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1 - Arachnophobia and Early English Literature

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 July 2019

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Summary

‘If the terrestrial world is a stage, then any predator as abundant and ubiquitous as the spider must be a major character in the ensuing ecological and evolutionary dramas.’

In view of their great variety, number and pervasiveness in everyday life, the impact of spiders in any given cultural climate cries out for investigation. While the abundance of spiders makes them central to the study of ecology and evolution, their commonness and long collective lifespan also position them as prime material for historical discussion. It is, however, these creatures’ literary potential that stands out in the above-quoted ecologist's metaphor. As a highly resilient family, spiders would likely have been as common in early and high medieval England as they are today, making encounters between them and the human communities responsible for our surviving texts certain. How much did the common presence of spiders in quotidian contexts influence writers in this period? One of this article's aims is to address this question, by surveying the background to and instances of spider imagery in Old and early Middle English, with reference to biblical, medical, philosophical, penitential, homiletic, hagiographic and bestiary texts.

It is, however, true that commonness is not always a predictor of popularity within written texts. If spiders do not immediately spring to mind as an animal emblematic of early English literature it is because they are not; references to these abundant creatures are few and far between. From the perspective of Old English, literary engagement with the non-human world frequently betrays a focus on human interests. Hence, predators (wolves, serpents and birds of prey) abound, as do creatures with heroic connotations (horses and boars), and agricultural animals (cattle and bees). Still, as John Baker points out in his discussion of invertebrates in English place-names, ‘[t]hese small creatures are an ever-present aspect of human existence, and although they may not often inspire poetic outpourings or the interest of bureaucrats, they must have occupied a certain space in the early medieval consciousness, as they still do today’. My question, then, is how spiders in particular occupied this space in the medieval consciousness: were they simply present in the background or were they ever considered to be significant to human life in the early and high Middle Ages?

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2018

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