Mearcstapan: Monsters Across the Border

The language of monstrosity has long been used to demonize the other, the foreigner, the alien and the immigrant.

In the Old English poem, Beowulf, the Grendelkin are quintessential outsiders—lurking in the shadows and haunting the wilderness as scuccan ond scinnan “demons and monsters” (939). But the Grendelkin are also characterized with a measure of sympathy. Grendel is depicted throughout as a human suffering in exile, portrayed as rinc “man” (720), who is dreamum bedæled “bereft of joys” (721, 1275), and as feasceaft guma “miserable man” (973), forced to wræclastas tredan “tread the paths of exile” (1352).

Early in the poem, the narrator introduces Grendel as:

Wæs se grimma gæst   Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa,   se þe moras heold,
fen ond fæsten;   fifelcynnes eard
wonsæli wer   weardode hwile (102-05).

“The grim spirit was called Grendel, the famous mark-stepper, he who held the marshes, fens and strongholds, the unlucky man guarded the realm of monsterkind a while.”

Grendelkin fleeing Hroðgar’s Danish patrol. Image from Sturla Gunnarsson’s ‘Beowulf and Grendel’ (2005).

The narrator names Grendel a mearcstapa, a compound generally understood to mean “border-walker,” in reference to his wandering in the wild. And later in the poem, Hroðgar characterizes both Grendel and his mother in virtually identical terms:

Ic þæt londbuend,   leode mine,
selerædende,   secgan hyrde
þæt hie gesawon   swylce twegen
micle mearcstapan   moras healdan,
ellorgæstas (1345-49).

“I have heard that the land-dwellers, my people, and hall-counselors say that they saw two such foreign-spirits, great mark-steppers holding the marshes.”

In this passage, the Danish king describes his monstrous neighbors as mearcstapan “mark-steppers” and as ellorgæstas “foreign-spirits” (a compound that highlights their status as other). Although Manish Sharma makes a compelling argument for “marked wanderer” as a possible translation of mearcstapa—referring to the mark of Cain and corresponding to descriptions of the Grendelkin as Cain’s progeny, in Caines cynne “in Cain’s kin” (107)—nevertheless, “border-walkers” remains the preferred interpretation of the Old English compound.

However, a third available translation of mearcstapa is “border-crosser” and this interpretation of the Old English compound focuses on the Grendelkin’s liminality and sorrowful journeying between the Danish kingdom and realm of monsters. Interpreting mearcstapan as “border-crossers” aligns the monstrous Grendelkin with immigrants, migrants, exiles and foreigners—the very groups actively demonized and discriminated against by the current administration, as demonstrated by executive orders and enforcement practices, including (but by no means limited to) President Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban and Zero Tolerance Policy.

A family of asylum seekers are taken into custody by Border Patrol near McAllen, TX on June 12th, 2018. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

In Allison Meier’s recent blog “How Medieval Artists Used Monsters as Propaganda,” discussing the Morgan Library and Museum in New York’s exhibit, Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders, she draws modern-medieval parallels regarding the monstrous characterization of marginalized groups. She notes how Trump’s rhetorical strategies often rely on this sort of stereotyping and fear-mongering, as demonstrated by statements during his announcement of his presidential candidacy in 2015 that those crossing the US-Mexican border were “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Donald Trump announces his run for presidency at the Trump Tower Atrium in Manhattan on June 16, 2015. Photo by Linda Rosier.

Meier’s point that Trump’s rhetoric on immigration appropriates the language of monstrosity in order to demonize undocumented immigrants and asylum-seeking refugees resonates with the sentiments of the exhibit’s curators, Asa Simon Mittman and Sherry Lindquist, who argue in their accompanying catalogue, “Monstrous imagery was often associated with members of socially disadvantaged groups in order to suggest that they were less than human; such a strategy rationalized repression and could even be used to instigate violence.” I can only add my voice in harmony with those calling for resistance against recent nationalistic and xenophobic (especially anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim) rhetoric, which targets and dehumanizes specific groups of marginalized peoples by characterizing them as monstrous and other.

 The effects of this normalized rhetoric are manifesting and have paved the way for ongoing atrocities and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the United States government. The current administration’s dehumanizing policies on immigration—including separating families, concentrating people in detention centers and holding children in cages—will undoubtedly have lasting social ramifications and could result in future blowback and retaliatory violence.

