Garments of Skin
Garments of Skin
Abstract and Keywords
Citing the same passage of Confessions as chapter 1, this chapter begins with the connection which Augustine draws between reading as second skin and the tunics of skin which Adam and Eve wore when they were driven from Eden. The tunics indicated that sin, in making them mortal, had also animalized them, a process that could only be reversed when Jesus assumed this same skin in the incarnation. Texts too are compared with garments or skins where one covering overlaid and could be stripped away from another, metaphors captured in the terms involucrum or integumentum. Bestiary allegories thematize these metaphors of skins as wrappings that can be unwrapped; and, because they are written on parchment, they also materialize them in their physical makeup. But they resist and twist them too, laicizing or eroticizing the themes of dressing and undressing, or using pages whose animal origins are so insistent that they give the lie to textual insistence on immortality. The chapter explores these ideas with reference to bestiary treatment of the Serpent and related creatures, and of the Hydrus and Crocodile, in a range of Latin and French bestiaries, particularly Second-family bestiaries and the bestiary of Philippe de Thaon.
Keywords: Augustine, mortality, second skin, integumentum, involucrum, Serpent, Hydrus, Second-family bestiary, Philippe de Thaon, immortality
I began the last chapter with a quotation from Confessions in which Augustine links the Bible both with the scroll of the firmament on which God’s word can be read and with the tunics of skin worn by Adam and Eve after the fall. I quote it again, with slightly different inclusions and omissions from last time:
Who but you, O God, has made for us a solid firmament of authority over us in your divine scripture? … You know, Lord, you know how you clothed human beings with skins when by sin they became mortal. So you have stretched out the firmament of your book “like a skin.” (sicut pellem) … Indeed, by the very fact of their death the solid authority of your utterances published by them is in a sublime way “stretched out” over everything inferior. While they were alive on earth, it was not stretched out to express this supreme authority.1
Augustine’s thought hinges on traditional metaphors of skin as both bodily clothing and writing surface. In the latter role, “skin” designates both scripture and the heavens by which we are “clothed”; in the former, it defines the body in the state both of mortal sin and of immortal salvation. The articulation together of these metaphors led me, in chapter 1, to trace how we can distinguish, in bestiaries, between their existence as books and their mediation of the Book. Here it will be seen to indicate how the skin’s materiality as the envelope of a sensuous, sinful body can be dissolved in favor of an immortal skin outlining an identity that is no longer corruptible, a passage made possible, says Augustine, by God’s book where human readers’ mortality and the possible means of their redemption are explained.
Hugh of Saint-Victor relates Augustine’s ideas specifically to parchment codices when he considers whether books are mortal or eternal, and whether they confirm or counter the reader’s mortality. Reading means assuming the (p.42) book as a garment, and living or dying in consequence of whether its skin is that of a dead animal or an immortal being:
The books that men write are made of the skins of dead animals or some other corruptible material. … And all who read these books will die some day, and there is no one to be found who lives forever. These, therefore, being made of dead things by mortal beings who are going to die, cannot bestow enduring life on those who read and love them. They are certainly not worthy to be called books of life, but would be termed more fitly books of death, or of the dead or dying. [Whereas] this is the Book of Life in which nothing that has once been written will ever be deleted, and all those who are found worthy to read it will live forever.2
Like Augustine, Hugh points to questions we can ask about the “garment of skin” assumed by a bestiary reader. Can a bestiary share in some of the attributes of a book of life, or does the skin of its parchment remain compromised by the mortality of the animals from which it was made—and of the reader who reads it? As the envelope assumed by his reading self, the parchment page might anchor the reader in the mortal world of other animals, but alternatively it might lead him toward a sublime, perfected identity in which, like the parchment, his skin might be purified of all vestiges of flesh. Bestiaries are works that urge their readers to reflect on the alternatives of flesh and spirit, corruptibility and eternity. Each of the pages on which they are copied is similarly implicated in these terms: in any particular codex the skin of the parchment might be perceived as inclining the reader one way or the other as he negotiates the text’s opposition of the animal, fleshly and mortal, to the sublime and eternal. (Another way of reading bestiaries as defining a life for the soul will be explored in chapter 6.)
Skin as Garment and Skin as Writing
When Augustine invokes connections between garments, writing, and skin, he shows his adherence to both Jewish and Greek traditions of thought. In the passage I quoted from Confessions he cites the Bible when he equates the heavens with a scroll (Isaiah 34:4, Psalm 103:2) and evokes the verse just before Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden: “And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21).3 He also draws on Hellenistic Neoplatonism when he compares these garments to the heavens, for just as the physical body is the “garment of the soul,” so the sky is also the “mantle of the heavens.”4 Jean Pépin’s study of Augustine’s use of the motif of clothing documents the dependence of his thinking on (p.43) both these traditions, which were indeed already fused in the writings of the early Fathers. In particular, Pépin shows how Augustine’s understanding of the Genesis “tunics of skin” reiterates that of his Greek predecessors, his likeliest source being Origen.5
Here in Confessions we find just the summary statement that the tunics represent the moment “when through sin [man] became mortal,” but Augustine’s commentaries elsewhere are more elaborate. Because they come from dead animals, the tunics of skin fittingly represent the mortality with which God punished the first couple’s sin.6 Additionally, they imply that sin animalizes the human being. Augustine understood the statement that human beings were created in the image of God as marking their difference from other animals, which lacked likeness to their creator. The garments made from animal skin symbolize how far human beings, through sin, have fallen away from this privileged resemblance to God into the dissimilitude from him of the beasts.7 On the other hand, the fact that the effects of sin can be represented as donning a garment means that, like a garment, they can also be taken off, laid aside, and replaced with another.
