In the Skin of a Beast: Sovereignty and Animality in Medieval France

In the Skin of a Beast: Sovereignty and Animality in Medieval France

by Peggy McCracken


View All Available Formats & Editions
Usually ships within 6 days


In medieval literature, when humans and animals meet—whether as friends or foes—issues of mastery and submission are often at stake. In the Skin of a Beast shows how the concept of sovereignty comes to the fore in such narratives, reflecting larger concerns about relations of authority and dominion at play in both human-animal and human-human interactions.

Peggy McCracken discusses a range of literary texts and images from medieval France, including romances in which animal skins appear in symbolic displays of power, fictional explorations of the wolf’s desire for human domestication, and tales of women and snakes converging in a representation of territorial claims and noble status. These works reveal that the qualities traditionally used to define sovereignty—lineage and gender among them—are in fact mobile and contingent. In medieval literary texts, as McCracken demonstrates, human dominion over animals is a disputed model for sovereign relations among people: it justifies exploitation even as it mandates protection and care, and it depends on reiterations of human-animal difference that paradoxically expose the tenuous nature of human exceptionalism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226458922
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/17/2017
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Peggy McCracken is the Domna C. Stanton Collegiate Professor of French, Women’s Studies, and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. Her many publications include The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero: Blood, Gender, and Medieval Literature and The Romance of Adultery: Queenship and Sexual Transgression in Old French Literature.

Read an Excerpt

In the Skin of a Beast

Sovereignty and Animality in Medieval France

By Peggy MccCacken

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-45892-2


Wearing Animals: Skin, Survival, and Sovereignty

Medieval notions of sovereignty are decidedly not modern, or so the logic usually goes, and they are decidedly not biopolitical. In Foucault's well-known formulation, the premodern sovereign's authority is defined by the power to let live and make die; modern sovereign power is located in the capacity to make live and let die. However, medieval literary texts repeatedly return to questions about the use, management, and production of life, and particularly of animal life. Biopolitics comes to the fore in human relations with animals, particularly in the conflation of survival and slaughter that justifies the human use of animals for food, clothing, and labor. In this chapter I examine the repeated representation of a relationship between flaying animals and the enactment and display of human sovereignty. I focus on the use of animal skins to argue that the technology of human sovereignty includes the slaughter of animals, but I also show that animals may resist the material and symbolic use of their skins in displays of human power. I begin with Genesis and some of its vernacular translations in order to explore the conflation of survival and slaughter in the story of the first humans. I then move to the fourteenth-century Conte du papegau (The Tale of the Parrot) to explore a romance representation of flaying that uses animal skin to map the contours of human sovereignty. An examination of the ostentatious furs worn by noblemen in late medieval courts extends my claim about the display of human sovereignty using animal pelts, and finally I turn to Le roman des romans, a moralizing poem in which animals chastise the humans who wear their skins in a call for ethical engagement.

In the Beginning

Relations of dominion and rule are created along with humans, at least according to the biblical account of creation, where God gives man authority over the animals that inhabit the earth. In the relatively short account in Genesis 1, we find two iterations of the divine decree that man should rule over the animals:

And [God] said: "Let us make man to our image and likeness, and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts and the whole earth and every creeping creature that moves upon the earth." And God created man to his own image; to the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, saying, "Increase, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and all living creatures that move upon the earth." (Gen. 1:26–28)

The passage cites, first, God's plan for his creation of man and, second, his command that the first humans should increase and multiply and enjoy dominion over the earth and all that live upon it. In medieval commentaries on this passage, both Jewish and Christian writers focused more on sexuality and the command to multiply than on dominion, as Jeremy Cohen has shown, but vernacular bibles and some Christian commentaries explored the human-animal hierarchy defined in the creation story in terms of political order. In particular, the notion of a divinely ordered hierarchy of dominion strongly influenced the biblical commentary known as the Glossa ordinaria, a collection of glosses written alongside or between the lines of the biblical text and developed from around 1100 to 1330.

In the Glossa ordinaria, as Philippe Buc explains, clerics used Genesis to posit that "legitimate power [potestas] is symbolized, rendered legitimate, and clarified by the superiority of man over animals." The hierarchies of dominion that structured the order of creation in Paradise offered models for the human exercise of legitimate power over animals, and extending those hierarchies to human social relations, medieval theologians describe human dominion over animals as symbolic of human power over other humans. For example, in Genesis 1:24–25, where God commands that the earth bring forth creatures according to their kind, "cattle and creeping things and beasts" ("iumenta et reptilia et bestias"), glosses identify reptilia as clerics, bestias [bestiae] as powerful lords, and iumenta as faithful lay people; all are under the dominion of man (homines), identified as the sovereign, he who is not subject to any secular judge. In other words, some medieval theologians understood God's command that humans should have dominion over the animals as a figural expression of social and political hierarchies among humans. This analogy is further stressed in vernacular translations of the Latin bible. When the Genesis passage is translated into Old French, the Latin verbs "praesum" (to rule, to be set over) and "dominor" (to rule, to have dominion over) are rendered as "to have sovereignty/dominion over" (avoir seignorie), a more familiar term of human political organization for medieval translators. "Avoir seignorie" also translates "dominor" in Genesis 3:16, where God declares that Eve will be under Adam's dominion: "tu seras souz la poosté d'ome et il avra seingnorie sus toi." Within the divine hierarchy of creation, man has authority over both animals and woman; gender and animality are the differences that matter in the biblical definition of hierarchy and dominion. But does dominion mean sovereignty in this context?