Son and father from Honduras are taken into custody by Border Patrol near the U.S.-Mexico Border near Mission, Texas. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

Cyclical violence is a frequent occurrence in the martial world of Beowulf. Yet, Grendel’s mother, who comes to avenge the death of her son, surprises Beowulf when she appears in the form of blowback resulting from Grendel’s defeat at the hands of the Geatish champion. Hroðgar, however, is not at all shocked by the monster’s reciprocal violence, and even goes so far as to implicate Beowulf in perpetuating the feud between the Danes and Grendelkin. The Danish king explains that:

Heo þa fæhðe wræc
þe þu gystran niht  Grendel cwealdest
þurh hæstne had   heardum clammum,
forþan he to lange   leode mine
wanode ond wyrde.   He æt wige gecrang
ealdres scyldig,   ond nu oþer cwom
mihtig manscaða,   wolde hyre mæg wrecan,
ge feor hafað   fæhðe gestæled (1333-1340).

“She (Grendel’s mother) then avenged the feud because you (Beowulf) killed Grendel yesternight, through violent nature, with hard grips, since he too long wasted and destroyed my people. He fell at war, guilty of life, and now another mighty criminal-slayer comes, she wished to avenge her kinsman, and has carried on the feud from afar.”

Grendel as a child. Image from Sturla Gunnarsson’s ‘Beowulf and Grendel’ (2005).

In this passage, Hroðgar seems to sympathize with Grendel’s mother’s plight, twice described as a sorhful sið “sorrowful journey” (1278, 2119), and frames her vengeful response to the death of her son in terms of his own feuding culture and revenge obligations. Nevertheless, the Danish king appears able to empathize with his enemy—a mother who has lost her child—perhaps because her situation is all too familiar to the human experience, then as now.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading:

Baird, Joseph L. “Grendel the Exile,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 67 (1966): 375-81.

Higley, Sara Lynn. “Aldor on Ofre, or the Reluctant Hart: a Study of Liminality in Beowulf,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 87 (1986): 342-53.

Meier, Allison. “How Medieval Artists Used Monsters as Propaganda.” Hyperallergic (July 2, 2018).

Mittman, Asa and Peter Dendle. The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous. New York, NY: Ashgate Publishing, 2013.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “Beowulf, Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23.4 (1981): 484-494.

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript.  Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Schulman, Jana K. “Monstrous Introductions: Ellengæst and Aglæcwif.” In Beowulf at Kalamazoo: Essays on Translation and Performance, edited by Jana K. Schulman and Paul E. Szarmach, 62-92. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2012.

Sharma, Manish. “Metalepsis and Monstrosity: The Boundaries of Narrative in Beowulf.” Studies in Philology 102 (2005): 247-279.


“And the eyes of them both were opened”: The Moment of Knowing in an Anglo-Saxon Bible

When Eve and Adam ate the forbidden fruit, the Book of Genesis tells us, their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked. In modern editions of the Bible, the verses are divided as follows:

6 … and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave to her husband who did eat.

7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and when they perceived themselves to be naked, they sewed together fig leaves, and made themselves aprons.[1]

The pause comes after the eating of the fruit, emphasizing this act. The immediate results of the act—the opening of the eyes, the recognition of nakedness, and the couple’s decision to cover their nakedness with fig leaves—all follow in quick succession. The next verses detail the further consequences of humanity’s fall. But what if the turning point were not so much the act of choosing to disobey God and eat the fruit, but the cognitive effect of doing so, the revelatory moment when human understanding changed? Such is the interpretation created by one eleventh-century manuscript of the Old Testament in Old English.

This manuscript (Cambridge, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B.iv) was probably created around 1020-1040, and is large and heavily illustrated. It contrasts with another surviving manuscript of the Old Testament, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 509, which was likely based on the same exemplar, but which is small and unillustrated. The punctuation differs significantly throughout the two manuscripts. Laud Misc. 509 punctuates Genesis 3:6-7 as follows (the ⁊ symbol is the scribal abbreviation for “and”):

⁊ genam þa of þæs treowes wæstme. ⁊ geæt ⁊ sealde hire were. He æt þa ⁊ heora begra eagan wurdon geopenode hig oncneowon þa þæt hig nacode wæron ⁊ siwodon fic leaf ⁊ worhton him wædbrec.