Putting on a new skin or taking off an old one are ascribed as natures to various bestiary creatures, typically kinds of snake—animals that do, in reality, slough off one skin and replace it with another in the course of their growth. The allegories which the texts supply for these natures revolve around concepts of sin and redemption. Indeed the motif of skin concretizes the paradox of felix culpa whereby the fact of the fall is, by the same token, the reason for salvation. One side of the paradox identifies skin according to the traditional understanding of tunicas pellicias, representing the mortality and fleshly concerns or faults of human beings as in some sense animal—bestial even. But its other side places the capacity to assume a new skin on the side of incarnation and resurrection, in which a mortal skin is exchanged for one of immortality.8
The idea that skin is, like a garment, something inferior but removable, is echoed in the idea that interpretation operates via an involucrum or integumentum. These Latin terms for an “envelope” or “wrapping” are used to refer to allegory as a “covering” that needs to be “uncovered” in order to show forth the truth beneath.9 As the primary form of covering, the skin represents the need to read through or beyond it in order to arrive at a spiritual reality. Ambrose, for example, “states that ‘mens hominis … quasi involucro quodam corporis tegitur’ (the soul of man … as if by a certain wrapping of the body, is concealed).”10 Similarly Augustine speaks of the mind escaping the degradations of the flesh that cover it: “‘sapiens … ab omnibus involucris corporis mentem, quantum potest, evoluit’ (the wise man … has uncovered the mind, (p.44) as far as possible, from all the coverings of the body).”11 These conceptions of allegory and allegoresis as wrapping and unwrapping continue the metaphors of clothing and unclothing whose association with the skin is such a commonplace of early patristic thought.12 Since the page is a skin too, the reader is called upon to “unwrap” it in order truly to understand what is written on it.
Sometimes the skin of the page may facilitate this unwrapping, via exegesis, to some ideal skin. Sometimes, however, the impetus to remove the skin from the realm of corruptible matter is not sustained because the page instead directs the reader back to fleshly investments, including those of sex and gender. In discussing these various manifestations of skin as a covering that can also be uncovered I shall focus on the bestiary chapters on Serpents and on the Hydrus and Crocodile. Each proposes to disclose a perfected or immortal skin within the integument of an animal skin, and each, in its treatment in some bestiaries, especially vernacular ones, raises questions about the bodily experience of skin. From different standpoints, both Augustine and Anzieu have reflected on this potential doubling or reduplication of the skin which, in Augustine, serves his own particular version of what Agamben calls the anthropological machine, since the “skin of life” demarcates spiritual man from the carnal, animal one defined by the “skin of death.”
The Three Natures of the Serpent and the “Tunics of Skin”
The doubleness of skin is articulated among the natures of the Serpent in Physiologus. The Serpent’s first nature is that, when it grows old and wishes to renew itself, it fasts until its skin loosens, then sheds it by squeezing through a narrow crack in a wall; “we too, throw off for Christ the old man and his clothing through much abstinence and tribulation” (P §13). The second has the Serpent leave its venom behind it when it goes to drink at the river, a model to be followed by all who thirst for the word of Christ. And the third is that, like the serpent in Eden, the Serpent is powerless against a man as long as he is naked—that is, before he becomes vulnerable to sin and subsequently assumes the tunics of skin that mark him as such; “but when he dressed in a tunic (that is, the mortality of a sinful fleshly body), then the serpent assaulted him” (P §13). In order to remain immune to temptation, men should beware putting on the clothing of worldliness.
The Serpent also has a fourth nature according to Physiologus, that it surrenders its body to its attackers but defends its head, as do martyrs when they submit to their tormentors but still adhere to Christ, their head. But the first three form a unit around the conception of skin as a container of (p.45) identity that can be altered, by donning or removing it, or by evacuating its contents (the venom). Remarkable in this short chapter is how the Serpent of the fall is countered and outnumbered by Serpents whose valence is positive. To achieve this, the skin takes on opposing meanings: before sin (human nakedness in Eden), sin itself (the Serpent’s temptation, which precipitates the coverings of the fall), the state of sinfulness and its consequences (the tunics of skin as the envelope of mortality), the container of a sinful self (the poison), and renewal from sin (the Serpent casts out its venom and sloughs off its old skin to reveal the new one).13
This chapter is not included among the 36 chapters of Physiologus B14 and is correspondingly absent from early copies of B-Isidore. But it is transmitted in the Latin y tradition (§13)15 whence it is taken up by that other important early Latin bestiary redaction, the Dicta Chrysostomi. This text’s chapter on the Viper (§11) begins with this snake’s astonishing sexual habits: the female has sex with the male by biting off his head, and then gives birth when her offspring eat their way out of her insides. But this is followed by accounts of the Serpent that grows blind with age, fasts and passes through “the narrow gate and the constricted path that lead to life” (Matthew 7:14), of the Dragon that vomits its poison before drinking, a behavior here equated with confession, and of the Dragon that takes fright before a naked man, just as “when our father was naked in Paradise the ancient serpent the devil could not prevail against him.”16 The same three natures are reiterated en bloc in the Second-family, whose chapter “De naturis serpentium” (SF §109) concludes a lengthy section on snakes beginning with an introduction (§90) and containing entries on nearly twenty individual species (SF §§91–108). The Serpent sheds its skin to show that “through Christ we divest ourselves of the old man and his garments, and seek the spiritual rock, Christ, and the narrow fissure, that is, the narrow gate”; and it leaves behind its venom when it drinks, a sign that readers should “throw off venom from ourselves, that is, earthly and evil desires” (SF §109).17 The wording of the third nature adds to that of the Dicta Chrysostomi a passage in which the theme of skin as a garment is repeated:
Therefore, if you are wearing an earthly garment, that is, the old man, and you have grown old in evil days (Deuteronomy 13:52), the serpent strikes at you. If however you divest yourself of the clothing of the princes and powers of this world of darkness (Ephesians 6:12), then the serpent, that is, the Devil, cannot strike at you.18
Given their thematization of skin, both text and illustration in this chapter conspire to draw readers’ attention to the skin of the pages on which they are (p.46) copied, made from animal skins that have undergone the same processes as the Serpent’s, stripped and cleansed within and without.
