Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 21, 2018
Peggy McCracken In the Skin of a Beast: Sovereignty and Animality in Medieval France University of Chicago Press, 2017. 240 pp.; 16 color ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226458922)

Peggy McCracken’s new book is about power. Although the burgeoning field of human-animal studies has been dominated by literary historians like herself, McCracken’s approach is refreshingly interdisciplinary and opens the door to new ways in which scholars in other disciplines might enter this increasingly important discourse.

In her introduction, McCracken’s thesis is crystal clear: “literary texts use human-animal encounters to explore the legitimacy of authority and dominion over others” (1). Her sources are wide ranging and include fables, bestiaries, romances, and the Bible. As the title suggests, actual animal skins function on multiple levels by forming (or concealing) identity and establishing power. Referring frequently to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s dictum that animals are “good to think” with, this book provides us with plenty of food for thought.

One of the strengths of this book are McCracken’s translations, which she discusses openly with the reader. From a perspective of animality, McCracken uses the impersonal pronoun “it” to preserve the ambiguity from Old French and to underline the generic (rather than individualized) view of animals in the texts (9). Another example of this is her translation of “se les bests seüssent ja parler”: she tells us she hesitated about how to translate “les bestes.” This could either be “but if animals could speak,” or “but if the animals could speak.” One version would be abstract; the other would refer to a specific group (32). Moving from pronouns to nouns, in the early thirteenth-century French romance Guillaume de Palerne (William of Palermo), the narrator distinguishes between the wolf’s animal feet, poes, and the king’s foot, his piés (90), a distinction that takes on great significance in the text. And finally, in the twelfth- or early thirteen-century French romance Le bel inconnu (The Fair Unknown), McCracken points out that the narrator describes the snake’s mouth as a human mouth (bouce) rather than a gole, a term used elsewhere in the romance to describe animals’ mouths (121). McCracken helps the reader to understand the importance of word choice in human-animal studies.

Chapter 1 focuses on skin, particularly the relationship between flaying animals and displays of power. Humans increasingly wore animal pelts throughout the course of the Middle Ages: this reached its heights with the houppelande, or a huge fur cloak. The texts of choice are Genesis and the lesser-known Conte du papegau (The Tale of the Parrot). Starting with Genesis and its later redactions in the vernacular, we see that humans use animals both for food as well as clothing. Her plates 2 and 3 (from Lutwin’s Eva und Adam and a Parisian Bible historiale) feature nontraditional Genesis illustrations, and McCracken draws our attention to the unusual use of clothing. McCracken’s sense of humor shines through here. For example, in describing Adam’s attire in plate 2, she notes that “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” (17).

Another theme that emerges is the myriad bizarre human/animal hybridizations in medieval literature. In the Conte du papegau, the monstrous knight is in fact a “humanimal,” held together only by a sort of shell of skin. Combining human, animal, and even non-sentient objects, the knight, his helmet, shield, sword, lance, and the horse were, it turns out, all “a single thing” (21).

Chapter 2 explores domestication, primarily around the least likely animal to be tamed: the wolf. If humans slaughter animals to eat, flay them for their skins, and train them for necessary labor, can animals ever willingly submit to this? McCracken here discusses “contractual harmony” between humans and animals, at least the way this appears in some texts. The wild/domestic divide is constantly called into question. The main foil for the “wild” wolf is the highly domesticated dog. This dichotomy is also tied up with gender. In an anonymous version of the Bible, Adam’s animals are intimately connected with humans and could be tamed. But the animals Eve created immediately ran into the woods and became wild.

In Marie de France’s vernacular translation and compilation of fables, wolves figure more than any other animal. The fable of the “Wolf and the Dog” focuses on wildness vs. domestication. Moving on to Marie de France’s famous lai (poem) known as Bisclavret, she recounts the transformation of a knight into a werewolf who behaves alternately like a human, a dog, and a wolf. Animal perspectives, or points of view, are important throughout this chapter; this is related to politics and power through the consent of “governed subjects” (66).