Medieval theologians disagreed about the meaning of sovereignty in Paradise. While some took man's dominion over the animals as a model for human political organization, others posited that political hierarchy originated not in God's decree that man should have dominion over animals in Paradise, but in the postlapsarian world. According to this logic, in the harmonious world of Paradise a natural order recognized by both humans and animals eliminated the need for relations of power, and relations of dominion over others entered the world only after humans sinned. As Buc shows, theologians moved between the two explanations of the origins of power and political organization. On the one hand, social hierarchy could be understood as a divine invention that predated the Fall and allowed for the restraint of human excesses; on the other hand, power over others could be understood as a diabolical consequence of the fall.

It is only in the postlapsarian world, however, that sovereignty corresponds to the ability to kill. Once humans sin, their peaceful dominion over the animals in Paradise is lost, and postlapsarian relations between human and nonhuman animals are defined by enmity. Man should have the upper hand in this adversarial relationship, according to God's reordering of human-animal relations after the flood. He commands that "the fear and dread of [man] will be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the fowls of the air and all that move upon the earth." God then gives Noah permission to consume animals: "All the fishes of the sea are delivered into your hand. And every thing that moves and lives shall be food for you" (Gen. 9:2–3).

Genesis describes two forms of human dominion over animals. The first is part of the divine order of Paradise: man shall rule over the animals. The second is defined by human predation in the use of animals for food ("every thing that moves and lives shall be food for you"). After humans are expelled from Paradise, human dominion over the natural world is enacted through the use of animals — eating them, wearing them, using their labor — and this use of animals is sanctioned by God. The divine decree that animal lives may be taken to sustain human life receives particular attention in medieval vernacular bibles — not in relation to animals as food, but as clothing. The divinely sanctioned use of animals is represented with particular emphasis on the use of animal skins to cover human nakedness.

Adam and Eve in Furs

Most of the texts known as medieval French vernacular bibles are not direct translations of the Latin bible into French. There were a few literal translations of the bible, but they seem to have been less popular than paraphrases of the biblical narrative that included glosses, elaborations, and commentary borrowed from other sources or invented by the translator. So, for example, Guiart de Moulins's thirteenth-century Bible historiale is a fairly close translation of Peter Comester's twelfth-century summary and explanation of the biblical narrative in the Historia scolastica. Another thirteenth-century French bible, conventionally called La bible anonyme, gives a rhymed translation of the Vulgate, but it also includes developments from apocryphal sources and adds narrative detail; the so-called Bible française du XIIIe siècle alternates an Old French translation of the biblical text with extensive commentary drawn from the Glossa ordinaria, the collection of glosses of the Vulgate bible I mentioned above. Such bibles seem to have been intended for lay readers and they script an understanding of Genesis in light of the New Testament.

The commentary in medieval vernacular bibles is typological, but it is also anticipatory. It looks forward not just to Christ's birth, death, and resurrection, but also to what will happen next in the narrative. In Genesis accounts, this anticipatory reading compresses the gap between the expulsion from Paradise and the flood, effectively eliminating the period of time between Adam and Eve's departure from Eden and the point at which, after the flood, God sanctions the consumption of animals. In vernacular bibles, animals are available for human use from the moment of creation. For example, La bible historiale records that God created animals for man's use:

God knew that man would soon become mortal through sin, even though before he sinned he was immortal, and he gave him animals to eat and to clothe him and to help him in his labor. And before man sinned, God had given man and animals only plants and the fruit of the trees as food.

Car Dieu qui sauoit bien qu'il seroit tost fait mortel par pechie, qui deuant le pechie estoit non mortel, lui donna les bestes pour mengier et pour lui vestir et pour lui aydier a son trauail. Et deuant le pechie il n'auoit donne aux hommes et aux bestes a mengier fors les herbes et les fruiz des arbres. (La bible historiale, 22)

In passages like this one, vernacular bibles describe the human consumption of animals as part of creation's order. They anticipate the loss of vegetarianism at the moment when sin enters the world and violent enmity displaces the formerly peaceful cohabitation of humans and animals. Vernacular bibles locate the beginning of humans' use of animals for food well in advance of God's decree to Noah that "every thing that moves and lives shall be food for you."