In Second-family bestiaries the section on snakes is often set out with horizontal depictions of the various reptiles between the chapters, as in fos. 94v–95r of BnF lat. 3630 (plates 6 and 7), a late thirteenth-century English manuscript. This layout helps bring out the extent to which the characteristics of individual species in §§91–108 anticipate the natures of Serpents in general as presented in §109. The trait selected for illustration from this concluding chapter is the Serpent’s fear at the sight of a naked man as opposed to a clothed one (see the foot of fo. 95r in plate 7). Although its other natures are not portrayed, the behaviors of some of the other reptiles on these pages are sufficiently similar to stand in for them. At the top of fo. 95r, the picture of the Salamander represents it not in the midst of fire, but as capable, with its venom, of poisoning all the water in a well, a nature which recalls how the Serpent, on the contrary, leaves its poison behind when it goes to drink. Immediately below, the Saurus—a lizard which goes blind with age but then crawls through a crack in a wall, looks at the sun, and is rejuvenated—anticipates the Serpent’s first nature in which its skin is renewed by squeezing through a narrow aperture.19 The orchestration of this page, then, captures this bestiary’s “scientific” character by suggesting how the statements about the generic nature of Serpents in its concluding chapter summarize and extend those pertaining to individual species in the preceding entries.
The double page also captures the permutations of snakes’ relations with skin, and with sin, as resumed in this concluding chapter. The various snakelike creatures are depicted with their skin variously tinted or left bare in a manner consistent with the way color and the absence of color are deployed throughout this manuscript. In BnF lat. 3630 the subjects of illustration are usually left unpainted, their form suggested only by line or light wash, while dense color is reserved for background and frame.20 On fos. 94v–95r many of the reptiles are almost completely lacking in any color or texture; similarly, the nude man at the foot of fo. 95r has bare skin on which the features of his face and chest are only lightly drawn, and the contours of his leg muscles hinted at with a pale gray wash. The two snakes wriggling away under the rejuvenating Saurus, which are likewise without color, may be thought to share the innocence of human beings before they were clothed in the tunics of skin. The series of snakes devouring human and animal prey on fo. 94v (plate 6) seem not to share the fear of bare human skin ascribed to the Serpent in the concluding chapter, perhaps because the men are already dead;21 I return to these images in chapter 4.
The convergences on this page between human skin, the skin of other (p.47) creatures, and the skin of the page are instances of what I have been calling suture. Skin is represented by virtue of not being represented; it is merely an outline drawn around a section of the naked parchment that delimits and identifies it as being already skin, and a skin that is the same for humans as for other animals. Unlike the images I have discussed up to this point, however, these pages also equate skin with a garment that can be discarded like the Serpent’s or assumed like Adam’s tunicas pellicias. As such, skin is presented not just as a surface on which meaning is recorded and within which identity is defined, but as a covering that can be unwrapped, or rather that should be unwrapped, in order for another, further meaning and identity to emerge. As integumentum or involucrum, these pages in BnF lat. 3630 lead from the qualities (naturae) of snakes via a process of uncovering (allegoresis) to Christian teaching (allegoria). Removable skins, whether of snakes or men, become a figure of their own mode of readability.
Sutured to the skin of these representations, the page, too, may appear both as a surface to be read on and as a surface to be read through, not to a depth of which it is the shell, but to what is proposed as a sublime skin under or prior to it. Not that pages are removable or that one reads by discarding them, but any page could nonetheless be seen as a merely provisional support for contents that ultimately belong on a more permanent plane, just as mortal skin is proposed as the temporary container for a self for which eternity will hopefully provide an immortal replacement.22
My question, then, is whether the parchment of these folios supports the claim of their contents to portray skin as it might have been in Eden, before it was covered over by the tunics of skin. Perhaps it does—but not compellingly. The facing pages 94v–95r of BnF lat. 3630, especially 95r (plate 7), show clear signs of animality such as the very visible hair follicles in the bottom margin next to the gutter and the veins in the outer margins. The worm holes in both pages, though of course later in date, likewise align these leaves more with the tunics of skin than they do with the uncorrupt and unsensuous skin of the first man before the fall made him subject to death.
A different inflection is given to this segment by the equivalent pages of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 53 (also known as the Peterborough Bestiary, fos. 206v–207r, plates 8 and 9), despite the obvious kinship between it and BnF lat. 3630. Both are late thirteenth-century English manuscripts belonging to the same textual family;23 both use narrow, horizontal pictures of the various snakes to punctuate the chapters of this section and help it cohere; both chose similar subjects for their illustrations and combine areas of paint with uncolored, outline drawings. Like the Paris manuscript, the Peterborough Bestiary illustrates the Salamander poisoning the tree (fo. 206v, (p.48) col. a; plate 8): the larger and more active Salamander is pictured in the act of doing so, curled around its trunk and holding a fruit in its mouth just like the serpent of the fall. The Saurus (at the top of the next column) is depicted squeezing its way out of masonry, allegedly rejuvenated. As in BnF lat. 3630 these portrayals clearly anticipate the first two natures of the Serpent in the concluding chapter, which starts at the top of the facing recto (plate 9). The picture for this chapter confirms the parallel with the Saurus by including, on the far left, a snake shedding its skin by crawling through a ring-shaped crevice. Again, as in BnF lat. 3630, the nature that dominates the illustration is the third, the Serpent’s fear of a naked man. A group of snakes squirm this way and that, confronted with both a clothed and a naked man, some attacking the former, others fleeing the latter. The naked man is drawn with disarming realism on the bare parchment, as are all the instances of exposed flesh in the other human figure on these pages; the snakes at the top of the facing verso (plate 9) are also drawn more than they are painted. One of them is attacking a man wearing clothes, as in the concluding image, which makes the chapters on these pages more consistent than their equivalents in the Paris manuscript where snakes appear to be attacking naked men on fo. 94v.
