Of Monsters and Myths
Visiting Scholar Bettina Bildhauer Researches Depictions of the Middle Ages in Films
Jan 08, 2010
Bettina Bildhauer doesn’t look like someone who deals with monsters and blood all day long. She is wearing a turquoise-colored cardigan and light blue scarf with white dots, and her brown eyes have a friendly sparkle. She isn’t bothered in the least by watching horror movies or seeing blood, and she finds monsters exciting. As a child, though, Bildhauer played with Barbie dolls, not horror figures. It wasn’t until she began her university studies that she discovered her fondness for these topics, when she first encountered medieval texts and legends.
When many students of German language and literature were starting to grumble about the required readings included in the curriculum, Bildhauer was coming into her own: “I really had fun reading texts in Middle High German,” says the now 36-year-old scholar: “I still have vivid memories of the Nibelungen saga and Siegfried’s bath in dragon blood.” Bildhauer took her enthusiasm for medieval German literature with her to Cambridge, where she first completed a semester abroad and finally went on to earn her doctorate, writing her dissertation on “Blood in German Literature of the 13th Century.” Since 2004, she has been a lecturer in German literature at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. She will be conducting research as a visiting scholar at Freie Universität Berlin until the summer of 2010. Just recently, she was awarded a prestigious Leverhulme Fellowship with an endowment of 70,000 pounds sterling.
The Nibelungen saga wasn’t the only place Bildhauer found monsters and blood. Time and again in a large number of books handed down from the Middle Ages – from about A.D. 500 to 1500 – she encountered curious views: “In the Middle Ages, people believed that human blood was composed of four different humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and normal red blood.” Blood was considered extremely important and was held to affect people’s dispositions and moods – so much so, in fact, that in English we still speak of being in a bad or good “humor.”
In her dissertation, Bildhauer proposed the hypothesis that blood had the effect of creating identity in the Middle Ages. “That was one of the reasons that people in those days were afraid of being injured and losing blood, because that threatened their own identity,” Bildhauer says. “Those who lost blood were considered vulnerable – such as menstruating women. They were suspected of being unable to control their blood. Men, on the other hand, were distinguished by the fact that they did not lose any blood – except perhaps when knights took the field.”
From her earlier work on blood, Bildhauer moved on to examining bloodsuckers such as vampires, which are considered monsters. “By definition, monsters are beings that mix different categories, such as humans and other animals,” Bildhauer says. “What makes them so eerie is that we cannot clearly define what they are.” Famous monsters include Frankenstein and E.T., ghosts and witches. “In medieval depictions, monsters were often female,” Bildhauer determined. One explanation for this characterization was that during sexual intercourse, women were seen to “rob” men of their “best fluid”: semen. “Like all bodily fluids, semen was seen as a form of blood,” Bildhauer explains. “And anyone who stole blood robbed others of energy and was considered dangerous.”
At present, Bildhauer is completing a monograph on the depiction of the Middle Ages in various films. Faust, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Name of the Rose, Wickie und die starken Männer, King Arthur, and Kingdom of Heaven are just some of the films Bildhauer is comparing. For her, one thing is certain: that people still need monsters today. As she says, “There are still many real things we are afraid of – and monsters help us deal with that on a fictional level.”
Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies, Freie Universität Berlin