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WHILE SARAH KAY's previous books focused on the ways in which political structures or figures of thought were expressed through a range of literary genres and manifestations, the most recent monograph we explore in this volume turns to the materiality of the pages on which medieval literature is written: skin. Kay's work has consistently attended to the idea that there is more than text in any discussion of medieval textuality; the figure she uses to do so in Animal Skins is the suture – a term borrowed from Slavoj Žižek – to indicate the moment at which ‘the distinction of levels between content and medium on which reading normally relies is momentarily suspended, with uncanny effect’ (5). A suture is also the stitching together of skin to repair a wound: the figure of the suture in Kay's work, then, becomes a suture itself – as it refers both to the material reminders of physical fragility upon which medieval literature is inscribed, and to an often fleeting feeling of defamiliarisation, shock, or revulsion experienced by readers of that literature, as they encounter it via the medium of a parchment page displaying its origin as the flayed, scraped, soaked, stretched skin of a slaughtered animal.
The work of Animal Skins is heralded in a series of innovative articles, in which Kay explores in meticulous detail the implication and impact of the medieval manufacture of books – artefacts which transmit and represent human culture as a definitive mark of human superiority – from animal skin. In ‘Original Skin’, Kay relates the flaying of animals for parchment to the hagiography of Saint Bartholomew, who, according to legend, was tortured by being skinned alive: the skin that is removed is often represented in manuscripts as looking like a second body (50–2). This article is revisited in ‘Legible Skins’, as Kay refines her argument to point out the crucial difference between human and non-human skin in the ways in which modern and medieval readers may find their own embodied experience implicated in their encounter with texts inscribed on vellum. As Kay points out, ‘There are reminders everywhere’ in medieval literature ‘that animal skins are bearers of meaning that can be assumed by speakers of human language or by selves that at other times inhabit human bodies’ (Kay 2011: 17).
THIS VOLUME CELEBRATES the scholarship of Sarah Kay, one of the world's foremost scholars of medieval French. Kay's work combines methodological and theoretical rigour to explore medieval literary culture from new and challenging angles; her insights are always innovative and sometimes startling, and have played a major role in shaping our understanding of the field today. This introduction offers a brief overview of her career and publications in order to situate the essays in this book relative to her work. Not only has Kay's scholarship significantly shaped the field, the power of Kay's analyses and range of her materials are such that they attract audiences not usually attuned to medieval French literature. Therefore, and in keeping with Kay's publications, which address writing in Occitan, Catalan, Italian, and Latin as well as Old and Middle French and which maintain a consistent dialogue with other disciplines and periods, we aim to make this volume accessible to readers who are not specialists in medieval French literature, whether students of the French Middle Ages or advanced scholars in other fields.
Kay undertook her undergraduate and research degrees at Oxford, and a Masters degree in Linguistics at the University of Reading. At Oxford, she was taught by two inspirational women medievalists: Rhoda Sutherland, a remarkable teacher, and Elspeth Kennedy, a pioneering scholar of prose romance. Her first professional post was at the University of Liverpool, from where she moved to a university lectureship at Cambridge in the early 1980s. There, Kay became a Fellow of Girton College, where she later served as Senior Tutor (a major administrative post, involving responsibility for the education and welfare of the college's student population); she also undertook the role of Head of the University's Department of French. After two decades in Cambridge, Kay moved to Princeton in 2006 and then to New York University, where, as well as teaching and continuing to produce world-leading research, she held head of department and other influential leadership roles.
For this volume honouring Kay's scholarship, we invited twenty-four academics working across the disciplines of medieval studies to write in response to one of her six major monographs.