The Form of the Formless: Medieval Taxonomies of Skin, Flesh, and the Human

  • Katie L. Walter
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In recent philosophies of the human, skin has been posited as the “ground of grounds, or the form of forms.”1 Open to the world, the skin is “readable”; it is that which inscribes the interior on the exterior and manifests the self. Didier Anzieu’s influential psychoanalytical theory, for example, understands skin to function as the background or screen against which the self emerges: skin is thus “a basic datum that is of both an organic and an imaginary order, both a system for protecting our individuality and a first instrument and site of interaction with others.”2 Number fifty-four in French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s Fifty-Eight Indices on the Body asserts: “The body, the skin: the rest is anatomical, physiological, and medical literature … But the truth is skin. Truth is in the skin, it makes skin: an authentic extension exposed, entirely turned outside while also enveloping the inside.”3 Coincident with the body, the truth-telling of skin, in Nancy’s terms, makes it the very stuff of discourse. Likewise, Steven Connor in The Book of Skin claims: “The skin is always written: it is legendary.”4


Mass Grave Menstrual Blood Black Skin Medieval Philosophy Medieval Literature 
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  1. 2.
    Didier Anzieu, The Skin Ego, trans. Chris Turner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 3.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Jean-Luc Nancy, “Fifty-Eight Indices on the Body,” in Corpus, trans. Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), p. 159 [150-60].Google Scholar
  3. 12.
    John Trevisa, On the Properties of Things: John Trevisa’s Translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum, ed. M. C. Seymour, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975–1988), 1:281.Google Scholar
  4. 42.
    For a discussion of the miniature, and for the observation that the baby lies on the altar (which is not immediately obvious), see Maidie Hilmo, Medieval Images, Icons, and Illustrated Literary Texts from the Ruthwell Cross to the Ellesmere Chaucer (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), p. 117.Google Scholar
  5. 43.
    Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), p. 228.Google Scholar
  6. 54.
    John Trevisa, The Governance of Kings and Princes: John Trevisa’s Middle English Translation of the De regimine principum of Aegidius Romanus, ed. David C. Fowler, Charles F. Briggs, and Paul G. Remley, Garland Medieval Texts 19 (New York: Garland, 1997), p. 216.Google Scholar
  7. 66.
    R. Dyboski and Z. M. Arend, eds., Knyghthode and Bataile: A Fifteenth Century Verse Paraphrase of Flavius Vegetius Renatus’ treatise De re militari, EETS o.s. 201 (London: Oxford University Press, 1936 for 1935), p. 14, ll. 369–75.Google Scholar

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© Katie L. Walter 2013

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  • Katie L. Walter

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