Twins in Medieval Literature

The birth of twins in the literary art of the Middle Ages frequently marks an opportunity for one woman to accuse another of adultery and thus the twins as illegitimate. Erik Kooper has analysed twenty European stories, many of which were translated, redacted and adapted, and he divided these according to the way in which twinship is represented.[1] ‘If one thing becomes clear from this kind of classification,’ Kooper concludes, ‘is that multiple births do indeed lead to numerous kinds of disaster, both for the mother and for the children.’[2] Of the twenty or so stories he lists, only four of these  leave mother or child protagonists untainted by accusations of adultery or monstrous birth. In stories that are free of these kinds of accusation, like the late twelfth-century French story Aiol whose royal twins are born in a prison and later exposed, twins are by no means free of other kinds of peril. Similarly, in the early fifteenth-century romance, Sir Torrent of Portyngale, the eponymous hero is separated from his twin sons without negative judgement being attached to the phenomenon of twinning, but that does not mean that its twin protagonists are straightforwardly celebrated either. The stories benefit from the narrative pathos and closure forged through the eventual reunion of parents children: extending and complicating the romance drama of ‘setting out’; incorporating, in both senses, multiple protagonists. These twin stories, however, form a minority. Many others involve an accusation of adultery and/or animal birth, the threat of such accusations, and the retribution served by the religious and civic orders that these accusations threaten to disrupt.

One of the most famous narratives in which the mother of twins is accused of adultery is found in Marie de France’s short romance, Lai Le Fresne.[3] It is one of Marie’s shortest lays, written in French some time in the late twelfth century, and it bears close similarities to ballads such as ‘The Man With Two Wives’ and ‘Fair Annie.’[4] Marie’s story begins with the birth of twin sons to one noble woman. A jealous neighbour claims that the twins are not the sons of her husband but that the noble woman has, in fact, had sex with two men:

Ich have wonder, thou messanger,
Who was thi lordes conseiler
To teche him about to send
And telle schame in ich an ende,
That his wiif hath to childer ybore.
Wele may ich man wite therfore
That tuay men hir han hadde in bour;
That is hir bothe deshonour. (65–72).[5]


The poem matches contemporary theses advanced by natural philosophers and theologians, such as Albert the Great, who argued that superfecundation, female sexual proclivity, and the generation of twins were all entwined. Note that in Marie’s story the twins are treated as the sole evidence of an adulterous act: it is not supplemented by any other kind of visual, verbal or written proof. Shortly after making this accusation the nameless woman who accuses her neighbour then conceives twin daughters of her own; she is therefore incriminated by her earlier accusation. Not only does this disrupt the moral polarity between accused and accuser, it also contravenes the major conventions of romantic literatures, epitomised by figures such as Guenevere and Iseut, which tended to amplify acts of adultery with threats of infertility.[6] In a complex way, the issue of twins as a result of an adulterous union compromises the gendered, political, religious, and literary conventions of the period; its narrative impact is to suspend a damaging doubt over who is the rightful father and legitimate heir.

Multiple birth – a taboo that inspires accusation, punishment, and abandonment – also seems to displace the incest taboo that frequently motivates infant exposure in stories about male foundlings.[7] Hence, the accusing noble woman in Marie’s lai, now pregnant with her own twins, seeks to protect herself and the reputation of her offspring. First she considers killing one of her daughters – a reflection of how exposure was a response to unwanted births during this period[8] – but then gives one infant child to a servant who takes and hangs it in an ash tree, wrapped in an expensive cloth and with her mother’s ring. She leaves the child in the grounds of a convent and it is by this ash tree, le frêne in Old French and frein in Middle English. Named after the tree in which she was found, Frein is raised and educated by the abbess’ niece and later falls in love with a wealthy knight called Guroun. But the knight is persuaded to marry someone rich and have legitimate children. Without realising the family connection the knight decides to marry Frein’s twin sister.[9] Frein, though sorry for her loss, graciously adorns the matrimonial bed with the cloth in which she was abandoned and, when this garment is recognised by her mother, she also produces the ring and explains how they came into her possession. Her sister’s marriage is quickly annulled and Frein marries Guroun. Frein’s twin is married to a suitably wealthy knight and, despite the years that have passed, order is restored.

