Filicide in Medieval Narrative
By Margaret E. McKenzie
PhD Dissertation, The Catholic University of America, 2012
Abstract: The majority of children who appear in the narrative literatures of the Middle Ages garner attention because they mature into kings, queens, warriors, knights, or lovers. An oft ignored but significant type of literary child is the one who dies – sometimes at the hand of a parent – during the tale. This dissertation explores the purpose of such filicides featured in medieval narratives. While shocking to audiences even today, these killings have received little scholarly attention, and extant studies, though valuable, are hampered by their narrowness of scope.
This study widens the field with a multilingual approach that permits the consideration of works based upon Celtic and Germanic mythology and heroic tales alongside their more famous and frequently studied continental and British counterparts. Primary texts identified through consultation of tale-type indices and reviews of secondary literature were grouped for evaluation by content: medieval adaptations of classical narratives, feudal narratives, Celtic narratives, and Germanic narratives. Historical and legal materials aid in the contextualization of these tales.
These filicide episodes, regardless of origin, serve a dual purpose within their narratives, to captivate with gripping material and to educate through example. Patterns regarding victims and perpetrators transcend linguistic and cultural boundaries. Few females become victims, and all those are adolescents; male victims range in age from infancy to adulthood. All these deaths, even those where the child’s characterization is minimal, highlight social anxieties, including concerns about preserving one’s lineage and promoting social order. These narratives further demonstrate a sacrificial ability of mothers that was previously ascribed only to fathers.
Introduction: In the Skáldskaparmál portion of his Edda, Snorri Sturluson describes how Gudrun avenges the murder of her brothers Gunnar and Hogni (also known as the Niflungs), whose deaths had been arranged by her husband, King Atli:
A little later, Gudrun killed her two sons and had cups made out of their skulls, with gold and silver, and then the funeral feast for the Niflungs was held. At that feast, Gudrun had mead, which was mixed with the blood of the boys, served to King Atli using these cups, and she had their hearts, which she had had roasted, given to the king to eat. And when that was done, she then told him this to his face with many harsh words.
Despite gruesome episodes of child murder like the one above, specialists in the field of medieval narrative literature have traditionally focused on the roles of kings, queens, warriors, knights, and lovers, but have largely overlooked the literary role of children.