The main visual difference between the two manuscripts is that the parchment of the Peterborough Bestiary is whiter, smoother, and altogether less redolent of the body than that of the Paris codex. This difference illustrates how the page is not just a neutral writing surface but a factor in how its written contents are read. The rarefied surface of the Peterborough Bestiary helps the reader envisage a prelapsarian man whose skin was not yet carnal or mortal, like the man from whom snakes take flight at the top of fo. 207r (plate 9). Because it is itself a product of refining, it also parallels the processes of purging and stripping away whereby snakes shed an old skin and assume a purer one. The injunction to read allegorically beyond the skin of carnality, and the allegorical message of eventual Christian renewal, may not be justified by the fine grade of this parchment, but it does lend them credence. The pages of the Paris manuscript, by contrast, suggest that for the reader there is work still to do before the “tunics of skin” of his animal nature can be finally set aside.
Naked Skin in Vernacular Bestiaries
Several of the vernacular bestiaries adopt the motif of a snake that either sheds its skin or fears a naked man, sometimes extending these natures to other animals. Since they address a lay and sometimes female readership, they also allow the possibility that reactions to the sight of the naked man might differ according to the status and gender of the reader.24 This is not to say that (p.49) the sight of a naked man might not hold erotic interest for Latin clerical readers; but this gaze is more explicitly sexualized in vernacular texts.
Although Dicta Chrysostomi inspired three German vernacular bestiaries, Gervaise’s is the only French one to be modeled on it. Gervaise (or his source) adapts the Dicta Chrysostomi chapter on the Viper to create one on “three kinds of snake,” the Viper, the Grass-Snake and the Dragon (G 501–5). As in the Latin, the Viper has alarming reproductive habits, its offspring bringing destruction on their mother just as she does on their father. Next, to the Grass-Snake (coulouvre) Gervaise ascribes what Latin texts present as the Serpent’s first nature. With age it grows blind, then fasts; grown thin, it seeks out a hole in a rock and squeezes through.
Its clothing (vesteüre) stays outside, on the rock; its hide (cuir) separates from its body. When it is stripped naked, its eyesight grows clear once more and its new skin (novele peaus) grows.
The moralization compares it with the sincere penitent who “can be reconciled with God and be freed (desvoloper, lit. unwrap him or herself) from sin” (G 569–70).26 Gervaise starts with a word that refers to human garments (vesteüre), then opts for one more typically associated with animal hide (cuir), then one that includes the skin of both humans and other animals (peaus), and ends with a term that evokes the wrapping and unwrapping of a text’s involucrum (desvoloper). The sequence charts a sinuous movement from species differentiation toward implications of overlap and even identity between humans, other animals, and the process of reading (allegoresis). The vocabulary of wrapping and unwrapping is also found in Gervaise’s third snake, the Dragon, which is afraid of a naked man but not of a clothed man. Similarly to Latin models, Gervaise identifies this creature with the serpent in Eden who dared not approach Adam before he became “wrapped in vile sin” (G 612, “envolopez de laiz pechiez”). Only confession can leave the human being stripped (desnuez) of this unwanted dress and so secure him safely from the Dragon (G 616–20).
The patristic associations of skin with garment, inscription, and allegoresis are here graphically rendered in medieval French. At the same time, the everyday vernacular associations of these words increase the potential for metaphors of dressing and undressing to have their meanings reversed, since for laymen and women “clothing” is more likely to be associated with status than with sinful fall, and “nakedness” could represent a great many things other than purity. There is little support for aspirations to purity in the lone, French manuscript of Gervaise, BL MS Additional 28260 (second half of the thirteenth century),27 since many of its leaves are reduced and misshapen as (p.50) a result of the edges of the original hide falling short of the planned dimensions of the page. Nor do these folios, which are barely adequate to the purpose of supporting the text, offer much scope for imaginary unwrapping—rather, they look as if they were themselves only just unwrapped from an animal body.
Two later French-language bestiaries resemble Gervaise in distributing the natures of the generic Serpent to individual reptiles. In the Long Version attributed to Pierre de Beauvais a snake called the Tieris (LV §37) sheds its skin as an emblem of penance,28 and in the Bestiaire d’amours the nature of being afraid of a naked man is ascribed to a serpent identified as a Wyvern (French wivre) (BA §7). Such moves are part of a process of extending the Serpent’s natures to other creatures more broadly and, in the process, admitting changes in the meaning of bare skin. For example, in the Long Version again, fear of a naked man becomes the nature of a beast called a Woutre (LV §10), and the gloss on nakedness is again more moral and less narrowly theological than in Gervaise. It now signifies having no care for worldly goods, whereas clothing indicates that a man cares for nothing else so that he is “dressed (vestu) in covetousness, lust, and envy, and the other evil vices of the world” (LV §10).29 Illustrators visualize the Woutre as a quadruped resembling a small lion or large dog, and in the ex-Phillipps manuscript the two Woutres and the naked man are all represented on the page by the same bare skin (fo. 6v; fig. 2), now firmly associated with lust and vice even though the text affirms the opposite.30 A connection between nakedness and animality is suggested by the appearance of the parchment, with its prominent pores, scarring, and tear.
Another, perhaps accidental extension of the nature of the serpent to another creature, this time the Wolf, is found in the Bestiaire d’amours in Richard de Fournival’s appeal to the writer’s lady that she should return his love. The text states that if a man sees a Wolf before the Wolf sees it, the Wolf loses its strength but conversely, if the Wolf sees the man first, the man loses the power of speech (BA §4). This is explained as figuring the risk run by whichever of a man or a woman is the first to declare their love: making one’s feelings known is equivalent to being seen, the man in the scenario representing the lover and the Wolf the lady. Illustrations usually confront a Wolf and the supposedly dumbstruck man, but in one case the artist has depicted the Wolf recoiling before a man with no clothes on (BnF fr.25566, fo. 84v)—perhaps in anticipation of the naked man and the Wyvern that follow.31 The rubric is unambiguous: “the Wolf which is afraid of the naked man.”32 Both man and Wolf are outlined on the parchment and tinted with the same whitish gray wash so that both are undressed down to the identical skin. The display of animal (p.51)
nakedness is more reminiscent of today’s nude selfies than it is of medieval allegory, while the address to the writer’s lady unavoidably conjures female eyes upon it. Aspiration to a pure decorporealized state, as fostered by the Latin texts, seems an unlikely reaction to attribute to a female reader of this page as compared with, say, snickering or sexual curiosity.
