- Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries by Sarah Kay
Sarah Kay's impressive new book, Animal Skins and the Reading Self, marks an important shift in how scholars will approach the study of medieval bestiaries as a [End Page 393] genre as well as the significance of the parchment on which these texts were written. Alongside recent work by Peggy McCracken and Bruce Holsinger, Kay's work urges critical animal studies and posthumanisms to turn toward book history and reconsider parchment as an interface between humans and other animals. Bestiaries frame the animals contained within their pages as allegories for various aspects of Christian doctrine, but this book reveals surprising ways in which the bestiaries' parchment pages themselves factor as objects of contemplation. Kay persuasively demonstrates how and why the bestiarists "suture" (pace Slavoj Žižek) their entries on animals' "natures" to the very medium of their transmission (4–5). The result for the medieval reader, as he or she looks at, touches, and feels the pages of the book, is a profound identification with the embodied experiences of other animals.
Centering on the flourishing of French and Latin bestiaries in the 12th and 13th centuries, Animal Skins and the Reading Self turns away from the anglocentrism of previous work on the topic and resituates the genre within the context of continental intellectual history. (The appendix's useful chronology clearly outlines the reorganizations that occurred within the major bestiary families from the late antique Physiologus through Latin and vernacular redactions designed for different readers.) The two poles of Kay's theoretical framework are Didier Anzieu's theory of the Moi-peau, or 'Skin Ego,' and Giorgio Agamben's model of the "anthropological machine" that continually renegotiates the boundary between human and animal. Scholars of animal studies will find in Kay's application of Anzieu, especially the role of skin-to-skin contact in identity formation, a rethinking of medieval parchment "dehumanize[s]" the "Skin Ego"; and history of the book scholars will find a captivating reexamination of the tears, stitches, and punctures on parchment pages, seen through the lens of what Agamben calls the "mobile caesura," the cut that divides and unites human and animal (16–17).
The book has six chapters each focused on a different aspect of creatures' "natures," that is, the supposed animal behaviors that were allegorized in order to demonstrate tenets of Christianity. The first chapter, "Book, Word, Page," elaborates on the theoretical framework laid out in the introduction as Kay explores the development of the bestiary genre and the influence of Isidore's Etymologies. The names of the animals provide instruction and their meaning points the way toward salvation. But the parchment of the bestiary also insistently returns the reader to the materiality of skin and flesh. Drawing on Anzieu and Augustine, Kay demonstrates how "the reader feels contained within the text, divided by it from the outside world, and encircled by signification" (24). Contrasting Derrida's reading of Adamic origins with Agamben's apocalyptics shows how "Nonhuman creatures stand at the beginning and end" of salvation history, "excluded from its process yet defining it" (40).
The second chapter, "Garments of Skin," builds on these themes by considering [End Page 394] the doctrine of the felix culpa, rooted in the idea that it is only through the fall that humans are able to achieve redemption and eternal life. Using splendid readings of Augustine's Confessions and Hugh of Saint-Victor's De arca Noe morali as a starting point, Kay likens the pages of the bestiary to the tunics made from animal hides that were donned after the expulsion from Eden. Although this base, corruptible material duplicates the human hide, it also "disclose[s] a perfect or immortal skin within the integument of an animal skin" (44). While patristic thought distinguishes between lesser animal and redeemable humanity, the process of differentiation is left perpetually unfinished; the sutures of word and flesh on the skin of the page lead to convergence, rather than separation...