[and took then of the tree’s fruit. and ate and gave (it) to her husband. He ate then and the eyes of them both were opened they knew then that they were naked and sewed fig leaves and made themselves clothing]

The passage is a bit of a run-on. Punctuation separates Eve’s act of taking the fruit from her eating it and giving it to her husband, but everything that follows does so without a pause.

Contrast this with the same passage in MS Claudius B.iv:

⁊ genam ða of ðæs treowes wæstme. ⁊ geæt. ⁊ sealde hyre were. He æt ða ⁊ heora begra eagan wurdon geopenode .·.

[and took then of the tree’s fruit. and ate. and gave (it) to her husband. He ate then. and the eyes of them both were opened .·.]

The punctuation mark .·. is the “strongest” punctuation mark in the scribe’s repertoire. Used infrequently compared to the single punctus, it represents the biggest pause. And that is the last line on the page (although there is in fact space for at least a couple more words). The reader must pause here at the moment when the eyes of the first human beings are opened, and lift their own eyes to the top of the next page. This page begins with an image: the naked Eve and Adam, Adam in the act of eating the fruit, the serpent in a tree to the left. The text resumes below it, midway through Genesis 3:7, with a large colored initial that, combined with the previous punctuation and page change, suggests that this should be considered a significant break in the text, and that something new is beginning:

Hi oncneowon ða ðæt hi nacode wæron. ⁊ sywodon him fic leaf. ⁊ worhton him wædbrec.

[They knew then that they were naked. and sewed themselves fig leaves. and made themselves clothing.]

While the image still suggests the significance of the eating of the fruit, the page layout and strong punctuation invite the reader to pause and reflect at a different point in the narrative: the time when “the eyes of them both were opened” and the knowledge of good and evil was revealed. What did the world look like, in that moment?

Cambridge, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B.iv, fols. 6 verso and 7 recto. (A twelfth-century annotator has added commentary in Latin at the bottom of the pages and within the borders of the second image.)

Emily Mahan
PhD Student, Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

Further reading:

Rebecca Barnhouse and Benjamin C. Withers, The Old English Hexateuch: Aspects and Approaches, Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.

N. Doane and William P. Stoneman, Purloined Letters: The Twelfth-Century Reception of the Anglo-Saxon Illustrated Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B. iv), Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2011.

Benjamin C. Withers, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, Cotton Claudius B.iv: The Frontier of Seeing and Reading in Anglo-Saxon England, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

[1] Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition, Gen. 3:6-7.

The Return of Grendelkin

One year ago, Grendelkin made its debut at the University of Notre Dame’s Washington Hall (April 7th and 8th 2017). Today, it is my pleasure to share video documentation of the project.

Grendelkin was directed by Richard Fahey, produced by Tom Fahey and sponsored by the Medieval Institute. Contributors include scholar and storyteller Chris Vinsonhaler, the Boston-based musical group (((::OFTHESUN:))) and performing artists Shri Rajuli and Wisty Andres.

A previous post on Grendelkin, predating the event, describes the project’s program in detail and provides scholar and artist biographies for anyone interested in additional information.

We hope that you enjoy the video of Grendelkin!


Art direction by Richard Fahey
Event production by Tom Fahey
Postproduction Video by Tom Fahey

Beowulf: A Poem For Our Time”
Storytelling and harp accompaniment by Chris Vinsonhaler

“Giedd in Geardagum”
Recitations by Richard Fahey with harp accompaniment by Chris Vinsonhaler

“Sceadugenga” and “Umberhulk”
Performances by (((::OFTHESUN:))) with dance accompaniment by Wisty Andres

“Maternal Vengeance”
Movement performance by Shri Rajuli to “Trøllabundin” by Eivør Pálsdóttir

Grendelkin wants to direct special thanks to Washington Hall for providing a venue, to Chris Abram, John Van Engen, Thomas Burman, Megan Hall, Christopher Scheirer, Sara Maurer, Peter Holland and the English Graduate School for supporting the project, and especially the Medieval Institute and the University of Notre Dame for sponsoring and hosting the event.

Richard Fahey
Ph.D. Candidate