Similarly unmoored from its theological moorings is the Wyvern’s meeting with the clothed or naked man a few segments later (BA §§7–8), in which (p.52) “clothing” represents a love that has been affirmed and “nudity” an as yet undeclared, newly kindled love. Richard’s point seems to be that the achievements of human culture (such as love poetry) are nothing but a handicap and that retaining natural nakedness is the way to succeed in love: a saucy joke in favor of animality. The depiction of this scene on BnF fr. 25566 fo. 85v shows the naked man modestly covering his genitals while the man being attacked by the Wyvern is in clerical dress.33 This illustration, then, does little to encourage the woman reader to embrace religious teaching; and the grade of the parchment, with its residues of embodiment, is accordingly unlikely to subsume her into an ethereal or immortal self. Note in particular the way the bottom outer corner of the original page was irregularly shaped due to the way it was cut from the animal’s hide, and all the stretches and scarring around what was once the edge of the leaf, before another piece was joined to make up the rectangle. The mend extends the page more than it can be said to underlie it. Here is no involucrum to unfold: bare skin is just bare skin, and seemingly the better for it.
Other examples would confirm that in later vernacular bestiary texts the motif of skin in the nature of Serpents drifts away from the allegoreses proposed by earlier Latin bestiarists.34 Instead of unwrapping a mortal skin to discover one that is sublime, the reader is allowed to dwell on the corporeal, animal quality of skin, and one factor that interferes in her reactions is the often lower quality of parchment from which these books are made. The same tendency to lose sight, in the presence of animal skin, of the possibilities afforded by an immortal one, is found in the chapter on the Hydrus and Crocodile.
The Hydrus and the Crocodile and the “Hide of the Flesh”
The chapter on the Hydrus and the Crocodile is a constant across the bestiary tradition that also invokes the motif of tunics of skin. For some authors the Hydrus is a Nile serpent but it is more commonly identified merely as an animal in Latin (DC §4, B-Is §19) or a beste in French, and indeed the Physiologus text translated by Curley, which calls it a nilius, describes it as having “the shape of a dog” (P §39). B-Isidore bestiaries follow Physiologus’s account in which this creature, whatever it is, smears itself with mud, then creeps into a sleeping Crocodile and devours it from the inside by chomping through its entrails; allegorically this refers to the incarnation of Christ and the harrowing of Hell (P §39, B-Is §19). The reference to mud invokes the Genesis account of how the first humans were created from the dust of the earth, de limo terrae.
The Hydrus, in truth, signifies God. For the sake of redemption God assumed incarnation, for he became covered with filth and muddied with dust. Clay comes from mud and [thus] we wear the hide of the flesh (e de char quir avun). God was clothed in flesh (de char fud vestud), through which Satan was vanquished.
Philippe’s expression “the hide of the flesh” recasts the biblical tunicas pellicias assumed at the fall in a context that compounds them with the original creation of human bodies from clay. Adam’s fallen mortality, he insists, is inverted by the incarnation when, in order to redeem mankind, Christ takes on this same combination of muddy clay with the “hide of the flesh.”
Philippe also reworks the patristic view that the tunics of skin represent humans being animalized by sin. His bestiary is organized in a way that both underscores and complicates the association between carnality and animality. Chapters are distributed between three sections—beasts, birds, and stones—a reverse hierarchy that distinguishes beasts as alone having natures that can represent the devil. But within each of Philippe’s three sections, the first set of entries all represent Christ, so while beasts are unique in their damnable carnality they are equally and abundantly capable of representing the incarnation of God as man. This is another instance of the paradox of felix culpa: if carnality is identified as animality, then it is only by assuming it that Christ can be incarnated and thus redeem humanity from the animality into which it has fallen.
These ideas are epitomized in Philippe’s entry on the Hydrus and the Crocodile which, reworking the commentary tradition on the “tunics of skin,” explicitly identifies the animality of the flesh as skin, and as what both leads to death and overcomes it. The chapter occupies a turning point in the beasts section, coming toward the end of the Christological animals and announcing the struggle over humanity between Christ and the devil that will then be developed by the next group of beasts which represent man. The motif of skin forges the connection between man, Christ and the devil, since later in this same chapter the same word quir (skin, especially an animal hide) is used of the Crocodile within whose tough hide the Hydrus has penetrated (PT 714). Allegorically, this hide is the pit of hell into which Christ enters in order to destroy death’s rule forever.
As carapace of sin or garment of redemption, animal hide is also literally present as the manuscripts on which Philippe’s bestiary is copied, of which there are three. The oldest, which is also the most complete and serves as the (p.54) basis for all modern editions, is the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman manuscript British Library Cotton Nero A.v. It transmits the fullest version of the text’s extensive Latin rubrics, many of which announce the pictures that are supposed to accompany the text; but these were never provided although spaces were left for them.36 The chapter on the Hydrus on fo. 49v is typical. The importance of the allegory is announced (PT 663–4), a Latin instruction follows—“Here the Hydrus is depicted (depingitur), and the Crocodile being killed. For the Hydrus eviscerates it by weaving in and out. And the Hydrus figures Christ and the Crocodile the devil and its entrails his people”37—and then comes an empty space before the text picks up again. Many bestiary manuscripts similarly have spaces for illustration but not the illustrations themselves, the reasons for their unfinished state being no doubt various and practical. The effect of the blank on this particular page, however, is to make the allegory seem to defy representation, as if, although the Hydrus can weave in and out of the skin of the Crocodile, the folds of its involucrum remain unfathomable. The bare parchment, that equivocal “hide of the flesh” in which man, Christ, and the devil mysteriously interact, mutely resists the demand to unwrap it.
