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Marie de France’s Yonec: Sex, Blood and Shapeshifting in a Twelfth-Century Verse

Marie de France’s Yonec: Sex, Blood and Shapeshifting in a Twelfth-Century Verse

By Hannah Priest

Paper given at the 1st Global Conference: Magic and the Supernatural (2010)

Abstract: The twelfth-century Anglo-Norman poem Yonec tells the story of a young woman imprisoned by a jealous older husband. Scared for her life, the woman wishes for the intervention of a supernatural being who will love her and end her suffering. Although Marie de France does not use the word ‘fairy’, Muldumarec, the man who enters the woman’s bedroom, is clearly such a creature. His ability to transform fluidly between the bodies of hawk and man suggests that his identity is not bounded by any particular corporeal reality. However, it is in his transformation into the body of his lover that his potential for breaching boundaries is most fully realized. Not only does the fairy appropriate the physical form of the woman – being ‘lady’ and ‘knight’ simultaneously – he does so in order to take communion. The body of the woman, the identity of the fairy and the corpus domini become fused in what Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has termed a ‘transsexual moment’. Moreover, the emphasis on blood – in both the Eucharist episode and the subsequent murder of the fairy lover – suggests notions of transfusion and transference. Blood is more than a physical phenomenon in this narrative; it is a supernatural sign. The mobile circuit of identities facilitated by the flow of blood allows for us to read Muldumarec as both magical and divine. Although he is a ‘fairy’, he is also a Christ-like saviour, who dies for his mortal lover. These identity positions need not be read as contradictory. Marie’s poem presents its audience with a world in which shapeshifting is not only possible, but an intrinsic part of sexual and spiritual devotion.

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