To the turbulent plot of Frein we can add Octavian, a popular family romance throughout the fourteenth century, initially composed in Old French and then abbreviated into two Middle English versions.[10] In this story, the Emperor Octavian and his Empress seek an heir – there are concerns that the Empress may be infertile – and so they build an abbey in the hope that their piety may bring them divine favour. Their prayers are answered in the shape of twin sons. In this respect, their children have divine connotations; a sign of divine intervention and a resolution to anxieties surrounding royal succession: ‘An abbaye than he gerte wyrke so / And sone he gatt knave chidire two, / Als it was Goddis will’ (82–84),[11] In a way which corroborates the notion that twin births are difficult and painful, the text stresses the physical exertion and exhaustion of twin delivery: ‘Full grete scho wexe with paynnes sore’ (86). Further difficulties arise when the Empress’ mother-in-law claims that the twins fathered by the cook’s assistant and the Emperor exiles wife and children. The family undergo further separation when each twin is abducted, the first by an ape and the second by a lioness. After further abductions, adoptions, giant killings, battles and romantic conquests, displays of taste and indications of their innate nobility, the adult children are restored to their parents. At the point of reunion, ‘full joye there was also / At the metyng of the brethir two’ (1898–1899). In a fashion that seems to stress the dramatic capacity of twinning rather than any intrinsic or absolute quality unique to twins, their ‘true’ identity is revealed by their actions; through their valour at court and on the battlefield. The deceitful mother-in-law, now threatened by her husband to death by fire, takes her own life. According to literary convention, order and peace are restored.

As much as it is important to stress a continuity between works of natural philosophy, medicine, and literature in the Middle Ages, which all in their different ways highlight how twinship was viewed as a fundamentally disruptive event – a woman’s natural and spiritual burden – it is also essential to identify the drama and entertainment afforded by the birth of twins; twins are catalysts for demarcating the orderly from the disorderly, the usual and the unusual, the desired and the undesirable. This optical and instrumental quality of twinning is not specific to this period of human history. Though what is viewed, calibrated, or measured may change, the inclusion of twins as evidence for the orders and aberrations of nature is a persistent aspect of human self-assessment. The category of ‘twin’ is unusual, therefore, since it is not simply defined by authorities who build upon one another’s knowledge in an accumulative fashion, but twins gain their transhistorical meaning from the many different and divergent kinds of authority that is achieved using their bodies.


[1] See Erik Kooper, ‘Multiple Births and Multiple Disaster: Twins in Medieval Literature,’ in Conjunctures: Medieval Studies in Honor of Douglas Kelly

  1. Douglas Kelly, Keith Busby and Norris J. Lacy (Amsterdam: Rodolpi, 1994), pp. 256–260.

[2] Kooper, ‘Multiple Births and Multiple Disaster,’ p. 260.

[3] The extent to which Marie de France’s Lai le Freine is a ‘romance’ in a generic and critical sense is discussed by Elizabeth Archibald, see ‘Lai le Freine: The Female Foundling and the Problem of Romance Genre,’ in The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance, edited by Ad Putter and Jane Gilbert (Harlow: Longman, 2000), pp. 39–55.

[4] See Francis J. Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, vol.2 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1883-86), II.63–83, and Erik Kooper, ‘Multiple Births and Multiple Disaster: Twins in Medieval Literature,’ pp. 253–270.

[5] All quotes from Marie de France, Lay le Freine, in The Middle English Breton Lays, Edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995), pp. 65–74.

[6] See Peggy McCraken, ‘The Body Politic and the Queen’s Adulterous Body in French Romance,’ in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, edited by Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury (Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1993), pp. 29–64.

[7] See Elizabeth Archibald, Incest and the Medieval Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[8] John Boswell details the history of child abandonment in the Middle Ages; he writes that ‘between 1195 and 1295 at least thirteen different councils in England alone passed legislation directly or indirectly bearing on the abandonment of children’, see The Kindness of Strangers (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 322.

