The Medieval "Freak Show": Putting the Monstrous on Display in the Middle Ages
The Medieval “Freak Show”: Putting the Monstrous on Display in the Middle Ages
(SEMA 2019): Deadline June 3, 2019
People and creatures perceived as monstrous or wondrous are often put on display for profit or exploitation. At times, this exhibiting is framed by promoters as “education.” What has popularly been called the “freak show” achieved its height via the emergence of working class entertainments that transformed visual cultures in the nineteenth century, as exemplified in P.T. Barnum’s circus and its sideshows, but also including innovations such as the stereoscope and the panorama, which paved the way for cinema and, later, television.
Yet these technologies only amplify traditions of the public display of human oddity and wonder stretching back to the Middle Ages (and beyond): striking examples of extraordinary bodies and physical powers can be found in medieval saints’ lives, such as that of Christina Mirabilis, who could purportedly perch in trees like a bird, roll herself into a ball, and move at superhuman speed. She, or her hagiographer, puts her “wondrous” body on display to instruct and astound, and might have been aware of the sensationalism of her narrative. Likewise, medieval epic offers numerous examples of wondrous bodies, and exempla teem with people possessed by devils with the power of prognostication. These episodes are meant to instruct, but also to titillate, horrify, and shock their audiences. Similar paradigms mark displays on modern television, particularly in reality shows that walk (and frequently cross) the line between empowerment or awareness raising and exploitation.
We can thus understand then that the notion of the “freak” in “freak show” requires both display and the framing of that display as, in Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s phrasing, “enfreakment.” Fantastic physical attributes must be visible by way of exhibition, while other powers, such as prognostication, must be made worthy of display by way of spectacular shows and dramatic presentation. The “educational” aspect of the “freak show” is the most controversial and poignant aspect of the practice. The “freak” is claimed to benefit the normative public through certain services or through instruction, claims which are now known to be empty. The papers of the panel will discuss medieval instances of the “freak show,” along with the complex questions of power, exploitation, and otherness these engender. We are especially interested in papers that address the presentational and supposedly “educational” aspects of the “freak show,” though we welcome papers addressing any aspect of the phenomenon. Might we understand premodern literary and artistic examples as forms of display as analogous to the “freak show?” What are the forms of display that characterize medieval cultures? How do medieval forms of display exhibit – or question – the typical goals of profit, exploitation, and edification, but also power and place?