The Medieval Review 16.02.09

Walter, Katie L., ed. Reading Skin in Medieval Literature and Culture. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. pp. xx, 225. $95.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-230-33870-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Ruth Evans
Saint Louis University

Skin, argues Katie Walter in her introduction to this engaging and provocative collection, expresses "the human condition" (3). Skin makes us legible as embodied human subjects, it limns and protects our physical cohesiveness, and it figures symbolically in our fantasies of psychic wholeness: what Didier Anzieu calls le moi-peau (the Skin Ego). Skin color is the pre-eminent visual signal of race. As the organ of touch, skin gives us a sensory knowledge of the world that is distinct from that of vision. Age and disease leave cutaneous traces; tattoos, acquired voluntarily or violently imposed, mark our identity. Skin links the human to the non-human: we share skin with "the divine, the cultural or racial other, the animal, the monstrous, the animate or dead" (3). Yet for some scholars, in Walter's words, "medieval skin is still in some ways invisible" (3). This volume, which should be required reading not only for medievalists but for all non-medievalists, including those whose work is cited throughout this volume (Anzieu, Steve Connor, Jean-Luc Nancy, Michel Serres), makes visible (tangible?) the distinctive contribution of the Middle Ages to the cultural history of skin.

One such contribution is the fact that medieval books were made of animal skin. Though not a major emphasis of this volume--perhaps because Bruce Holsinger and Sarah Kay have already done considerable work on this topic, as Walter notes (2)--the book as skin is nevertheless a key reference point for many of the essays. [1] Susan Small's chapter on werewolves has the most to say about this, offering an ingenious analogy between the medieval werewolf (Latin versipellis: one whose skin "turns over") and the interplay between flesh and hair sides (recto and verso) of the folios in a codex, although Small's analogy breaks down somewhat, since the verso can be either flesh or hair, depending on the sequence. Elizabeth Robertson observes in passing that the "boc-felle" (book-skin) on which St Margaret's life is written is an aspect of the role of skin in the formation of saintly identity (39). Virginia Langum remarks that the materiality of the parchment in a medieval book, in its insistent literality, opacity, and proneness to defacement, evokes Augustine's view that the skin is a barrier to human communication (143). Robert Mills notes the parallels between narratives of flaying and the hide of books, subject to processes of "wounding, scraping, and repair" (61). And Isabel Davis considers two late medieval texts in which "the spoken words of women, as skin-bound subjects," are translated as fictions onto parchment (111). The emphasis on the link between skin and literary form is one of the many strengths of this volume. It is most prominent in the chapters by Small, Julie Orlemanksi, Walter, and Davis. Taking as her theoretical model Anzieu's notion of the Skin Ego (a "projection in the psyche of the surface of the body" [84]), Small teases out the precise topography of wolf skin and human skin in six medieval French and Latin werewolf texts. Sometimes wolf and man share the same skin in a true meshing: what Small calls the "fusion model"; sometimes wolf skin is merely man's second skin, an adjunct to it: what she calls the "overlay model." These models represent different types of transformation (man-and-wolf; wolf that is really a man), and invoke to varying degrees the psychological as well as the physiological functions of skin in the construction of the self. Reinforcing the link between skin and form, Small yokes together the Skin Ego, the man-wolf skin, the medieval codex, and Freud's Mystic Writing Pad: all are, or have, protective shields, and represent contiguous surfaces on which the self is written. And also on which the identity of a period is written: the werewolf, as a figure of "instability incarnate," can also be read, Small argues, as a metaphor for "the ontological indeterminacy" of the Middle Ages (93).

Orlemanski, in her discussion of Robert Henryson's Testament of Cresseid, takes up the link between skin and form in terms of the relationship between embodiment and aesthetics. Proposing that "the language of form consistently inflects medieval discussions of leprosy" (161), insofar as leprosy's defaced skin confirms "the circuits of signification running between bodily surfaces and moral categories," Orlemanski claims that this defacement makes it difficult to read moral character from the skin of the face in any simple way. Although Cresseid's leprosy functions as "a well-calibrated rejoinder to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde," one in which "punishment overcodes loveliness, and exemplum replaces romance" (164), and although Cresseid's repeated refrain--"fals Cresseid and trew knicht Troilus"--"monumentalizes the couple in moralistic opposition" (179), aspects of Henryson's poem resist closure: most notably the final encounter between Troilus and Cresseid, in which the two Cresseids (desirable and sinful) remain distinct in Troilus's consciousness. Orlemanski is a brilliant close reader. I particularly enjoyed her account of the poem's final non-recognition scene as a "susurrating interpenetration of perspectives, affects, and memories" (179).

