and Social Change in Four Middle English Romances
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The landed gentry in England emerged as a significant audience for vernacular literary works in the late 14th and 15th centuries. Great social and economic changes meant the barriers between social classes were becoming more blurred. Many of the landed gentry were able to ascend to the nobility through a combination of this shifting social paradigm and canny use of their wealth, but lacked the social prestige needed to solidify their position. Their wealth and widespread literacy allowed them to shape the way they participated and were represented in the world of Middle English literature during this turbulent time, to address this difficult and tenuous position. The gentry’s need for acceptance and stability among the nobility was often in a position of tension with their desire to establish themselves as a separate and distinct social class, free from the threat of land appropriation and exploitation by those above them on the social ladder. The interplay between these factors will be analysed through a comparative analysis of four different romance texts from the so-called Gawain-cycle, which can be argued to have been composed with a landed gentry audience in mind. In addition, the ways in which several scenes of physical transformations from monster into human feature in these romances will be explored, with an eye towards illustrating how these transformations relate to blurring social boundaries. These transformations seem to serve to integrate the monstrous figures, who exist on the margins of society, into the elite in-group, thus defusing the anxiety their presence causes. They reveal themselves as useful allies and marriage partners, the same way the gentry themselves likely would have hoped to be perceived by the rest of the social elite of their time.