Brothers and Sisters in Medieval European Literary Tradition

To mark the recent publication of the first paperback edition of her book, Professor Carolyne Larrington looks back at the approaches that shaped her work and at the reception it has since received.

The publication of this book three and a half years ago marked the end of the first phase of a continuing strand in my research. I’ve been interested in the interaction between emotion, its psychology, and the medieval period ever since I studied psychology to degree level equivalent in the early 2000s, an interest that turned out to be in synergy with what has become characterised as ‘the affective turn’ – the move to foreground emotions, their performance and effect across history.

The study of emotion, at times known as ‘emotionology’ or ‘emotion studies’ became more definitively known as ‘the history of emotion’ in the late 1990s, and much of the research that goes on in that field is very specifically grounded in history as a discipline. Although literary texts cannot be investigated in isolation from the culture that produces them, it seems to me that the study of emotion in medieval literary texts asks and sometimes answers some rather different questions from those raised by the historians. Those were some of the topics that Brothers and Sisters was intended to address and I continue to work on a slightly different aspect in my current emotion project, exploring emotions in Middle English literature.

Morgan Le Fay, circa 1880 by John Roddamn Spencer Stanhop.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

My fascination with siblings began with my 2006 book on Morgan le Fay and other Arthurian enchantresses. Morgan is defined in important ways by her relationship to her brother, King Arthur. Psychology and psychoanalytic theory were crucial in informing the book’s methodological approach, one which called on the few longitudinal psychological studies of the sibling bond. The sibling relationship is our longest, outlasting that with parents, spouses and children, and to investigate siblings from birth to old age in our present culture is a seventy-year commitment.

The insights that modern psychology generates about siblings were very useful in interpreting medieval expressions of siblinghood in literary texts, while I found that psychoanalytic theory could often predict and epitomise some recurrent structures in sibling psychology. Themes of rivalry and co-operation, of love and loyalty, of deadly hatred and self-sacrifice, though dramatic, re-echo in the dynamics of the sibling relationship. Tension points around marriage, child-bearing and inheritance generate sibling friction in the medieval and modern eras. Meanwhile, different anxieties and emotions are generated by fictive siblinghood – blood-, sworn- or foster-relations tended to be formalised in the medieval period, yet their characteristics also inform the ways in which we might think about long-held friendships in the present.

Critical reaction has been generally positive, noting that the book’s intention was to be illustrative rather than encyclopaedic; further examples of sibling relationships that could also have been included were suggested. Reviews have been modulated by the reviewer’s discipline; historians inevitably wanted more history and have been less convinced that literary sibling thematics are – in part – produced by generic conventions that are underpinned by folk-psychology, and that these conventions depend on beliefs about biological universals which are not particularly strongly affected by social and cultural variation: for example, texts will assume primogeniture, whether or not that is the only inheritance system in the originating culture.

The book has had some impact, most notably in Old Norse-Icelandic studies where a turn towards the study of emotion and family dynamics is underway; European romance scholarship too is increasingly interested in different kinds of family relationships. I’m involved in an exciting new project, ‘Emotion and the Medieval Self in Northern Europe’ which will bring together comparative literary study, historical contingency, genre studies and intellectual history in new and thought-provoking ways, a project that builds in part on some of the thinking that Brothers and Sisters represents.


This guest post was written by Carolyne Larrington, a Fellow and Tutor in medieval English literature at St John’s College, University of Oxford.

Brothers and Sisters in Medieval European Literature
by Carolyne Larrington
Paperback / 9781903153857 / £14.99 or $19.46
Hardback / 9781903153628 / £45.00 or $74.25

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