Langum also considers the moral signification of skin, arguing that confessors are like physicians, in that they must "read through the skin" (146), must judge the internal from the external, in order to reveal the condition of the soul. Crucial here is the medieval belief that skin darkened after the Fall. Although Langum does not develop the implications of this for an understanding of skin as a racial marker today, she offers a fine-grained analysis of the material, metaphorical, and metonymic functions of skin in a range of religious and literary texts from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, connecting theories of medieval complexion to surgery and to the practice of universal confession after 1215.

In the chapters by Mills and Walter skin has biopolitical significance. Mills argues that Havelok, in Havelok the Dane, is an instance of what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls "bare life": the state of exception that characterizes both the sovereign and the outlaw. The flayed bodies of Godard and Havelok are the grounds on which the poem plays out the opposition between unlawful and lawful means of exercising sovereignty within the emerging discourse of nation in the fourteenth century. Like Havelok, Godard is brutally flayed, but his body has no sublime remainder, signaling merely the loss of self. Havelok's flayed body, by contrast, consolidates his identity "as a just ruler" (58). This idea is repeated in the presentation of Havelok stripped bare in bed with his bride, displaying his kynemerk (kinmark, kingmark), a tattoo that marks him out as a version of Agamben's homo sacer, inhabiting the zone between life and death that defines the sovereign and the banned man. Walter, taking her cue from Roberto Esposito's work on Nazi biopolitics, considers the relationship between form and matter in The King of Tars, in the episode of the lifeless lump of flesh born to the Christian princess who is married to a Saracen sultan, a lump that only takes on human shape after being baptized. Walter argues that the legibility of skin relies on flesh's indecipherability. Drawing on medieval medical texts, she explores the relationship between skin and flesh in the period, arguing for a "more expansive taxonomy of flesh" (124), one that includes skin. Walter asks how the lump of flesh in The King of Tars defines a life worthy to be lived. Flesh becomes legible once difference--Christian and Saracen--begins to be erased through the sultan's change of skin color. Her essay is less about skin per se than about what makes us human. As Esposito argues, the fantasy of the illegibility of the flesh leads to the horrors of the mass grave. We must learn to read humanity in flesh, and to see flesh standing in the place of skin.

In one of the most memorable essays in the volume, Davis riffs on the relation between the topologies of skin and time. With its "deferment (stretching), anachronism, and replication (both folding), and event (tearing)" (99), skin is time. Medieval people, Davis contends, imagined time cutaneously, as a "laminated temporality" (100). Davis moves from the analysis of a moral exemplum, embedded in the text known as "How to Hear Mass," which presents "the aesthetics of aging female a figure for the progress of Christian temporality" (101), to the hanging and folding forms (both thematic and formal) of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, texts that exhibit structural patterns of "suspension, cessation, and repetition" (106). She then considers the York Crucifixion, in which the "operations of grace have a structural effect on the fabric of time" (105). Although this chapter is about time, rather than strictu sensu skin, Davis constantly foregrounds issues of form: for example, in the passage contrasting the old and the young woman at Hautdesert in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the theme of age is repeated at the level of the signifier in the "crinkled" textures of verse in the description of the old lady (114).