A thirteenth-century manuscript, Oxford, Merton College MS 249, preserves a second Anglo-Norman copy. Here Philippe’s section on stones, which was to have been the crowning moment of the work, is mangled and divided; a part of it precedes the bestiary proper, and the part which should conclude it is drastically shortened by comparison with the Cotton Nero copy. Destroying the three-part hierarchy of the work makes the section on the beasts appear the most prominent. The manuscript is rather crudely illustrated, with the majority of the pictures appearing not at the point where the allegory has just been announced, but in the more usual position at the start of each chapter (fig. 3). Pictorially, then, the Hydrus has looped its way through the Crocodile before the account of the animals’ behavior has even begun; the drawing does not illustrate a theological meaning, as the Cotton Nero artist is charged with doing, as much as it posits an enigma which the ensuing text will explicate. It depicts not allegory as theological content but allegoresis as a textual process: the irruptions of the Hydrus through the body of the Crocodile are to reveal one surface appearing through the envelope or involucrum of another. Philippe’s text identifies each of these surfaces as a skin: Christ’s “hide of the flesh” discloses itself as it breaks through the “tough hide” of the pit of hell. Since, however, this scenario is drawn not painted, and not framed but somewhat haphazardly sketched between writing block and margin, the two skin surfaces contrasted by the text converge, in the illustration, with (p.55)
As with the challenge to distinguish innocent from sinful skin in the chapter on Serpents, it is helpful to compare two similar manuscripts of the same passage. BL MS Stowe 1067 is an early twelfth-century English copy of a Latin text not unlike Philippe’s (see chapter 1), whose layout and artistic style could well have served as a model for the makers of Merton 249. The chapter on the Hydrus begins at the foot of fo. 2v (fig. 4) and continues onto fo. 3r where it is followed by a freestanding entry on the Crocodile alone, the text of which corresponds with the end of the Hydrus in B-Isidore (fig. 5; I will have more to say about this new chapter in chapter 4). In the image for the first chapter, the Crocodile is having difficulty swallowing the huge Hydrus which pokes its head, grinning, out of the Crocodile’s belly; in the second it is happily gulping down little fish. The leaves of this manuscript are discolored and scattered with holes, some falling within the writing block; for example, in the chapter on the Panther on fo. 4v the words significat (“signifies”) and later bestia (“beast”) have both been written around holes, drawing attention to how the page itself can disrupt how beasts are understood to signify. On fos. 2v–3r the holes fall diametrically in the margins, a small one in the bottom left corner of fo. 2v just below the start of the Hydrus chapter and a much larger one in the top outer corner of fo. 3r, echoing the apertures in the Crocodile and literally punctuating the Hydrus’s moves. These features may be overlooked by many readers of Stowe 1067, but what of the experience of one who notices them, even subliminally? Faced with a page that aligns itself more with the defeated Crocodile than with Savior-Hydrus, such a reader may be more likely than a reader of the relatively even-colored and undamaged surface of Merton 249 to perceive his reading self as breached and perforated, perhaps by a divine presence within or perhaps not.
The most polished manuscript of Philippe de Thaon’s bestiary is the third, copied in France in the second third of the thirteenth century and preserved in the Royal Library of Denmark, Copenhagen, as MS Gl. kgl. S. 3466. Given that it contains neither birds nor stones, the hierarchy of sections announced at the beginning is now irrelevant—this text contains only beasts. This is also the only one of the three manuscripts where Philippe’s six-syllable lines are set out one rather than two per line, giving an extreme expression of space. Illustrations are placed not at the beginnings of chapters but at the point of their allegoresis. Brightly colored and jaunty, they make a solution to the empty spaces of the British Library copy seem all too easy. In the chapter that (p.59) concerns us, the artist has threaded the Hydrus through the Crocodile with care and deliberation (plate 10). Although the streams of blood from its exit and entry points indicate the lethal effects on the Crocodile of the Hydrus’s progress, the overall impression remains—or so it seems to me—more decorative than traumatic. What makes the “hide of the flesh” appear as such on this page is not its representation in the image but the margins of the page itself, the long sewn up tear in the top right hand margin of fo. 21r producing an emphatic parallel to the holes bored by the Hydrus in the Crocodile.38 Analogously to Stowe 1067, then, but more explicitly given the twin references to cuir (hide) in Philippe’s text, the teaching that impresses itself on the reader’s mind is borne in this manuscript by a skin that can be identified with the “hide of the flesh” of the Hydrus and the harsh hide of the Crocodile. And because it also expresses her own human “hide of the flesh,” filling it with thoughts that are assumed as hers, the hide of the page appears in some sense as the reader’s own skin. She herself and not just the Crocodile are to be pierced and internally consumed by the incarnate Christ. The vulnerability apparent in the manuscript may carry its own impetus to allegoresis, its holes and fissures a provocation to read beyond the integumentum of carnal existence to the sublime skin operating beneath it. Or it may simply return the reader to her own carnal, animal existence, a condition inescapable and maybe even, in its own way, ornamental.
It is striking how many bestiary manuscripts, similarly to Stowe 1067 and Copenhagen MS Gl. kgl. S. 3466, copy their Hydrus and Crocodile chapter on folios that are damaged, and in some at least the effect is the same: to draw attention to the fragility of the “hide of the flesh” in contrast to its eternal alternative. In the twelfth-century Dicta Chrysostomi manuscript Munich, BSB clm 536, a large round hole and a long, looping stitched tear fall right beside the rubric De ydro on fo. 69; although not the first damaged leaf in this text, it is the first with holes in it. Both of the facing pages 3v–4r of another early manuscript of this text, Morgan M. 832, which contain the Hydrus chapter among others, also have holes, this time within the writing block (fo. 4r is reproduced as fig. 8), through many of which it is possible to read the words on the pages beneath. Working with the Hydrus through the tunic of skin of the Crocodile literalizes the motif of integumentum, one skin layered on another as the pages are bound into the codex. The Hydrus also coincides with some of the most spectacularly damaged leaves of vernacular manuscripts. In at least two copies of Guillaume le Clerc (BnF fr. 902, fo. 155v, and Bodleian, MS Bodley 912, fo. 6r, both fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman) this passage (GC 1643–1728) is immediately next to holes or splits. In the copy of the Long (p.60) Version attributed to Pierre de Beauvais preserved in Montpellier, BUM MS H 437 and completed in 1341, this chapter (§42) begins on the recto of fo. 229r, the bottom outer corner of which has a large, stitched tear (see fig 7).
