The Body of the Virgin and the Body of the Beast: Reflections on Medieval Monstrosity

By Zimmerman, Susan | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

The Body of the Virgin and the Body of the Beast: Reflections on Medieval Monstrosity


Zimmerman, Susan, Shakespeare Studies


FROM THE TWELFTH through the fourteenth centuries, animals were a constituent and pervasive part of daily life in medieval Europe; indeed, it has been argued that in no period other than pre-history have man and animals been so intimately connected. (1) This intimacy, however, was anything but sentimental. On the contrary, it underscored a general apprehension that despite the categorical distinctions of Christianity, the animal/human divide was porous. (2) But if "medieval people felt themselves too

close to the beast," (3) as Michael Camille contends, they nonetheless gave vivid testimony to this contiguity in their art--in, for example, the highly imaginative animal masks and costumes worn for harvest rites and mummer plays. This distinctive mix of the familiar and the fantastical also typifies the primary literary locus for animal lore, the hugely popular bestiary.

Medieval bestiaries, newly developed from classical sources early in the twelfth century, are illustrated collections of ordinary, hybrid, and mythological creatures featuring allegorical commentary on the moral significance of each exemplar. (4) Compiled by monks, bestiaries found their way to all strata of medieval society, primarily through the preacher's exemplum, a standard component of the sermons of itinerant friars. (Salisbury 126). Certainly the explicit moral lessons of the bestiaries lent themselves to practical use. But the exotic amalgam of real and imaginary beasts had a less straightforward appeal: it conjured a sense of the otherworldly, a fantastical region in which animals took quasi-human forms, and in which ordinary bodily processes such as conception and digestion could turn the body against itself.

Interestingly, the emergence of the bestiaries coincided with that of the so-called Cult of the Virgin, an explosion of devotional fervor that catapulted Christ's mother to an exalted status of near equality with her son. Legends of the Virgin, disseminated through the same channels as bestiary lore, also had a kind of double identity. Whereas Mary's attractive maternal qualities were easily adapted to the pieties of the Christian faithful, her exemption from the bodily processes that enable maternity contravened ordinary experience. Thus Mary's sacred body, seemingly accessible in a wholly familiar avatar, was, at the same time, an unsettling conundrum.

What I would like to explore here is the affinities between medieval modes of conceptualizing anomolous bodies: on one hand, the creature bodies of the bestiaries, and on the other, the paradoxical body of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Specifically, I am interested in how the processes of reproduction and digestion figure in both contexts--how, in the medieval imaginary, the quasi-divine resonates with the bestial.

The Virgin's Body

Notwithstanding the scant information provided by the synoptic gospels about the Blessed Virgin Mary, stories originating in the apocrypha of her exemplary maternity and unrivalled access to her son were plentiful, ensuring Mary's ascendency as universal mother and as tireless intercessor for the Christian faithful. (5) But the apotheosis of the Virgin--manifest in art, hymns, processionals and pilgrimages--also intensified medieval preoccupation with the problematic crux of Christianity, the "monstrous paradox" (6) of an incarnated deity: that is, a God who is also a man, born--in a parallel anomaly--of a virgin who is also a mother. For medieval Christians, the patent unnaturalness of both these phenomena--linchpins of the Christian redemptive scheme--became a compelling preoccupation.

Further, Mary's maternity was not wholly separable from so-called blood piety, apparent, most notably, in depictions of Christ's brutal crucifixion, and in graphically literal interpretations of transubstantiation. The idea that the body and blood of Christ inhered in the Eucharist, to be ingested by the faithful in what Caroline Walker Bynum calls "symbolic cannibalism," (7) gave rise to numerous accounts of miraculously bleeding hosts and infamous Black Masses, often featuring the salvific intervention of the Virgin. …

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