SEMA Abstract Submissions

The Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association at the University of Southern Mississippi to be held October 18-20, 2012 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Session title: Re-Membering the Monstrous Sponsor: MEARCSTAPA
Organizer: Larissa Tracy, Longwood University
Disarticulated bodies and separated members populate the Middle Ages in a variety of forms. From the cherished body parts of saints, to the reviled limbs of criminals and monstrous creatures, dismembered and reassembled bodies have a profound cultural significance throughout medieval Europe. We welcome abstracts of 250 words on any form of dismemberment, physical dislocation or separated members in medieval literature, art, language, law, history, or archaeology.
Please email abstracts of no more than 250 words, with a brief biographical note to Larissa Tracy:

From Animal to Meat: Illuminating the Medieval Ritual of Unmaking
Rebekah L. Pratt, Arizona State University

  Among the many sumptuous images of the late fourteenth-century hunting manual by Gaston Fébus, Le livre de la chasse  (Ms. fr. 616,  Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris), one particular illumination stands apart.  The portrayal of the breaking apart of the animal body seems out of place amongst the courtly scenes which decorate the manuscript. Perhaps not grotesque by our own twenty-first century standards, this image visualizes the unmaking or undoing ritual described in medieval hunting manuals and graphically depicts an animal skinned, dismembered, cut open and sliced into pieces by humans.
 Critical examination of the historical context and iconography of medieval unmaking images demonstrates their cultural significance.  In the twenty-first century, many prefer their animal flesh cold, bloodless and wrapped in plastic, no longer resembling the creature it once was.  This supermarket product is no longer an animal but instead has become what humans consume: meat. This transformation occurs through the taking apart of the animal body, which reduces the creature into unrecognizable pieces.  Medieval representations of unmaking  reveal the ritual served a similar purpose, to transform animal bodies into consumable flesh.

“The dismembering saint in Ireland”
Dr. Máire Johnson, University of Oklahoma
The saints celebrated in the written evidence of medieval Ireland are honored for many acts. Some of these deeds, such as healings, can readily be reconciled with an expected image of holiness. But what of a saint who is associated with the rending apart of human bodies? Indeed, throughout Ireland’s hagiographical texts can be found numerous instances in which holy men and women are linked with varying forms of dismemberment. Hands wither and drop off; heads are severed by rapidly-growing gangrene. In the most extreme instances entire bodies are sundered. Such harsh occurrences hardly seem consonant with the idea of a holy person yet, as this paper will show, the dismembering saint presents an object lesson in the power of God’s agent to not only restore the community of Christ but to expel those who are not properly part of it. Just as instances of hagiographical healing mark the saint’s ability to return to physical and spiritual integrity both the individual and the collective body Christian, so also accounts of dramatic disarticulation signify the saint’s severance of those who would injure the church and its members. Following models established in both canonical and apocryphal scriptures—sometimes with a uniquely Hibernian sense of humor—the Irish saint’s separation of the part from the whole thus makes manifest the threshold between healthy and harmful, believer and unbeliever, and sacred and profane.

Rachel McClain, California State University Long Beach

By their very nature, giants are simultaneously similar to, and markedly different from men. The monstrosity of giants is a function of extremes, both behavioral and physical, extremes that are easily traced to men, but manifested disproportionately in giants. In later Middle English chivalric literature, violence against giants is both sanctioned and expected, with a generally predetermined outcome: beheading. However, while giants are almost universally beheaded, there are instances when they are not, and I argue that instances in which lethal conclusions are avoided can reveal a new way of defining the rules for engagement with giants. Looking at a number of English romances from the end of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth centuries, I will show that the degree of monstrosity of the giant, and the space in which the battle takes place, work together to determine whether or not a giant is beheaded. Only if the giant is truly monstrous, or if the battle takes place in the wilderness is the giant beheaded. This only reinforces giants’ kinship to man, and conversely, their alterity when placed in environments outside civilization. Additionally, it governs a knight’s use of chivalric violence. While beheading giants is the rule in medieval literature, the exceptions have much to tell us about violence and monstrosity.

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