The human animal: strange transformations in fourteenth-century Middle English romance

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2018-06-11

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Gutierrez-Neal, Paula Christina

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Abstract

This dissertation investigates fourteenth-century Middle English romances’ questioning of medieval definitions of the human and nonhuman animal. While the field of animal studies conceptually understands the redundancy in the phrase human animal, medieval thought focused less on a model of human and nonhuman animal and more often depicted a binary opposition of human against and above the animal. Largely set by the works of Thomas Aquinas, this prevailing medieval definition of the human defined the human as rational other animals as irrational and object-like. Yet certain romances revise the paradigm of the human as the rational animal in such a way as to undermine its presumption of human exceptionalism and reinscribe the human into the category of animal. The Middle English chivalric romance of the fourteenth century plays on and reinterprets its French and Anglo-Norman predecessors to emphasize a full reimagining of animal definitions. In demonstrating this phenomenon, this project first demonstrates the break down the definition of human as exceptional animal via rationality in Bevis of Hampton: chapter one examines the rational and affective portrayal of the horse Arondel and suggests said horse enters a state of becoming-hero. This dissertation then builds upon that fracture to exhibit a reversal of the hunter/hunted roles that further displace the human from its place in the species hierarchy in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: the second chapter explores the depiction of Sir Gawain’s courtly test as a hunting sequence all its own in which Gawain ultimately skins himself of his hide. The project then concludes by illustrating human and nonhuman animal definitions as based in performance more than divinely-granted exceptionalism in William of Palerne: chapter three considers how representations of transformed and disguised characters invite confusion between species categories through comedic playacting. This research implies that, at least safely within the fantasy of romance, fourteenth-century England exhibited a fascination with questioning contemporary paradigms and an unexpected freedom to imagine an alternative definition of human and nonhuman identity.

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