Mirrors and fears: humans in the bestiary

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The medieval bestiary is often simply described as a moralized "encyclopedia of animals," however, these so-called "books of beasts" were made for humans, by humans, about humans. It is therefore

The medieval bestiary is often simply described as a moralized "encyclopedia of animals," however, these so-called "books of beasts" were made for humans, by humans, about humans. It is therefore surprising that one common pictorial subject of the bestiary has been left unexamined: humans. By viewing bestiary images through this lens, one may easily see man's underlying and unresolved struggle to maintain dominance over the beasts, and the Others projected onto them, thereby ensuring that "the (hu)man" remains a discrete definition. This study begins as the bestiary does, with the Naming of the Animals. Illustrations of Adam as a king, bestowing names of his choosing upon tame beasts express a kind of nostalgia for a now-lost time when humanity was secure in their identity as non-animal. This security no longer exists in the postlapsarian world, nor in the bestiary images following these scenes. In an attempt to maintain the illusion of dominion, many bestiary illuminations forego simple descriptive images in favor of gory hunting scenes. However, these conspicuous declarations of dominion only serve to highlight the fragility of the physical form, and even demonstrate the frailty of the human (male, Christian) identity. One such example is MS Bodley 764's boar illumination, in which the animal is killed at the hands of male hunters. This thesis unpacks this image of dominion in order to reveal the associated insecurities regarding race, gender, and species that lie beneath the surface. Subsequently, the study turns to the many bestiary images depicting human bodies brutally fragmented within the jaws of an animal. Anthropophagous bestiary animals often carry fears of the gender and ethnic Other; despite the bestiary's posturing of order and hierarchy, both the human body and identity are easily consumed and subsumed into the ever-present animal/Other. Just as in life, the human figures in the bestiary struggle to establish unquestioned dominion, only to be constantly undercut by the abject. By using a psychoanalytic approach to the human bodies of the bestiary, this study will explore how this imagery reflects the ambiguous position and definition of the human.