18.10.17, Kay, Animal Skins and the Reading Self

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Paul Wackers

The Medieval Review 18.10.17

Kay, Sarah. Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. pp. xi, 203. ISBN: 978-0-226-43673-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Paul Wackers
Universiteit Utrecht

This book on medieval bestiaries is based on two different sets of knowledge: the traditional study of medieval genres, especially the bestiaries, and modern theory, especially posthumanism, animal studies and skin studies. It consists of an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion.

The aim of the book is to explore how bestiaries may have shaped their readers' sense of the relationship between themselves and other animals. This exploration is done by not only studying the texts but also the pages on which the texts are written, pages that are made of parchment, i.e. animal skin. Sarah Kay calls her method for this project "close reading" (17) which is an apt description when one realises that she also "reads" the page: i.e., she pays close attention to everything that can be seen, not only the written text, but also illustrations and remarkable aspects of the parchment itself. This combined attention to abstract and material aspects of bestiaries makes this study really remarkable. Hence it will play a large role in what follows.

Sarah Kay assumes that reading a parchment book "can create a feedback loop between the page as an animal surface and the texts and images it supports"; she calls this process a "'suture' in which the distinction of levels between content and medium on which reading normally relies is momentarily suspended" (4-5). This suture pertains to the distinction between humans and animals. The author follows Agamben in assuming that the making of this distinction (called a caesura) is central to human existence but is realised in different ways during different periods. She argues that reading bestiaries on animal skin can suspend this distinction and blur it (16-17). The separate chapters each show a different possibility for this blurring.

The chapters function in pairs. Chapter 1 studies how parchment connects the book of nature to the book of scripture and considers "the position of nonhuman animals relative to language and the book." Chapter 2 studies the interpretation of the garments of skin (Genesis 3:21) and "raises the question of mortality and immortality." Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the permeability of skin: in chapter 3 the relationships between orifices and sexuality are studied on the basis of "cross-species similarities in sensory and sexual apparatus," while chapter 4 studies how humans can harm animals, and vice versa, and is asked "who or what can be put to death." Chapters 5 and 6 study similarities between humans and animals: chapter 5 explores the consequences of these similarities and "the conditions of recognising kinship between human and nonhuman animals," while chapter 6 "inquires into similarities between their inner lives" (20-21, 150).

Because this book derives from two different scholarly traditions, it may be viewed from many different perspectives. My perspective, however, is restricted: I have been trained as a philologist and a literary historian, so my perspective is that of traditional medieval scholarship. In my view a scholar of medieval subjects should try to understand the medieval way of thinking as precisely as is possible for a modern person, by combining data from different parts of medieval intellectual life. Sarah Kay expresses a similar wish when she regrets that scholars who have studied twelfth-century natural philosophy have ignored bestiaries and that readers of bestiaries normally do not pay attention to natural philosophy (12). In her own analysis, however, modern theory dominates. Her topics come from modern theory (which is normal and probably unavoidable) and theory also dominates in her analysis. A clear example may be found where she first explains why she prefers Derrida's term 'invagination' to the medieval term involucrum to write about manuscripts taken from bodies organized about orifices: she writes 1.5 pages about modern ideas about bodily orifices and then half a paragraph about the medieval view of allegory (67-69). Similarly, she presents Derrida's ideas about Genesis with no word about medieval Bible exegesis (24). I think that in these passages we learn more about twenty-first-century thought than about medieval ideas.

Another consequence of this approach is that it sometimes leads to interpretations that seem doubtful from a perspective that centres medieval ideas. This becomes especially clear with regard to the interpretation of allegory. In the bestiaries many animals have several allegorical meanings. While Kay calls this contradictory (64), it is not: in medieval thought, every creature has as many meanings as it has properties. As everything has many properties, so also many meanings. Which meaning is relevant at a certain moment is determined by context. Thus 'the lion' signifies the devil when he roars and seeks his prey (1 Peter 5:8), but God the Father when the father lion gives his cubs life on the third day by breathing on them. This principle is clear in biblical exegesis but far less so in bestiaries, because bestiaries are books that list the meanings of animals, usually without context. In this aspect they resemble wordbooks that list the possible meanings of words (often also with attention to allegorical layers). Thus it is very relevant that Sarah Kay compares bestiaries and wordbooks (28-30), although the emphasis in this section could have been slightly different. The same is true for the next section on etymology (31-35), where no attention is given to the idea that language was given to humankind by God and represents thus the divine order, just as the created world does. Effects of this idea may even be found in the work of authors who see language as a set of human conventions. In this respect bestiary lore and etymology are very comparable.