Neither the biblical text nor the vernacular bible's commentary that describes God's gift to man ("he gave him animals to eat and to clothe him") directly addresses the question of whether eating animals and wearing their skins means killing them. Probably because of the Leviticus definition of an animal that has died naturally as unclean, medieval translators and theologians seem not to think that God intended for people to eat or flay animals only after they died naturally, though as David I. Shyovitz has noted, some Jewish interpreters suggested that in Paradise Adam and Eve were allowed to eat animals that had died of natural causes. Christian commentaries on Genesis seem to puzzle over God's gift of animals to humans, and the question of animal death arises in representations of the first instance in which animals are subjected to human use: in another gift to humans, a parting gift, God clothes Adam and Eve with animal skins before he banishes them from Paradise.

The Genesis account specifies that "the Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skins (tunicas pellicias) and clothed them." Early Jewish and Christian commentators identify these tunicas pellicias metaphorically, as skin-like garments or as human skin, that is, as humanity: to be clothed in skin is to shed the garments of glory worn in Paradise and to become human and mortal. Some commentators understood the garments of skin more literally, as animal skins or as clothes made from animal skins. The animality of the skins then stresses the mortality of sin and the animality of the sinner. But the literal understanding of the garments of skin as animal skins raised a particular set of disturbing questions for late antique and early medieval scholars, as Jean Pépin has noted. For example, if animals were created male and female, and two skins were taken, wouldn't their slaughter destroy an entire species? And what happened to the meat, since humans had not yet been authorized to eat animals? Other theologians countered that the Bible cannot be judged by human logic; the early Christian scholar Origen dismissed as absurd the idea that God should be seen as some sort of butcher. But the question of where the garments of skin came from persisted, and for some medieval writers, the nature and origin of the animal skins continued to invite explanation.

In his creation narrative, the fourteenth-century writer Lutwin eliminates the skins altogether, indicating that that God gave Adam and Eve woolen garments. Lutwin's Eva und Adam is a German translation of The Life of Adam and Eve, an apocryphal text that elaborates the adventures of the first humans after they are banished from Paradise, and the narrator records, in his typically practical style:

After their disobedience the woman and the man were clothed with two garments by God. The tunics were woolen. Nothing could have been more uncomfortable, and I imagine that they would have liked needles, scissors, thread, and a thimble. (Eva und Adam, 250)

    Nach der ungehorsam
    Wurt das wip und Adam
    Myt zweyen röken angeleit,
    Domitte su gott bekleit.
    Die röcke worent wüllin.
    Es mochte do nit weher gesin,
    Wanne ich wene, in ture weren
    Nodelen und scheren,
    Vadem und vinger hüt.

    (Eva und Adam, lines 734–42)

An illumination from the Lutwin manuscript gives an idea of how the artist imagined the tunics (plate 2). Adam's garment seems to be made of unprocessed wool, though for a modern viewer it also looks something like a fringed leather costume from an American Western. Eve seems to have somehow transformed the wool into courtly garb (maybe she found needles, scissors, thread, and a thimble, and made herself a dress). According to the rubric, the image illustrates "How Adam and Eve decided to do penance," and here the artist seems more interested in the first couple's deliberations than in their clothes. Adam gestures toward Eve with authority, commanding her to join him in a penance ritual so that God will allow them back into Paradise. Eve acquiesces with what seems to be a gesture of submission, already enacting God's decree that woman will be under the dominion of man.

Lutwin's description of the "uncomfortable" clothes God gives the first couple emphasizes rough wool rather than rough skins, effectively replacing slaughter with shearing. However, bibles insist on the pelts that God gave Adam and Eve, as the image in plate 3 illustrates. This illumination from a fourteenth-century copy of La bible historiale represents the expulsion from Paradise. On the left God gives Adam and Eve the garments of skin; on the right the angel banishes them. Here the garments of skin are very different from the well-fitted woolen tunic Adam wears in the Lutwin manuscript. These skins are not shaped or fitted, and the illuminator has emphasized the animality of the garments in the bear-like heads still attached to the pelts. In fact, it looks like the animals themselves have been thrown over the human bodies; only the drape of the skins suggests that the animals have been flayed. On the left, the animal's head covers Adam's genitals, emphasizing that the fall is also a fall into sexual sin. In both scenes, Adam looks back toward God and toward Paradise; Eve's gaze is averted, even downcast, and in the scene on the left, her breasts are still uncovered; perhaps the illumination associates the shame of nakedness more with Eve than with Adam, who is already covered with the genital-menacing skin. On the far left, God clothes Eve, and his stance is strangely like that of a man helping a woman to put on a fur coat. The solicitous gesture focuses attention on God's care for the banished humans, rather than on the possibility that God killed animals to make the garments he provides, even as the heads and tails still attached to the skins emphasize that these garments were living animals.


Excerpted from In the Skin of a Beast by Peggy MccCacken. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Color Plates
1. Wearing Animals: Skin, Survival, and Sovereignty
2. The Social Wolf: Domestication, Affect, and Social Contract
3. Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Sovereign: Skin, Heraldry, and the Beast
4. Snakes and Women: Recognition, Knowledge, and Sovereignty
5. Becoming-Human, Becoming-Sovereign: Gender, Genealogy, and the Wild Man

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews