Views and Reviews


Medieval Work in Progress: Dr Robert Mills on Medieval Art and the Question of the Animal

Wednesday, 5 June, 2013 by Ashitha Nagesh

Unicorn being slain from the Rochester Bestiary (London, British Library, Royal MS F xiii) folio 10v

Unicorn being slain from the Rochester Bestiary (London, British Library, Royal MS F xiii) folio 10v

Although given a rather moderate-sounding title, as soon as Dr Mills started speaking about the bestialisation of the human in the context of medieval torture and martyrdom images, the seminar on the 22nd of May, “Medieval Art and the Question of the Animal,” immediately became much more complex than initially expected (and for those of us with darker tastes, much more interesting too). Mills began by addressing theories of “Speciesism” and considerations of how violence is represented from the perspective of the animal, and deconstructed these ideas by considering what actually constituted “animal perspective” in the Middle Ages.

In this context, Mills looked closely at how animals functioned in a symbolic manner in the late medieval period, and how this informed the pedagogical functions of bestiaries, such as the Rochester Bestiary (BL MS Royal 12 F xiii) and another in the British Library, MS Harley 3244. This was but a springboard, however, for Mills’ exploration of animality within the category of the human. Drawing upon Aristotle’s claims that man is both beyond, yet also within the animal, and that “man is by nature a political animal,” he established that the distinction between “human” and “animal” is essentially porous – the foundation of his study of both animal and human slaughter in manuscripts. There were some beautiful examples of this – particularly in Leviticus 1 of the Bible Moralisée (ÖNB Vienna 2554, on folio 27r). On this folio was a richly illuminated, deep vermillion rendering of the flaying of a cow, with the corresponding moralisation equally graphically depicting the skinning alive of St Bartholomew. Here, the flaying of the cow was so vividly conflated with human martyrdom, and the torture of both cow and saint were represented almost identically. Similarly in another Bible Moralisée (Naples, MS Français 9561), the orientation of the humans and the animals undergoing torture was exactly the same, as well as the nature of the torture and the torment on their faces – an interesting revelation, considering the common perception of medieval attitudes towards animal rights. The martyrs are conspicuously dehumanised, heightening the effect of the torture, whilst the animals are simultaneously humanised. The porousness of the distinction is no clearer than here.

What I found most interesting, though, was Dr Mills’ idea of medieval books themselves literally representing the word-made-flesh – that the bloody, torturous image of the cow being flayed in Vienna 2554 vividly recalls the production of the parchment that the illumination is painted on; medieval parchment, also called vellum, was itself made from cow or calf skin. The parchment in this context becomes performative, and is an active component of the cow’s torture; “the violence on the page,” Dr Mills explained, “serves as an uncanny reminder of the violence behind the production of the page.”

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