[9] On medieval theories of resemblance, see Paul Vincent Rockwell ‘Twin Mysteries: Ceci n’est pas un Fresne,’ in Conjunctures: Medieval Studies in Honor of Douglas Kelly, pp. 487–504.

[10] See Harriet Hudson, ‘Octavian: Introduction,’ in Four Middle English Romances: Sir Isumbras, Octavian, Sir Eglamour of Artois, Sir Tyramour, edited by Harriet Hudson (Kalamazoo, MI: The Consortium for the Teaching of Middle Ages, 1996), pp. 45–52.

[11] Citations are to Harriet Hudson’s edition of the Northern, Thornton version, Four Middle English Romances, pp. 53–114. Line numbers are given in parentheses in the main body of the text.


Twins in Contemporary Art

Back in March I published a short piece in Frieze about the use of twins in contemporary art. This will develop into a much more substantial piece of work later this year, when I begin a chapter on twins and performance. The article, though, gave me a chance to go to Berlin and see a piece of installation art by Richard Kriesche, which featured twins sitting in the gallery reading a text by Walter Benjamin. You can read about that work and the other works I think it can be grouped with here.

‘Curious Twins’ – Critical Quarterly, Volume 56, Issue 2, pp. 47–58

My paper, in a special issue of the journal Critical Quarterly, is now available (£) online. The essay came about through my doctoral research with Steven Connor, who left The London Consortium for Cambridge in 2012. Thanks to Joe Brooker for convening the event and editing the resulting collection, Weather Reports.

Abstract The meaning and significance of human twins is shaped by a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, many of which employ twins to test a variety of hypotheses about who or what we are. Whether twins are viewed as physical anomalies, religious miracles, or scientific marvels, criteria can be identified according to which they are separated from those born alone. This article attends to the ways in which twins are differentiated and shows how they have been used as living evidence or proof that supports sociological, religious, and scientific practice. By collating examples taken from the humanities, the social and biomedical sciences – with particular attention paid to works of social anthropology and molecular biology – William Viney seeks to articulate both the differing scales by which twins become distinct objects of research and how this sense of scale affects the extent to which they are understood as active, formative agents in those research endeavours, used to substantiate, clarify and inform. The wider aim of this article is to understand the dynamic means by which twins are drawn into and sustain explanatory narratives that extend far beyond the twin relation, taken to be generative objects in the formation of new knowledge. By tracing the exceptional cultural life of twins across different fields of inquiry we can better understand the utility of sustaining particular, exclusive human groups, both as an experimental means and as the evidential ends of research practice.

The Comedy of Twins: Shakespeare and the Biology of Drama

In his introduction to the play, Stephen Greenblatt argues that the identical twins which feature in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, “are fairly commonplace and the fact that two people can bear the same name even more so, but Shakespeare’s play calls attention to all that is potentially disorienting in the routine circumstances of life.”[1] It is hard to understand what Greenblatt means when he says that “identical twins are fairly commonplace” – in what era, for whom, in what sense? In biological terms they are neither commonplace nor are they rare. In historical terms, being born identical in the late-sixteenth century was extremely hazardous, especially for the twins but more particularly for the mother bearing them. Moreover, the equation suggested in this quotation between identical twins and “routine” and “life”, again elides the biological and historical specificity of multiple birth, and the artistic transformation implied by bringing identical twins to a stage of observation that is both comic and tragic. What Greenblatt “calls to attention” is rather more a narrow understanding of what it means to be and see twins, which he suggest are “as like one another as two coins of equal value”[2] By monetising twinship in this way he overlooks the challenge of staging twins, where one must select players that are not and cannot be identically alike, that are not made of metal but of flesh and bone and genes and hair and so on, and that are not of equal value. Such are the disembodied and paper-based assumptions of a cultural materialist, inattentive to the physicality of theatre and the biology of playing up and out.

 [1] Stephen Greenblatt, ‘The Comedy of Errors’, in The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), pp. 683–684.

[2] Stephen Greenblatt, ‘The Comedy of Errors’, in The Norton Shakespeare, p. 688.