The second important theme in this volume is touch. Lara Farina argues that the eleventh-century image of the "Blemmye" (an acephalous man with his face in his chest) that illustrates the copy of the Wonders of the East in London, British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B.v, f. 82r, not only embodies the sense of touch, but also links touch to the other senses because its eyes, mouth, and nose are insistently in or on its skin. Farina proposes that rather than interpreting the visual meanings of the Blemmye as a figure of "negative affect" (17), that is, as a monstrous and disordered body that is only marginally human and that is associated with sin, we should respond to "its enfolded, feeling skin" (12) and see it as an affecting and even lovable figure. I like the way that Farina asks us to read this image not in conventional art historical terms but rather as posing questions about the limits of visualization, about how feeling can be visually presented, and about the role of feeling in our gaze on visualizations of the monstrous. Elizabeth Robertson, on the other hand, considers the "enigma" of touch in Middle English religious literature and art that is for and about women. Christ's injunction to Mary Magdalene--noli me tangere--and the medieval misogynist view that female touching automatically leads to sexual intercourse would seem to forbid women from touching, yet in Ancrene Wisse the anchoress is asked "to map Christ's pierced hand on to her own hand," a demand that both encourages a response to his suffering and marks the "unbridgeable gap between this suffering and her own appreciation of it" (35). In the Katherine Group skin is the medium through which St Margaret "establishes her sanctity" (37). Robertson amplifies this with references to artworks: the Lehman Master's fresco, attributed to Jacopo di Cione (c. 1368-1370) (which shows Mary's "consciousness" [48]), and Caravaggio's Incredulity of St Thomas (1601-1602) (somewhat temporally removed from her other examples). For Robertson, the Middle Ages stages a "conversation about the limits and possibilities of knowledge gained through touch" (48). Her essay aims to valorize what is uniquely female about touch in the context of medieval female virginity narratives, although the distinctiveness of that touch does not emerge clearly.

In his afterword Karl Steel begins by asserting--presumably in reaction against psychoanalytic readings like Anzieu's--that he wants to stay "on the surface," in order "to promote a materialist attentiveness to the stuffof skin" (183). He maintains that there is no way to get past the skin or to avoid touching and being touched. After a brief meditation on tattoos, including his own, as "surface truth" rather than individuation, Steel picks up details from each essay, challenging Small (the human is always below the wolfskin), insisting on "a skin below the skin" (186), arguing that the binary of surface and depth is always complicated through touch. Yet (contra Steel) the skin is not all surface and not all material: Anzieu's Skin Ego is an imaginary skin (no less powerful for being imaginary) within a psychic space; the topology of the navel is evidence of my body's having once shared the surface of my skin with another body: a site of connectedness but also of the trauma of separation. A medieval perspective on that topology would be valuable.

Despite the fact that many of the essays are concerned with skin as form, the volume is not especially cohesive, but this heterogeneity is of course also a strength. I like the book's questioning of the opposition of skin and flesh (especially in Walter's essay). But it's a pity that there are not more images, and that there is not more on skin color, race, and whiteness: Walter's discussion of The King of Tars, for example, touches tantalizingly on the Sultan of Damascus experiencing a whitening of skin after his conversion to Christianity, but there is much more to say about whiteness as a dermal phenomenon--and as more than this--in this romance, as well as in other medieval texts. The volume breaks new ground in drawing attention to the medieval dermal imaginary, but I would have liked a more direct engagement with non-medievalists: not just using their theories but talking back to them, as Walter begins to do (see 3), and challenging their dependence on non-medieval notions of skin. Nevertheless, this is a great collection, and I have already used some of its essays in my teaching.

Here are the individual chapters:

Katie L. Walter, "Introduction."

Lara Farina, "Wondrous Skins and Tactile Affection: The Blemmye's Touch."

Elizabeth Robertson, "Noli me tangere: The Enigma of Touch in Middle English Religious Literature and Art for and about Women."

Robert Mills, "Havelok's Bare Life and the Significance of Skin."

Susan Small, "The Medieval Werewolf Model of Reading Skin."

Isabel Davis, "Cutaneous Time in the Late Medieval Literary Imagination."

Katie L. Walter, "The Form of the Formless: Medieval Taxonomies of Skin, Flesh, and the Human."

Virginia Langum "Discerning Skin: Complexion, Surgery, and Language in Medieval Confession."

Julie Orlemanski, "Desire and Defacement in The Testament of Cresseid."

Karl Steel, "Touching Back: Responding to Reading Skin."



1. E.g., Bruce Holsinger, "Parchment Ethics: A Statement of More than Modest Concern," New Medieval Literatures 12 (2010): 131-136; Sarah Kay, "Legible Skins: Animals and the Ethics of Medieval Reading," Postmedieval 2.1 (2011): 13-32.

Copyright (c) 2016 Ruth Evans

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