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Chapter 1 - Middle Ages

Chivalry and the Beast

from Part I - Literary Periods

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 October 2023

Derek Ryan
Affiliation:
University of Kent, Canterbury
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Summary

This chapter distinguishes two ways in which the Middle Ages conceived the relationship between human and nonhuman creatures. The first, according to which humans are a unique kind of animal (in the Latin word’s sense of “living being”), is available primarily to the learned, whereas the second, widely attested in lay usage and practice, concerns the difference (or lack of it) between humans and “beasts.” The chapter explores the complication of both relationships in the French and English romances of William of Palermo (late twelfth-/early thirteenth-century and mid-fourteenth-century, respectively), in which one aristocratic protagonist is turned into a werewolf and others disguise themselves in the skins of bear or deer. Human exceptionalism appears to condition the story’s coding of social dysfunction as animalization, but the romances equally show medieval aristocratic and chivalric identity embracing its proximity to “beasts,” for example, in the notion of sovereignty, in the symbolic languages of heraldry and dreams, and in moments of explicit self-identification. The chapter concludes by arguing that the way these romances build their fiction with reference to animals is materialized in the manuscript books that transmit them, made up as they are of parchment pages, that is, of processed animal skins.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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  • Middle Ages
  • Edited by Derek Ryan, University of Kent, Canterbury
  • Book: The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Animals
  • Online publication: 26 October 2023
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009300032.003
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  • Middle Ages
  • Edited by Derek Ryan, University of Kent, Canterbury
  • Book: The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Animals
  • Online publication: 26 October 2023
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009300032.003
Available formats
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To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Middle Ages
  • Edited by Derek Ryan, University of Kent, Canterbury
  • Book: The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Animals
  • Online publication: 26 October 2023
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009300032.003
Available formats
×