Between Lone Rangers and Double Agents

This short essay first appeared in Desert Island: Toby Phips Lloyd (Durham: Institute of Advanced Study, 2013), pp. 30–33. With special thanks to Toby Phips Lloyd, Simon James, and the IAS.

In 1979 Jim Lewis went in search of his twin brother. After six weeks he called at Jim Springer’s home in Dayton, Ohio, and discovered he had been leading a life in parallel. The ‘Jim Twins,’ as they became known, had been separated at birth. Both suffered from heart problems, were compulsive nail-biters, and suffered from insomnia. Both had married women named Linda, divorced, and then married women named Betty. One had named his son James Alan and the other James Allen. Both called their dogs Toy. Both had worked as deputy sheriffs, petrol station attendants, and at McDonalds, taken their holidays on the same Florida beach, smoked the same brand of cigarette, and drank the same brand of beer.

Whatever we might glean from such tales of twins reunited, the sudden confluence of sibling stories – durations separate yet found to be held in strange parallel with one another – is a generative structure and a place from which to construct new, explanatory narratives. Do the Jim Twins prove the genetic underpinning of complex social behaviours or do they simply demonstrate the cultural homogeneity of Middle America? Moreover, should the polarities of genetic determinism and social constructivism, and the molecular and social scales these imply, act as our only guides when assessing the riddling semantic potential of bifurcating individualism? One response might be to look at how artists have treated the idea of doubling and twinship as entwined processes that are both intrinsic and performed.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s Toby Phips Lloyd began DJing under the moniker, ‘Steve’s Evil Twin’, and seized the dramatic advantage of a proximate persona. Desert Island, among other works that reveal Lloyd’s interests in performance and portraiture, includes a video that explores biographies both large and small, real and imagined. And yet, if the video aspect of Desert Island is a kind of self-portrait it is one viewed, thanks to a sort of pseudo-twinship, through a peculiar hall of mirrors. Replacing the dialogue staged between host and celebrity – the hallmark of the BBC’s popular Radio 4 programme – Lloyd asks questions of another Lloyd who, sat opposite and in different clothing, remembers and muses between musical interludes.

Lloyd interviews himself, curbing the aural illusions of radio to striking visual effect. Paradoxically, the content of these biographical narratives, focussing on his early life and artistic interests, are not located in the interview, the dialogic aperture between interviewer and interviewee, but reverse the sequential progress between question and answer. When two people who are identical meet in the scenario that Lloyd imagines for himself then questions are formed in the knowledge of both the content and structure of the answer. This means that the whirling, analeptic quality of Lloyd’s biographical narratives – which frequently recall a past time – work in distinction to the scripted, forward momentum produced by his dominion over both roles. In a structural sense, Toby Phips Lloyd, an only child, entertains an only twin; ‘Steve’s Evil Twin’, the DJ, returns with music and the performativity of entwined remembrance.

While he confesses to childhood shyness, a predilection for solitude, and a passion for crisps, Lloyd’s song selections are both deeply personal and, thanks to the multiplicity of Lloyds implied by the video, self-consciously performed. The BBC’s programme tends to be crafted around delicately and sympathetically-edited moments of autobiographical candour. This intimacy is subtly undone; what value should we give to one person speaking in dialogue with another that is neither the same nor different? It is an arrangement that makes for uncomfortably comic scenes, such as when Lloyd opens the interview by asking why he, an artist of low media exposure, is even appearing on the programme, or when it is suggested that the reason he got a 2:2 in his film degree is because he’s a “terrible filmmaker”. A preoccupation with failure or inadequacy becomes the subject of one of the work’s most poignant moments. When musing on how “people try to hide or change things they don’t like. I think you should celebrate your imperfections because it’s what makes you special”. Lloyd, both giving and receiving, provides this reply: “that’s an interesting point”. Unsure of the sincerity of this statement, and to raise added doubt over the significance of personal, impersonal, and collective pronouns, Lloyd announces that “we should try and take some of your own advice.” Whether “we” includes interviewer, interviewee and audience alike is, in some sense, among the core mysteries of Desert Island.

