What is Marginality?

    From a scientific perspective marginality is understood as deviance from the norm. For our purposes this is a good foundational definition, but ultimately it falls short of expressing the myriad of issues confronted in the context of exploring marginality in Medieval Europe. In an effort to create a more suitable definition it may be more efficacious for us to work backwards, from the particulars to the abstract. By beginning with the groups which we have studied as representative of marginality in medieval society and examining the characteristics they possess--either in common or individually--we may thus arrive at a working definition of what it meant to be marginal in the Middle Ages.

    The groups which informed our study include: Heretics, Jews, Homosexuals, Prostitutes, Lepers, and Witches. (Naturally an argument could be made for the expansion of this list). In general we discovered that the above listed groups displayed evidence of precarious positioning with regard to indications of status. In other words medieval Jews, heretics, homosexuals, prostitutes, lepers, and witches were vunerable socially, politically, economically, and legally. Moreover, they tended to be associated with rootlessness or wandering. Ironically definition, itself, seems to be integrally linked with the development of marginality in the Middle Ages. Each of the above groups was subject to an attempt at either a religious, political, scientific, or some other form of institutional definition. Interestingly, these attempts at definition ranged from the precise to the fluid, depending on what sort of definition best served the purpose of those involved. There is also the notion that these groups tended to be persecuted, segregated, or both. Finally there is the element of uneasiness provoked by the perception of dissension or otherness. Each of the groups we studied, with the possible exception of lepers, appears to have challenged the reigning social, political, and economic orders either by denying the authority propagated by these orders or by failing to adhere to traditional gender or social hierarchies. Thus the definition of medieval marginality, as our studies have constructed it, situates itself in the percariousness of status, a perceived threat to the reigning orders, and (ironically) to issues of definition.

    Lastly, as we utilize this working definition, it is important to keep one more thing in mind. Marginalized groups cannot always be found on the rhetorical "outside." It is only by chipping away at the idea of a homogenous culture that we can find the marginalized communities. They more often than not were somehow entrenched in the culture at large. The reasons for their entrenchment, as often as the reasons for their marginality, are revelatory. The ways that the groups were defined was often reflective of the ideals of the community. To clarify, marginalized groups were often attributed qualities that were the antitheses of the ideal qualities of the greater populace. Therefore, it is clear that marginalized groups were necessary to the vitality and understanding of a community's sense of itself.

    Yet possessing a working definition of marginality is helpful to our continued study of medieval culture only insofar as we recognize its limitations and keep in mind the issues which complicate our perception of marginality in the Middle Ages.

    Issues Involved in the Study of Marginality in the Middle Ages

    --This page designed and written by Amanda Berg and Jennifer Hart

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