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  • Human Being and Animal Becoming in the Ovide moralisé
  • Peggy McCracken

The fourteenth-century Ovide moralisé is one of the most extensive medieval moralizations of Ovid's Metamorphoses. The Ovidian stories are reframed as they are translated into Old French and then interpreted as representations of historical events and as allegories of Christian truth. In the narrative move from the Ovidian story to its interpretations, bodies are doubly transformed. As the text explains how the pagan story about bodily metamorphosis may speak Christian truths, it rewrites corporeal transformation as spiritual conversion and invites a consideration of what stories about human bodies transformed into animal bodies may tell us about the values that ground human being and animal becoming.

The Ovide moralisé is the first full translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses into French; its author translates from Latin to French, but he also translates knowledge and meaning in line with medieval understandings of translatio.1 In this massive compilation of more than seventy-two thousand lines, translations of the Metamorphoses, supplemented from other mythographical sources, glosses, and commentaries, make up almost two-thirds of the text, and the translator's historical and allegorical interpretations more than a third.2 The Ovide moralisé most often refers to the translated Ovidian story as a fable (une fable), that is, a fabulous, fictional story, and as a fable, the story would seem to call for explanation, or for a moral that transforms it into a lesson.3 But unlike most fables—we think most readily of beast fables, where animal behavior is interpreted in moral lessons for humans—Ovid's fables can be explained by history, or at least this is the translator's perspective as he supplies a historical judgment (une historial sentence) of the story's veracity, that is a euhemerist reading that identifies the historical events or characters that could have inspired the mythological story.4 The historical explanation is followed by an allegorical reading of the Ovidian story, often many times longer than the euhemerist interpretation, and the elaborate explanations of Christian [End Page 1] allegorical meaning reveal the translator's main interest. In the Ovide moralisé, the stories from the Metamorphoses are translated into French as fable, history, and allegory, and in the narrative move from fable to interpretation, the story about a metamorphosis comes to figure Christian truth, as for example in the Actaeon story, my focus here, where metamorphosis is explicitly taken as a representation of the Incarnation.


The story of Actaeon is in book 3 of the Metamorphoses. Actaeon loves to hunt and spends all his time in the forest with his dogs. One day, after a morning spent killing animals, Actaeon calls an early end to his pursuit of prey. He then wanders in the forest and by chance comes upon Diana bathing in a fountain with her nymphs. The maidens surround the goddess to hide her from the hunter's gaze, but Diana stands a head taller than her nymphs and she can see Actaeon, who looks at her. Because she has set aside her quiver to bathe, Diana cannot avenge the violation of Actaeon's gaze with her arrows, so she splashes water on his face and, in Ovid's account, "as she poured the avenging drops upon his hair, she spoke these words foreboding his coming doom: 'Now you are free to tell that you have seen me all unrobed—if you can tell.'"5 Actaeon flees, and when he sees his head and antlers mirrored in a stream, he tries to lament his fate, but cannot speak. Ovid recounts that "He groans—the only speech he has—and tears course down his changeling cheeks. Only his mind remains unchanged."6 When Actaeon's own hounds discover him and give chase, he cannot speak to identify himself as their master and call them to heel, and his former hunting companions encourage the dogs as they attack the stag, tear its flesh, and kill their former master, a man transformed into a stag.

In his introduction to the Actaeon story, Ovid insists that Actaeon's tragic end should be attributed to Fortune; the hunter committed no crime since he came upon Diana...


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