In dramatising his interaction with a benevolent other, Lloyd’s work forms a contemporary iteration of a two-fold tradition. Since cases like the ‘Jim Twins’ appear in the news media from time to time, the idea of being reunited with an ‘identical’ self, who appears, acts and has had a similar life-history to our own, retains some cultural force as it prowls the borders between the fantasy of science fiction and the reality of chance. In his book, The Culture of the Copy, Hillel Schwartz has argued that imagining that we have another person walking the earth, looking alike and pursuing the alternatives that your own choices preclude, is a recurring symptom of those societies who prize a unique, unitary and authentic self (we might think of the celebrity culture enshrined by the BBC’s Desert Island Discs as being a suitable by-product of such a society).

Advance copies come in twos
Advance copies come in twos

We imagine ourselves to be double agents, argues Schwartz, because we are taught to be obsessed with the idea of being lone rangers. But, as opposed to the nineteenth–century version of ‘the double’ or ‘doppelgänger’, to be feared for its radical compromise to human individuality, Schwartz argues that there is also great comfort to be found in the idea of the double; someone like you, perhaps someone to like you, and certainly someone who has the power to describe your selfhood in a new way. When Toby Lloyd chooses a pool table as his luxury item to take with him to his deserted island – an object that is strongly emblematic of the pub in which he grew up –, he asks who he will play ‘against’. Exploiting the spatial and the combative senses of the word, Lloyd replies, “I can always play against you.”

‘Two by Two: A Timeline of Twins’ – New Article in Cabinet (Fall, 2012)

I’ve been reading Cabinet for years and so I’m doubly pleased for having my timeline of twin history in its latest, Fall issue. The first page of my piece on twins is shown to the right, you can get the full version here.

The first page of my piece on twins, you can get the full version here.On the whole this article expresses my wider interest in twins and their history. So far I think that history about twins has been rather isolated, dispersed, cut up, reared apart – untwined. But it’s important, I think, to show how twins have a history that can draw them together, one that stretches far beyond the formulation of the scientific disciplines, such as embryology, psychiatry and behavioural genetics, with which they are now so readily associated. The reward of a cultural history approach is to show how twins were understood in times where biological knowledge had yet to be tested, revised and disseminated in the way it is today.  So one of my aims is to explore the prehistory of genetic and reproductive processes as they revolve around the twin. In other words, how did people respond to the genetic and reproductive oddity of twinning, prior to the explicit codification of and discursive manufacture of genetics and embryology?

Experiences and reflections upon the actuality of twin conception and birth, physical and behavioural similitude, the perception of difference and the special significance attached to how twins behave in the womb, all had effects for twins and for those close to or concerned with them – are these effects a historical constant? What kinds of knowledge did twins produce about themselves and the world beyond their immediate experiences? What did people identify in twins – if they identified anything at all – that we now understand as the effects of specific biological processes? This is my aim: to trace responses to twins – positive, negative or composed of conflicting opinion – in times where the science of biology had yet to fully emerge. One outcome, I hope, is to reconcile the scientific and the imaginary as well as complicate the notion of an exclusively ‘scientific’ perspective on twins, that can be thought separable from earlier discourses. The article in Cabinet was a really useful place to think about twins in this broader sense; I hope there will be more opportunities to keep the history of twins open but together.

Sts. Cosmas and Damian

The Turkish twin physicians, Saints Cosmas and Damian, are martyred during widespread persecution of Christians by Emperor Diocletian in Syria. Stones, arrows and the rack prove miraculously ineffective; beheading is their final fate.

The Martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian, Fr Angelico. c.1438-1433. Louvre, Paris.

In life they are said to have healed the sick without charge and carried on doing so long after their death. They are said to have healed the sick at night and, in a more colourful episode, they are said to have grafted the leg of a recently deceased Ethiopian onto the leg of a Roman deacon. They are the patron saints of doctors, nurses, surgeons, pharmacists, dentists and barbers.

Saints Cosmas and Damian Healing a Christian with the Leg of a Dead Ethiopian, School of Castile and Leon. c1460-1480. Private Collection.