Medieval intellectuals also think that the allegorical meanings of creatures are God-given (cf. the quotation by Hugh of Saint-Victor, 28). This implies that the comparison Kay makes between Aristotle's ideas on metaphor and allegorical meaning in bestiaries (110-111) is inaccurate from a medieval point of view. Metaphor in speech is based on the human intellect and can be more or less true and apt. Allegory in the bestiaries is always truth, given by God. This is a fundamental and unbridgeable difference. (And besides, as far as I know, Aristotle's Rhetoric played no role in medieval intellectual life, so using that book demonstrates a modern perspective on medieval data.)

Something comparable may be said about Kay's use of the term involucrum (43-44). The word literally means "envelope" or "wrapping" but is also used to indicate allegory, especially in the twelfth century. She writes: "since the page is a skin too, the reader is called upon to 'unwrap' it in order truly to understand what is written on it" (44). Materially a page is no longer a skin because the body that it covered has been removed. So Kay is using a metaphor: in her view, the reader must also interpret the material aspects of the page to discover the true meaning of the text it contains. In twelfth-century reflections on involucrum, however, the "wrapping" is the literal or surface meaning of the text and what must be uncovered is the true, hidden meaning of that surface meaning. This is a purely intellectual process without sensory input. I fear that Kay's use of the term involucrum obscures the medieval ideas for her readers instead of clarifying them. This problem returns when Kay discusses the prologue to the Aviarium (131). She thinks that this text states that it is meant for a public of illiterates so that it is addressed to the eye rather than the ear of the public. I think that it states that it gives two pictures: a real picture and a picture in words (...per scripturam demonstrem picturam). The second is there for those who do not like the real picture because that is too simple. It contains the real, or perhaps better: the pure meaning.) In medieval thinking the intellectual and non-material level has a superiority that is very difficult for us moderns to grasp.

There is another, more technical, aspect of the book that I find problematic. This is the way in which attention is paid to the material aspects of manuscripts: specifically, Kay's analysis of these aspects neglects the practical side of manuscript production. A clear example is her analysis of fol. 4r of Morgan Library and Museum MS M.832 (71-72). She argues that one of the holes "exactly punctuates the description of the hyena's aberrant physiology." I cannot accept that this has been done on purpose because the writing unit was normally the quire (8 leaves, 16 pages). Putting the hole deliberately in that part of the text means that the copyist had to calculate in advance in which quire the text on the hyena would come, and also how many lines on that page had to precede the description of the hyena's physiology. It assumes a degree of precision and foresight that I have never seen in any manuscript and the burden of work it would imply is in no way proportional to the intended result.

It may be, however, that I am being unfair in the previous paragraph. Kay does not make very clear whether she thinks the effects she describes were intentionally made (71, 87) or could function subconsciously when a certain combination of text, image and parchment properties was seen (142-143). The latter is something I can imagine far more easily and it would make my previous remarks superfluous. In that case, however, I would argue that we are unable to say anything about the subconscious thought processes of medieval people because our conscious ways of thinking are so enormously different.

These pages (142-143) also lead to the other side of my appraisal. While there are aspects of the book of which I am not only critical, there are other aspects which I admire. One of them is Kay's critique of the idea that reading a manuscript is a purely conscious process. This point of view is understandable because we have to reconstruct the process of reading a manuscript (since our books are different); this does not mean, however, that our reconstruction works in the same way as for medieval readers. I find Kay's argument for a partly subconscious reading process very convincing and very useful. Other laudable elements include her knowledge of the bestiary tradition; likewise the appendix (157-162) is very useful and the way Kay shows developments in the tradition (for instance the fact that hunting became an important new element in the second family, 93-98) is impressive. I also admire her efforts to place the bestiaries within the contemporary intellectual climate, her attention to the texts that accompany bestiaries in miscellanies, the distinction she makes between the dating of a text and the dating of the manuscripts in which the text is copied, and her very careful study of individual leaves. In other words, a traditional scholar may find much inspiration in this untraditional book.

A few words should be said about the formal and material aspects of the book. Not all Latin quotations are translated, although I think the intention was to provide translations for all medieval quotations. A bibliography is sorely missed, and finding full references in 32 pages of notes proved very time-consuming. At the same time, the typography is beautiful; the illustrations have a very high quality, and it is a very carefully produced book. It does medieval manuscripts justice.

One final remark: Kay's book invited me to reflect not only about the way I do my research but also about what it means to be a human being in the twenty-first century. As this is the ultimate goal for all scholarship in the humanities, it is a very successful enterprise.

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