Fur/Flesh/Fabric: The Body, its Borders, and the (un)Limited Human in Medieval Literature

deadline for submissions: 
October 14, 2016
full name / name of organization: 
43rd Annual Medieval Colloquium at Sewanee: The University of the South

Fur/Flesh/Fabric: The Body, its Borders, and the (un)Limited Human in Medieval Literature[[http://medievalcolloquium.sewanee.edu/#Fur]] Organizer:Elizabeth S. Leet, Romance Languages and Literatures, Washington University in St. Louis (elizabeth.s.leet@wustl.edu)

Much medieval criticism concerning literary representations of human-animal relationships highlights the frequent interest of poets in the physical materia of these exchanges. However, human-animal interactions constitute only a fraction of the materialist concerns around which medieval poets crafted their literary characters. The fundamental attributes of literary characters—including but not limited to their religion, social status, moral conduct, occupation, and chivalric prowess—often manifest themselves in the materials that constitute and surround their bodies.

A critical tradition of materialism—and, by extension, feminist and ecological materialisms—endeavors to valorize the physical and concrete as vital components of theoretical enquiry and literary analysis. For example, Karen Barad imagines an “intra-activity” by which all beings experience an identitary imbrication with the materials in their environment. Likewise, Donna Haraway explains the porosity of human biology as the foundation of such hybrid identities: she explains the human body as a microbiome that adapts in response to its environment, as a contact zone around and within which materials and organisms meet. Stacy Alaimo’s posthumanist materialist term, “trans-corporeality,” also bridges the space between embodiment and nonhuman form, instead by offering a queer, posthumanist theory of objects as a means to assess textual meaning. All these theorists would seem to agree that, from the organisms with whom we cohabitate to the clothes we wear, our environments come to define us biologically, bacterially, and sartorially. They inhabit us just as we inhabit them.

Prefiguring these contemporary anti-essentialist arguments, material concerns influence the static descriptions as well as the agency of medieval literary characters. For example, the armor worn and deadly weapons wielded by Amazonian warrior maidens of the romans antiques advance their transgression of heteronormative femininity and rejection of maternity. Likewise, Marie de France explores material accessories as extensions of human agency in Bisclavret and Fresne. While her werewolf depends on his courtly garb to return to human form, a rich brocade and family ring also permit a nameless child to reclaim her noble heritage and resume her proper place in society. In these texts, armor, weapons, courtly clothes, rich textiles, and gemstones become extra-human prostheses that exemplify the influence of physical objects on the development of a literary character’s identity and the establishment of his or her agency. In addition to material objects that extend human agency beyond human bodies, the responses of human flesh to its environment may demonstrate the interior qualities of a literary character. For example, in the Old French saint’s Life Marie l’Egyptienne, the unyielding desert sun begets a physical transformation that accompanies the purgation of Marie’s sins. Like objects, the natural environment and its effect on human flesh exemplify the particular materialism of medieval poets who used their characters and their textual environments to explore the interactions between humans and the extra-human world.

Poets may use a character’s insulation from or vulnerability to the meteorological, geological vagaries of his or her environment to posit a particular, or peculiar, relationship between human life and societal, natural, animal, spiritual, or biological environments. Throughout medieval literature, the items used to alter, protect, or hide the bodies of literary characters become, in turn, expressions of human agency and components of the physical experience of human life. Each character’s materiality is an embodied, contingent, and relational aspect of their identity.

This panel welcomes abstracts for presentations that consider medieval literary representations of materials that border the human body. Papers might consider the places where the human ends and the extra-human world begins, the impact of the materials surrounding the human body on a literary character’s identity, the poet’s concept of a relationship between human and extra-human environment, or other literary explorations of materiality, identity, or environmentality.

Please send an abstract (approx. 250 words) and brief c.v. to me at elizabeth.s.leet@wustl.edu no later than October 14, 2016.