18.04.11, McCracken, In the Skin of a Beast

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Michael Bintley

The Medieval Review 18.04.11

McCracken, Peggy. In the Skin of a Beast: Sovereignty and Animality in Medieval France. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. pp. 240. ISBN: 9780226458922 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Michael Bintley
Canterbury Christ Church University

In this book, Peggy McCracken argues "that literary texts use human-animal encounters to explore the legitimacy of authority and dominion over others. When animals and humans meet, sovereignty comes to the fore" (1). In the Skin of a Beast is not shy in foregrounding its aims to explore humans through their treatment of animals in literature and art, which is one of its many strengths. Though not a lengthy volume, it is tremendously dense, and commands close attention to the precision of its arguments, which are advanced through diligent and convincing close reading of a wealth of literary works and illuminating illustrations. This is an incisive and insightful study, the importance of which is by no means limited to the interests of those who study and teach ecocriticism, and deserves to be read widely by anyone interested in politics and power in the middle ages.

The introduction addresses medieval understandings of how the animal kingdom reflects human hierarchy, but also the manner in which concepts of dominion and sovereignty come to the fore in direct relationships between humans and animals, reflecting the pervasiveness of political thought across multiple genres. McCracken is concerned less with the distinctions between humans and animals (and the violence done by humans that "guarantees animal submission"), and more with the manner in which the relationship between these parties "figure an interrogation of the forms of legitimate dominion and sovereignty over others" in both human/animal and human/human interactions (3). This is followed by a discussion of the various problems presented by the terminology of sovereignty for scholars of the middle ages, and a persuasive case for the recognition and discussion of these issues in literary texts. The introduction frames the book's focus on texts and images "composed between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries," identifying a broad range of types and genres, though McCracken makes clear that the focus is not on chronology, but on the repetition of motifs.

"Wearing Animals: Skin, Survival, and Sovereignty" focuses "on the use of animal skins," arguing that "the technology of human sovereignty includes the slaughter of animals" but also showing that "animals may resist the material and symbolic use of their skins in displays of human power" (12). The chapter begins by grounding medieval understandings of natural hierarchy and human dominion in Genesis, amounting to human rule over animals, and the use of animals for sustenance, which--in the postlapsarian world--extends to wearing their skins and "using their labour" (15). It discusses the manner in which medieval commentators negotiated the wearing of animal skins in this light, figuring Adam and Eve as prelapsarian vegetarians, and pointing to the Fall as the point when "survival and relations of dominion" emerged" (19). The chapter shifts focus to a discussion of how--in romance--"the production of animal skin for display grounds claims to human sovereignty" (21), making a case study of works including the 14th-century prose text Le conte de papegau, (The Tale of the Parrot), in which the flayed skin of a "humanimal" knight is displayed after his defeat by King Arthur (22-23). In a discussion that also takes in Perceforest, the twelfth-century Roman d'Alexandre, and Le roman d'Eneas, McCracken invites us to consider both the hides of beasts prepared for display, and the skins of the manuscripts on which these works were written, as acts and artefacts representative of a "technology of sovereignty, the use of animals to serve human needs" (27). Following an insightful discussion of the "necrofashion" (29) of furs in later medieval France (the term being Michelle Warren's), McCracken discusses the Anglo-Norman Roman des romans, which presents us with the memorable image of a human body dressed in furs as a rotting carcass draped in the corpses of other animals who--if they could speak--would offer stern reproach (31-32).

Chapter 2, "The Social Wolf: Domestication, Affect, and Social Contact," focuses on the domestication of animals, discussing this relationship not just in terms of sovereignty, but recognising that works of literature represent "human dominion over animals in terms of an affective, mutually beneficial relationship" (37). The wolf, as "protagonist" (38) in this chapter is discussed in the guise of Isengrin in the OF Roman de Renart, which presents the genesis of enmity between the wolf and the lamb. This takes place outside of Eden, and is directly linked to the actions of Adam and Eve, who are granted a magical staff by God that summon forth a ewe, a wolf, and dog from the sea (42-43), in a sequences of events that establishes "mutual dependence" between humans and domestic animals (44). In the Vie de seinte Modwenne, we see a wolf (who has seized a calf) compelled by saint Modwenna's command to fall at her feet and cry for mercy. The wolf and all its descendants subsequently serve as guardians of her abbey, thus restored to a "paradisiacal companionship through a sovereign imposition that is both human and divine"; the authority of God wielded by the saint (49). In a comparable fourteenth-century account of a miracle of Saint Francis, the wildness of a wolf is similarly tamed, and it enters into a "social contract" (50) with the townspeople of Gubbio. These representations contrast with fables, in which the behaviour of animals is fixed. For example, The Priest and the Wolf imagines an attempt by a priest to change "the wolf's nature through instruction" (53), by teaching it the alphabet. The wolf, incapable of reciting its ABC, reveals what is really on its mind when the priest encourages it to speak without his guidance: "lamb!" says the wolf (53). As Marie de France writes in The Wolves, "you can teach a wolf to be a priest, but it will still be a wolf, sly and cruel, ugly and hideous" (56). This is, in part, what distinguishes the wolf from the man transformed into a wolf in Bisclavret. What leads to his recognition by the king as no ordinary wolf is his show of respect for the king's sovereignty (63). McCracken concludes by arguing that these texts "use an animal's point of view to think about the nature and limits of social contracts" amongst humans (65).

"Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Sovereign: Skin, Heraldry, and the Beast" considers two OF romances "in which animal and human identities merge," and "describe a becoming-animal that ultimately enhances the protagonists' humanity or humanness" (70); Chrétien de Troyes's Le chevalier au lion and the early thirteenth century Guillaume de Palerne. In the former, Yvain and his companion lion (who joins Yvain after he helps it to defeat a monstrous serpent) contend with a giant whose wearing of a bearskin betokens his animality and status as an outsider, and for McCracken thus represents a confrontation between "the use of an animal's skin for protection [...] and the symbolic display of an animal as an identifying sign" (74). In Guillaume de Palerne, the young lovers Guillaume and the emperor's daughter Mélior escape her marriage to the king of Greece's son disguised in bear skins, and in the course of their flight encounter the werewolf who rescued Guillaume (son of the king of Apulia) from intrigue when he was still a baby. The werewolf--Alfonso, himself the son of the king of Spain, transformed into a beast by his wicked stepmother--unintentionally terrifies the lovers when he first appears, in a way that draws attention to the distinction between wearing skins and becoming-animal (81), but they are reassured when he brings them stolen meat at the end of their first night of travel. After their bearskin disguise is discovered, the young lovers exchange them for deerskins, and Guillaume is reconciled with his mother Queen Felise, who approaches them dressed in her own deerskin so as not to cause alarm. Guillaume later adopts the wolf as a heraldic symbol, offering a parallel with Le chevalier au lion, and defends Queen Felise against the king of Spain, defeating his army and (ultimately) allowing the werewolf Alfonso to be similarly reconciled with his father once his stepmother's magic is undone. McCracken concludes that these narratives operate by presenting "interactions between animals and noble knights as sovereign relations defined by reciprocity, recognition, and response" (96), which raise questions about both the shared qualities of humans and animals, and about the "sovereign right and rights" of the latter (96).

In chapter 4, the focus shifts to consider texts and images in which "self-sovereignty figures the fantasy of an autonomous agency that leads not to the consent to be a subject, but to sovereignty over others" (97). McCracken argues that Eve is represented in such a way that her desire for knowledge is represented "in terms of a desire for sovereignty" (98), whilst in romances sovereign relations are imagined through a knight's "spectacular relation to the snake woman's body" (98). The devil, in Le jeu d'Adam, appeals to Eve's desire for sovereignty; and it is through this desire that she in fact loses her sovereignty--in this case her autonomy and sovereignty over others. Peter Comester, in the Historia scholastica, has the serpent in Eden appear to her in the guise of a virgin, mirroring Eve in order to appeal to this desire. This trope was repeated with enthusiasm by various authors, and illustrations of this encounter with a woman-headed serpent were widespread in later medieval Europe. Snake-woman (women transformed into serpents, or with snake tails) found elsewhere in medieval texts, McCracken argues, also appear for other reasons. When in the Roman de Mélusine the titular Mélusine is discovered to have a serpent's tail, this is only discovered because her husband violates their agreement that he should not see her on Saturdays. His desire for sovereignty, manifested in this instance as a desire for knowledge, causes him to lose her forever. Finally, an episode in Le bel inconnu sees a knight entranced by a snake woman responding to its kiss by withholding a death-blow. The experience of this kiss is necessary for the knight to better understand himself (mirrored in the snake), and his "noble identity," and in order to win "the hand of the lady he has saved, the beautiful queen of Wales," Blonde Esmerée (123).

The final chapter, "Becoming-Human, Becoming-Sovereign: Gender, Genealogy, and the Wild Man" turns from the becoming-human of the like of Eve and Mélusine to becoming-human "in the figure of the wild man" (126), who often finds sovereignty in "detachment from human society and values, and in submission to the provisions of nature" (129). The outcome of "most" wild man stories, McCracken notes, takes place "when the wild man is reintegrated into human social relations," and "ties of human lineage replace whatever bonds he might have shared with animals in the forest" (138). This is borne out, for example, in works such as Tristan de Nanteuil, which sees the wild man Tristan "domesticated by sex and love" (150), though these do not automatically serve to bring him fully "into human culture" (151), as he remains in a house (built in the forest) with his lover Blanchandine, their son, and a serving woman. It is not until Blanchandine is captured, and the hind that suckled him as a baby killed, that he is brought out of the forest and into human society. Tristan de Nanteuil in particular, as McCracken argues, "speaks in unsettling ways about human distinction as both "natural" and acquired, as both embodied and learned, as both lost and found" (155). Though addressing familiar issues concerning the distinction between human and animal bodies, and finding human identity "in the body and in instinct" (155), it also focuses heavily on the importance of "noble lineage" (156) in a manner reflective of contemporary attitudes. Where close animal-human relationships exist in the text, they pose an "alternative model of social organization, troubling the security of dynasties" that rests in part on the subjugation of the animal to the human, in both "material and symbolic terms" (156).

The contents of this insightful and thought-provoking book will no doubt find a home not only in the bibliographies of those who work on French literature of the later middle ages, but also on the syllabuses of the many scholars who now teach ecocritical and ecotheoretical approaches to the medieval period. There, its human-centred approach will provide an important and valuable counterpoint to other recent studies, and students will be grateful for the clarity of McCracken's arguments, which as in her previous work, provide an excellent sounding board for the consideration of similar motifs in other medieval literatures. For other scholars, it will be especially useful as a concrete example of the ways in which approaches to animals and other aspects of nature and environment in literature (and art) can be employed to comment on the culture and politics of human society.



1. McCracken writes that "for the sake of simplicity, I refer throughout to nonhuman animals simply as animals" (163, note 2), an example I have followed in this review for the sake of simplicity.

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