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Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries$
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Sarah Kay

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780226436739

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226436876.001.0001

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Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries

Sarah Kay

University of Chicago Press

This chapter concerns bestiaries’ relationship to the book of nature and the book of scripture. In Confessions Augustine describes how the process of reading clothes readers in a second skin that can be identified simultaneously with the Bible and with the natural world; the same conjunctions are performed by medieval parchment. Drawing on Derrida’s commentary on Genesis and Agamben’s on Apocalypse, the chapter argues that although nonhuman animals are relegated to the edges of the Bible, they are central to bestiaries which anticipate the Last Judgment as the point from which humans can return to Eden. Language and the book depend on the exclusion of nonhuman animals as “dumb,” but the resulting imbrication of human with nonhuman produces what Agamben calls a “space of exception.” The chapter analyzes the relation to language and the book of different bestiary versions, examining their presentation of sacred history, their similarity to wordbooks and their use of etymology. It ends with a discussion of Adam naming the animals, in particular as depicted in the Northumberland and Sloane Bestiaries, concluding that bestiaries’ spiritual teachings do not prevent them being presented also as time-bound material objects.

Keywords:   Augustine, space of exception, second skin, sacred history, etymology, wordbooks, Eden, Adam, Northumberland Bestiary, Sloane Bestiary

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