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  • The Body That Is Not One:Overclothing as Bodily Transformation in Topographia Hibernica
  • Andrea Whitacre

In Topographia Hibernica, Gerald of Wales narrates one of the most striking werewolf depictions in the medieval canon, one that has been interpreted in scholarship of the past two decades as an example of the rejection of belief in bodily change in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A priest traveling from Ulster to Meath encounters a talking wolf. The wolf explains that he and his mate were human beings who were cursed by a saint to live as wolves for seven years. The priest fears the speaking wolf, which seems to present a specter of body-hopping or metempsychosis, the human soul displaced within an animal body. The werewolf asks the priest to give the last rites to the dying female werewolf, but at the moment of administering the eucharist, the priest hesitates. To answer his doubts, the male werewolf peels back his partner's skin, rolling it down from her head to her waist and revealing the body of an elderly human woman underneath.

This revelation of the real body under the false skin seems to reclassify this tale of transformation: this is not a story of change, but one of stability. Yet the spectacle of the overlaid animal and human bodies gestures at other underlying anxieties about bodily change, ones that might reshape the way the body and animal/human identity are conceptualized in this period. In this paper, I would like to reconsider the conventional reading of these werewolves as representing a stable human identity, as well as the ideas of the body that underwrite this reading. I argue instead that overclothing presents a conception of body and identity worth paying attention to, and that doing so reveals a new way in which medieval writers conceptualize identity and body.

Overclothing in Bynum's Twelfth Century

In what is still the definitive reading on bodily change in the twelfth century, Caroline Walker Bynum establishes that Topographia refutes the possibility of real [End Page 99] change. In her reading, the moment when the wolf peels the skin from his mate reveals the wolf form as a false exterior, covering the real interior body. The ease of its removal and the appearance of the human form beneath it imply that the wolf body is as inconsequential as clothing, not a real body at all. It is Bynum who uses the term "overclothing" to describe this kind of non-change: "Gerald's werewolves are not souls trapped in alien bodies, cases of metempsychosis. A human being with a body and soul, a psychosomatic entity, a person, is underneath. . . . The wolf worn by this werewolf is a skin or garment overclothing the human; it is not an essence, not even a body, unless one can (like the angels) assume several. The body is with the soul in the person underneath. Unlike the werewolves of European tradition before and after, Gerald's story—the fullest werewolf story of the twelfth-century revival—is not a case of metempsychosis at all."1 Bynum argues that medieval anthropology understood the self as a psychosomatic unit, a conception that is linked to the development of a newly exclusive transnational Christian identity.2 Her project identifies an unwillingness to depict separation of soul from body (metempsychosis) as a consistent principle of the high to late Middle Ages. The impulse toward overclothing is thus for Bynum a conservative move on the part of the text, substituting a reassuring stable body for the threat of metempsychosis. She shows that this figure is fundamentally different from the monstrous hybrid, in which two natures are intermingled within the boundaries of the body, and also different from the transformation of one body into another. Instead, overclothing presents a body that remains unchanged beneath a false outer skin: a human in wolf's clothing. This theological imperative against true animal/human metamorphosis serves as a limit for the period's intellectual and social fascination with change: appearance can change or seem to change, but the true body and identity within must remain stable.

This has led to critical disinterest in Topographia as an example of metamorphosis or human...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4608
Print ISSN
1043-2213
Pages
pp. 99-112
Launched on MUSE
2019-06-05
Open Access
No
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