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Human/non-human: Gender dynamics and the female/animal condition in medieval culture

Human/non-human: Gender dynamics and the female/animal condition in medieval culture

By María Beatriz Hernández Pérez

Paper given at the 1st Global Conference, Femininity and Masculinity (Warsaw, Poland, 2011)

Abstract: The “question of the animal” has recently challenged the anthropocentrism of the western philosophical tradition, by regarding humans and animals as basically non-distinct species. The dissolution of the frontiers between these two realms, however, was a common motive in ancient cultures, where primeval bonds between animals and humans were taken for granted. Classical, as well as Germanic, Celtic and biblical contributions turned the Middle Ages into a most peculiar cradle for our current consideration of this relationship. Legatee to quite diverse and even contradictory perspectives and aspects of such connections, the Middle Ages produced a concomitant complex net of categories from which these dynamics were to be surveyed. The ubiquitous presence of the animal element is shown clearly in medieval literary and artistic representations as evidence of its crucial role in the shaping of perceptions of sexuality, food, natural sustainability, property or governance. If the Genesis master narrative substantiates the basic divide separating beasts from men, the role of women in the myth remains, however, a controversial issue. The cultural construction of gender allowed a short distance between the animal and the female conditions, given the essential material and reproductive values they were equally endowed with. Processes such as hybridation and metamorphoses reveal the ambiguous space occupied by women’s bodies as intermediaries between culture and nature, and thus, as marginal destabilizing elements in the configuration of the boundaries between the human and animal spheres. This paper will analyze some of the medieval representations of the female element in its proximity to the animal nature in order to reflect on the relationship between the social construction of women and the oppression of animals. Departing from contemporary concern in authors like Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, Calarcos or Haraway, the paper will not only reflect on the visual and metaphoric quality of the images but also insist on the broadening of this symbiotic tandem –women/animals—as prefiguring some of the contemporary attitudes to and representations of femininity.

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