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Unwiht: Shifting Boundaries of Humanity in Early Middle English Language and Literature
While the field of Monster Studies has proliferated across disciplines, particularly in relation to studies of the medieval period, often Early Middle English literature has been ignored. In some ways, this is sensible, since the term “monster” is not attested in English until Chaucer’s use of it in the late 14th century in The Canterbury Tales. However, nonhuman beings that might otherwise have been categorized as monsters are still present in the literature. Building on the idea of Hughes’ “non-human human beings” and Mittman’s and Heng’s reconceptualization of race and the “monstrous races,” I propose a new term: nonhuman person. I propose three criteria for determining if a particular literary being falls in this category. I use literary analysis to determine if each criterion is met. Then I examine the lexical choices made to identify and describe each of these nonhuman persons in two sample texts from each rough time period in the language: .The Wonders of the East and Beowulf for Old English; The Owl and the Nightingale and Layamon’s Brut for Early Middle English; and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Canterbury Tales for Late Middle English. Finally, I examine the shifts in the lexicon over time in order to examine how English re-envisions the nonhuman person from the Old English period up through Chaucer’s use of “monster” in his Tales.