Chapter 3 is about becoming. Here McCracken examines texts in which human and animal identities merge. In Guillaume de Palerne, we encounter another werewolf, who demonstrates “submission and supplication” before the king, which clearly relates to “feudal gestures” (89). There are repeated descriptions of animals as beste mue (mute beasts), since the power of speech, along with reason, are the most frequent ways to differentiate humans. Another difference often emphasized is between response (human) and reaction (animal), one of the human/animal oppositions critiqued by Jacques Derrida.

Snakes, gender, and animality are the focus of chapter 4. Here McCracken delves into vernacular versions of the Genesis story. She discusses representations of the human-headed snake in multiple forms. Images depicting a woman-headed snake confronting Eve persisted even into the sixteenth century. The frequent inclusion of a crown for the snake also suggests a link to sovereignty. Then McCracken discusses the literary figure of Mélusine, a woman who can assume the form of a serpent from the waist down on Saturdays and would only become fully human if she marries a man who agrees never to see her on the day of her transformation. In Le bel inconnu, a knight’s encounter with a snake-woman brings him sovereignty when he wins a lady who happens to be the queen of Wales.

Chapter 5 introduces us to the extremely important figure of the wild man. Wild men proliferated in representations in late medieval Europe. They often have pelt-like hair and sharp claws and live outside of human society, either by choice or accident. Usually by the end of the stories, they reintegrate back into civilization. We see from the acknowledgements that McCracken enjoys gardening: she uses this skill to deftly interpret an image from a fifteenth-century French manuscript of a wild man standing in a hollowed-out tree. He stands inside what seems to be a “pollarded tree, that is, a tree that has been cut back to produce leafy foliage for feeding stock or easily accessible wood or fruit that can be harvested without killing the tree” (129). Pollarded trees are likely to become hollow. Therefore, the nature depicted is not quite as “wild” as it might seem.

In the epilogue, McCracken recounts an event from January 28, 1393, in which the French King Charles VI and five of his courtiers dressed up as wild men for a masquerade that ended in disaster. The accounts of this event are known as the Bal des Ardents (Dance of the Burning Men), and the most extensive rendition can be found in Jean Froissart’s chronicles. The Duke of Orléans approached the men with a torch and lit the hirsute costumes. Other than the king, who hid under the skirt of the duchess of Berry and one of the courtiers who escaped into a tub of water, the others were burned to death. This scene appears in all illustrated versions of Froissarts’s Chroniques, and McCracken includes a particularly striking miniature as her final plate. Her visual analysis is yet again subtle and observant. She compares a masked figure on the right, probably the Duke of Orléans who was responsible for the conflagration in the first place, to the golden statue of a saint placed above the fireplace on the left; at opposite ends of the miniature, both figures look towards the viewer with impervious expressions. This event, in which “sovereignty and animality converge in a highly mediated encounter” (160) is the perfect way to end the book, since it undermines what is always touted as the most fundamental difference between humans and animals: reason. Overall, in her concluding paragraphs, McCracken emphasizes that literary texts are more about relationships than actual political structures. Yet this can sometimes be even more revealing, since the pervasive human domination over animals raises an important question about sovereign relations among humans. Quite simply, why do some people have so much more power than others in medieval society . . . and even today? The uncertainty that emerges is powerful.

In this book, McCracken demonstrates that she is truly the master of her craft: the narrative is lucid, textual and visual explications are thorough and probing. The entire analysis is firmly grounded in historical context backed with a strong theoretical framework. I also will add that the sixteen color plates include miniatures from manuscripts that are not well known to art historians. Surely there are many more images out there that could benefit from this type of analysis. This book serves as a model for how representations of animals and hybrids provide good catalysts for us to think with. 

Anna Russakoff
Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Art History and Fine Arts, American University of Paris