In this last case, however, the reader’s dilemma between the skins of life and those of death is clearly posed.39 The picture of the Hydrus in H 437 fo. 229r is almost identical to the one of the Viper (§6) nearly thirty folios earlier on fo. 200r (compare figs. 7 and 6). Both chapters are also copied on folios with long stitched tears, that on fo. 200 extending right across the page. This coincidence in the visible presentation of the two creatures contrasts with the radical difference between their allegories. The Hydrus here retains its traditional, Physiologus-derived meaning as incarnation and redemption, whereas the Viper who conceives by biting off her mate’s head, and then gives birth when her children eat their way out of her, is interpreted as a figure of envy that conceives envious desires but then is destroyed when it gives birth to them. The little heads poking out of the reptiles’ bodies in the two pictures look identical, but they mean opposite things: in the case of the Hydrus, the allegory is one of salvation triumphing over carnality and in that of the Viper, one of carnality giving way to its own concupiscence. The stitched holes on the two leaves are equivocal, then, as to whether the resurrected Christ or evil designs might break forth from them—the question of which skin-surface is carnal and which immortal proves unanswerable.
As we will see in chapter 4, in some texts the Crocodile also slips toward quite non-Christian considerations of what is vulnerable to what or to whom. But to conclude this one, we began by seeing how, for Augustine, Adam and Eve’s tunics of skin are associated with the books of nature and scripture, and how this influential idea is elaborated by Hugh of Saint-Victor with reference to contemporary parchment books. Bestiarists would want to put their compositions on the side of life, and their references to skin, whether of the Serpent or the Hydrus, are first conceived as images of redemption and incarnation. But in their material manifestation as parchment books, bestiaries do not always disclose a pure or Christly skin within the integumentum of a worldly and sinful skin, they can become more literal animal skins. Such skins can point to the kinship between human beings and other animals, and as they become more literal their connection with readers’ gendered, sexed and mortal bodies becomes more apparent. The manuscript page, as a tunic of skin assumed by readers, may profoundly influence the way they perceive their own garment of the flesh. (p.61)
(p.62) For Pépin, Augustine’s treatment of the theme of the garment highlights its doubleness. In his commentary on the clothes of linen and of wool worn by the women in Proverbs 31:13, Augustine distinguishes between an outer layer that pertains to action in the world, and an inner one of spiritual disposition.40 This same duality is found in Porphyry, who focuses particularly on an outer skin constituted by the “tunics of skin” and the nudity beneath that is purified, like a gymnast’s, by discipline. When layers of skin are stripped away, some are visible like when a person abandons indulgent pursuits, others invisible, like the capacity to resist desire.41 Anzieu’s analysis of the Skin Ego likewise assumes the doubleness of skin, beginning with the biological superimposition of dermis and epidermis, and proceeding from there to distinguish between its double role as perceptual surface turned toward the outside world, and its function as the container of an inner “self.” How the doubleness of Anzieu’s account serves both a theory of the psyche and one of reading will be explored in more detail in chapter 6; it is enough here to note its formal similarity with early Christian teaching. Unlike Anzieu’s, though, the patristic distinction of layers is hierarchical and moralized, its purpose being to facilitate the eventual separation of a spiritual human being from its basis in the animal, much as an allegorical meaning can be unwrapped from the literal text.
In the case of the Siren and the Onocentaur, discussed in my introduction, the caesura manufactured by the anthropological machine passes visibly through the middle of the body, dissecting it. But the case of the Serpent and the Hydrus, as read in the light of Augustine and Anzieu, the caesura aspires to render visible an immortal skin which would be the sublime double of a corruptible one, just as the theory of integumentum aims to make visible a purer meaning within the mundane language of the text. The material character of bestiaries sometimes, as we have shown, supports these aspirations. Some parchment really does appear decorporealized, and some that does not may emphasize the need for the reader to look beyond her mortal body. But the machine’s distinction of the “human” from the “animal” is often undone when, in other cases, attention and desire linger on the surface that was supposed to be surpassed, and transcendence itself is put in doubt by the convergence of animal, human, and page in the selfsame skin.
(1.) Augustine, Confessions XV.16, trans. Chadwick, 282, and ed. Knöll, 357.
(2.) De arca Noe morali (“Noah’s Ark”) II.12, in Hugh of Saint-Victor Selected Spiritual Writings, Introduction by Aelred Squire (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 88. My thanks to Karen Sullivan for pointing out this passage.
(3.) “Fecit quoque Dominus Deus Adam et uxori eius tunicas pellicias et induit eos.”
(4.) Jean Pépin, “Saint Augustin et le symbolisme néoplatonicen de la vêture,” in Augustinus Magister: Congrès International augustinien (Paris, September 21–24, 1954), published as a Supplément to L’Année Théologique Augustinienne, 3 vols. (Paris, 1955), 1: 293–306 (293–94). Henceforth Pépin, “Saint Augustin.”
(6.) Augustine, De Genesi contra Manicheos 2.21.32 (PL 34, 212–3). “Quo enim maiore indicio potuit significari mors quam sentimus in corpore, quam pellibus quae mortuis percoribus detrahi solent?” quoted by Pépin, “Saint Augustin,” 303.
(7.) Javelet, Image et ressemblance, 61, quoting Augustine’s De Trinitate; Javelet summarizes, “Les pécheurs ressemblent aux bêtes; ils ont revêtu les tuniques de peau (Gen. III, 21).” On later authors’ treatment of this theme, see ibid., 262–66.
(8.) In his commentary on the flaying of Marsyas, Anzieu interprets the integrity of Marsyas’s skin as preserving him against extinction, Le Moi-peau, 67–75. See also Kay, “Original Skin,” 35–37, 41–42.
(10.) Stock, Myth and Science, 51, citing Ambrose, De institutione virginitatis III.18. Cf. Ambrose’s sermon 8, PL 15, col. 1303b: “Omnes pollutas cogitationes de corde tuo abjice, nihil sit quo tuus inquinetur affectus: simplex mens, pura sinceritas sit. Talibus se Dominus cum involucrum corporis deposuerint, demonstrare dignatur.”
(11.) Stock, Myth and Science, 51, quoting Augustine, Contra academicos I.viii. See also R. J. O’Connor, S. J., “The Enneads and Saint Augustine’s Image of Happiness,” Vigiliae Christianae 17 (1963): 129–64 (146 and n38).
(14.) At least not in the text printed as Physiologus latinus: Editions préliminaires, versio B, ed. Francis James Carmody (Paris: Droz, 1939).
(15.) Physiologus latinus versio y, ed. Francis James Carmody, University of California Publications in Classical Philology, vol. 12, pt. 7 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941).
(16.) “Quando erat pater noster in paradiso nudus non preualebat aduersus eum diabolus serpens antiquus.” Quotation from Dicta Chrysostomi §11, translation from its iteration in the Second-family §109.
(17.) “Pro Christo deponamus veterem hominem et indumentum eius et quaeramus spiritualem petram, Christum, et angustam fissuram, id est, angustam portam”; “debemus … abicere a nobis venenum, id est, terrenas et malas concuspiscentias.”
(18.) “Si habes ergo in te mortalem vestem, id est veterem hominem, et inveteratus fueris dierum malorum, exsilit in te serpens. Si autem exspolies te indumento principum et potestatum saeculi huius tenebrarum, tunc non poterit exsilire in te serpens, id est, Diabolus.”
(19.) Analogously the Dicta Chrysostomi chapter on the Viper and the natures of serpents is followed by one on the Lacerta, a creature like the Saurus that is rejuvenated by passing through a narrow crevice.
(20.) Other good examples of this practice are the Second-family bestiaries in BL MS Sloane 3544 and Bodleian MS Douce 88A, where all the backgrounds are colored and the beasts are bare of paint.
(21.) On fo. 94v the man attacked by the Jaculus is painted gray, to represent him as already dead (compare the Hyena with a corpse in BnF lat. 3638A fo. 64v) and the men being devoured by the Seps have largely disappeared from view. Presumably they were not fully (or not truly?) naked unlike the man whose nakedness puts the Serpent to flight at the foot of fo. 95r.
(22.) Though since quires were assembled with the darker hair sides of the parchment facing other hair sides, and the same with the lighter flesh sides, leafing through a book results in an alternation of lighter and darker pages, each darker one revealing a lighter one and vice versa, as happens in Morgan MS M. 890.
(23.) Clark, Book of Beasts, “Catalog,” #27 (246), identifies BnF lat. 3630 as late thirteenth century; and ibid, #3 (226), places Corpus Christi MS 53 at ca. 1300. Both transmit texts in the same family as her base manuscript BL MS Additional 11283. Clark’s dating of Corpus Christi 53 is confirmed in Survey, vol. 5, #23 (29–30).
(25.) “Sa vestëure / remaint a la pierre de fors; /li cuirs li dessoivre dou cors. / Quant tote est despoillie nue, / dont li reclarcist la veüe,/ et li revient novele peaus” (lines are misnumbered in the ed.).
(26.) “Se puet bien de Deu accorder / et de pechié desvoloper.”
(28.) The reference to the Serpent is clear from the image for this chapter in Montpellier, BUM MS H 437, fo. 225v, which resembles that of §109 in Second-family manuscripts, e.g., BnF lat. 6838B, fo. 35r.
(29.) “Vestu de covoitise et de luxure et d’envie et des autres mal vices del siecle.”
(30.) This manuscript, formerly Phillipps 6739, is now in a private collection in Virginia. I wish to thank the owner for allowing me access to it. I refer to it as “ex-Phillipps” since the owner (p.177) keeps his identity private and does not have a public catalog of his holdings. The manuscript, possibly copied in Mons or Hainault, dates from ca. 1280–1290 (Baker, Version longue, 61–62).
(31.) This manuscript is probably from Arras, or perhaps Lille, ca. 1300. See Segre, Bestiaire d’amours, xxxiii–xxxvii; Bianciotto, Bestiaire d’amour, 107–9; Stones, Gothic Manuscripts, #III-10 (167–74); and Lucken, “Manuscrits,” 128.
(32.) “Li leus qui a peur del home nu.” This image can be seen on the BnF Gallica site, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6001348v/f176.image.r=francais%2025566.
(33.) http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6001348v/f178.image.r=francais%2025566. On this section of the Bestiaire d’amours, see Kay, “Medieval Bêtise,” 323, and also Jeanette Beer’s discussion of Richard’s allusions in this chapter to the Genesis story, Beasts of Love: Richard de Fournival’s ‘Bestiaire d’amour’ and a Woman’s Response (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 31.
(34.) Several creatures whose natures involve enmity with the Dragon or with snakes, like the Elephant and Stag, include attributes of the Serpent that are then glossed in positive terms.
(35.) “Le ydrus en verté / nus signifie Dé; / Deus pur redemptiun / prist incarnatiun, / car devint enpudnete / et puldre enboëte. / De boe vint limun / e de char quir avun; /Deus de char fud vestud / dunt Satan fud vencud.”
(36.) A few drawings have been realized in Philippe’s Comput which is preserved in the same manuscript.
(37.) “Hic ydrus depingitur et cocodrillus moriendo. Nam ydrus viscera eius ingressus et egressus foras trahit. Et ydrus iste Cristum significat et cocodrillus diabolum et viscera eius gentes.”
(38.) In fact as in figs. 3–4 there are holes on both facing pages; a low resolution image of fo. 20v and its position facing fo. 21r can be seen at http://www.kb.dk/permalink/2006/manus/225/eng/21/?var=.
(39.) Perhaps because the anonymous author is responding to the Bestiaire d’amours in which Richard reinterprets the Hydrus as a false lover? Because of its greater emphasis on the Crocodile, I address this part of the Bestiaire d’amours in chapter 4.