- Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries by Sarah Kay
Sarah Kay's Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries examines the points of intersection of manuscript studies, critical animal studies, and skin studies within the medieval bestiary tradition. In this riveting book, Kay considers the bestiary tradition beginning with the second-century Greek Physiologus and its many subsequent medieval Latin and vernacular adaptations. Her main focus is on six vernacular bestiaries written in French that were produced over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, namely those of Philippe de Thaon, Gervaise, Pierre de Beauvais, Guillaume le Clerc de Normandie, Richard de Fournival, and the anonymous author of the Long Version of Pierre de Beauvais. In these vernacular texts (and in their medieval Latin counterparts), Kay studies the problematic distinctions made between the human reader and the animals represented in medieval bestiaries and how these distinctions collapse on the parchment pages of medieval manuscripts through a process that she describes as "suture." Kay defines suture as a "feedback loop" [End Page 205] (4) between the text and the parchment upon which it is recorded, a process "in which the distinction of levels between content and medium on which reading normally relies is momentarily suspended" (5). Arguing for the resemblance between the animal skins that manuscript parchment is made from and the human skin of the person reading it, Kay describes the effect of suture on the medieval and modern reader as the effacement of the dividing lines that distinguish the reader, the animals described, and the page they are described on within medieval bestiaries.
Of course, for this effect to be properly studied, it is necessary to focus on medieval manuscripts, rather than on edited texts. While there are occasional references to printed editions, the majority of Kay's meticulously close readings focus on the many individual manuscript witnesses of these bestiaries. Accounting for pictorial representations, mise-en-page, imperfections in the parchment (scrapes, cuts, tears, wear, etc.), the side of the parchment on which these and other "visual signs"1 occur (hair or flesh), as well as the text itself, Kay gives a fascinating portrayal of the experience of reading these manuscripts for both medieval and modern readers. Readers of Animal Skins will find themselves swept away by the grace and insight of Kay's holistic form of close reading. No doubt this book will serve as a model for future scholars wishing to apply her method to other textual traditions.
Kay interrogates human exceptionalism in these manuscripts primarily with the help of two concepts: le Moi-peau, or Skin Ego, of French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu and the macchina antropologica ("anthropological machine") of Giorgio Agamben. Using Anzieu's dual definition of skin as "surface of inscription and envelope of identity" (4) and Agamben's argument that the definition of the human (vis-à-vis the animal) functions as a "frontiera mobile" that is constantly being redefined and reconsidered,2 Kay explores instances in which humans, animals, and page converge in the medieval bestiary tradition and in which hierarchies that exist between categories such as the human and animal are both reinforced and questioned. While Kay employs modern theories of posthumanism and psychoanalysis elegantly and convincingly, her argument is also assisted by an impressive array of contemporary medieval theory on humanity's place (or lack thereof) in the medieval bestiary. She demonstrates that the Latin words animal and animans "frequently included humans alongside other animals" and that medieval conceptions of the relationship between humans and the animal kingdom present a number of interesting divergences from modern ones, where the concept of "animal" encompasses, in Kay's words, "all living creatures except for human ones" (2).
It is precisely this equal attention paid to medieval and modern theory that strikes the reader as so successful in Kay's project. Fitting with the spirit of this volume, these distinctions become collapsed in Kay's deft analysis, and the [End Page 206] reader does not perceive...