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  • Anima Carnis in Sanguine Est:Blood, Life, and The King of Tars
  • Sarah Star

After witnessing the baptism of his son, in which the boy miraculously metamorphoses from a formless lump of flesh into a living child, the Sultan in the Middle English romance The King of Tars decides that his wife’s Christian God is the true Father of all; spurred by this revelatory perception, the formerly Saracen Sultan is, in turn, baptized. Now that he is also a devout Christian, this Sultan, the ruler of Damascus, rushes to tell his father-in-law, the titular king, the entire case of his conversion. As the narrator reports, the Sultan plans to inform the king:

Hou þe child ded born wasA misforschapen þing;& þurth þe preier of his wiifHou God hadde sent it leme & liifIn water ate cristening;& hou þat heþen soudanWas bicome a Cristen man.

(ll. 977–83).1

In the narrator’s account, Christianity, which sends “liif” to the Sultan’s son, is a metamorphic force that plays a vital role in determining the categorization of the living and the dead. Like his son, the Sultan is equally given new life through Christian baptism, metamorphosing from “heþen” to Christian. With these dual (re)vitalizations, the narrator demonstrates a link between what we might call religious and biological categorization, which the poem identifies and develops through representations of transformative miracles. In this essay, I elucidate the implications of this link and these transformations in relation to medical discourse and the question of individual identity.

For the author of The King of Tars, religion is figured chiefly in terms of presence and absence and is determined according to either the belief in, or ignorance of, Christ. Within this framework, the Sultan is thus a “Sarazin,” not because he follows any written doctrine, but because he lacks knowledge of Christ. What I will call biology is figured in terms of what [End Page 442] medieval medical authors would call “properties.” This term is famously used, for instance, by John Trevisa in his translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s De Proprietatibus Rerum, the fourth book of which, as Trevisa explains, contains information on the body’s internal composition: “To trete of þe porpertees of mannes body and of þe parties þerof, we schul first biginne to trete of þe qualitees of þe elementis and of þe humoures of whiche þe body is maad.”2 The elements and the humors are only a starting point for understanding the body’s properties: Trevisa introduces Book 5 by turning from the body’s inner composition to its outer features. “For we haue ispoken of þe propirtees of humoures,” Trevisa explains, “now it falliþ to speke somwhat of þe disposicioun of membres þat ben imaad and componed of þe forseid humours” (5.163). The role of the humors can only be fully understood once one also learns what they comprise; and, consequently, the “propirtees” of the body can only be fully understood once one considers its members in addition to its humoral composition. For Trevisa in particular and the body of medieval knowledge he transmits in general, the properties of the human body—what we now call biology—are both internal and external.

These internal and external qualities are depicted in The King of Tars through the poem’s focus on fleshly form. As I will argue in greater detail below, the form of the body is conceived in the poem in terms of both inner and outer attributes: of blood and bone as well as facial features and limbs. The poem thus imagines the concept of bodily “form” in the same way that Trevisa describes the composition and role of bodily “properties.” In addition to this focus on form, the poem also describes the body through sensory experience. When the Princess leaves Tars to marry the Sultan of Damascus, for example, her parents, the King and Queen of Tars, “chaunged boþe hide & hewe/For sorwe & reweli chere” (ll. 371–72). This change indicates that the properties of the physical body, its form, are subject to alteration. Similar bodily metamorphoses—most notably, of the lump from flesche to boy and...


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