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Flaying in the Middle Ages

Larissa Tracy introduces the new book Flaying in the Pre-modern World: Practice and Representation

Depiction of Saint Bartholomew being flayed in a 13th century manuscript – British Library MS Royal 20 D VI f. 42

Skin is the parchment upon which identity is written. Class, race, ethnicity and gender are read upon the human surface. Removing skin tears away identity and leaves a blank slate upon which law, punishment, sanctity or monstrosity can be inscribed. Flaying strips away the means by which people see themselves or are viewed by others. Modern popular culture is fascinated with flaying — it often appears as a motif in horror films or serial crime dramas because, as Judith Halberstam writes, ‘[s]kin is at once the most fragile of boundaries and the most stable of signifiers; it is the site of entry for the vampire, the signifier of race for the nineteenth-century monster.’[1]

In the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs, the serial killer branded ‘Buffalo Bill’ by the sensational media dresses up in a patchwork of skin sewn together to make a ‘woman suit’; prancing in front of a mirror, he becomes ‘a layered body, a body of many surfaces laid upon one another’.[2] Frequently when flaying is employed in modern popular culture (though not in Silence of the Lambs) it evokes a sense of the medieval — or what is assumed to be medieval. Like torture, flaying is one of those acts that modern audiences generally prefer to locate in a distant past, the product of a less enlightened age. Thus, it is often — erroneously — enumerated as one of many ‘medieval’ horrors and it is used in fantasy and popular culture to evoke a particularly ‘medieval’ kind of atrocity.

In George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular modern fantasy series Song of Ice and Fire, a flayed man acts as a sigil for one of the more brutal houses. The HBO film adaptation, Game of Thrones, treats modern viewers to the display of banners adorned with a stylistic image of a skinless corpse. One of the more sadistic members of the House of Bolton, the illegitimate Ramsay Snow, delights in honing his family reputation by systematically flaying the traitorous Theon Greyjoy, piece by piece, until Theon has lost any sense of himself. Repeatedly in later seasons, viewers are witness to other bloody, skinless trophies of Ramsay’s sadism. In Song of Ice and Fire and its television adaptation, flaying is a medievalism that perpetuates a fantasy of medieval brutality and cruelty.

In the Middle Ages, the body was ‘the preeminent symbol of community’.[3] Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Jill Ross write: ‘Body was not only that which was most intimately personal and most proper to the individual, but also that which was most public and representative of the interlocked nature of the group.’[4] Abruptions and disruptions of the body begin with the skin — the locus for touch, for beauty and for reverence. Its removal or restoration, by any means, has inspired countless artists and poets to render it on canvas — as canvas — or in literature as a site for divine sacrifice or penal justice. Skin is imbued with power; its removal and reuse acts as a means of transferring power in certain shamanistic rituals, as transformative and purifying, while removing human skin in an act of judicial brutality, as a comic device or as a sign of spiritual sacrifice, leaves lasting impressions about the qualities and nature of humanity.

Composite woodcut print by Lukas Mayer of the execution of Peeter Stubbe in 1589 at Bedburg in Germany

Human excoriation often functioned as an imaginative resource for medieval and early modern artists and writers, even though it seems to have been a rare occurrence. Skin makes identity; its removal erases and excoriates that identity, or remakes it into something new. Yet the skin can be changed, marked for or with new meanings, especially in the case of judicial mutilation and ordeal. Monstrosity that is embedded in the skin can be removed with the skin as surely as monstrous identity can be inscribed by removing the skin, rendering the beautiful into something horrific. When beautiful skin is removed, the product is monstrous; when monstrous skin is removed, it yields the potential for beauty. It is this contradiction that informs medieval artistic and literary depictions of flaying.

Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. Some researchers speculate that Bragadin’s flaying provided the inspiration for this painting.

Flaying in the Pre-Modern World focuses on literal flaying, both human and animal — the act, the laws, the instruments, the implications, the representations, the reality — within the context of the Middle Ages. This collection includes studies on some of the most notorious episodes of flaying like the graphic execution of Peeter Stubbe, condemned as a sorcerer, sexual predator, serial killer and a werewolf to be beaten on a wheel, flayed, dismembered, decapitated and burned at the stake, the execution of Venetian Marco Antonio Bragadin, flayed by Turkish invaders of Crete and his skin stuffed with straw, simply for being an able general who refused to surrender, and debunking the persistent myth that Anglo-Saxons flayed their Danish enemies and tacked their skins to church doors.

Framed in the discourse of modern misconceptions and medievalisms, this volume explores literal skin removal from the eleventh century to the early seventeenth century, across a variety of cultures (Ireland, England, France, Italy and Scandinavia), interrogating the connection between practice and imagination in depictions of literal skin removal, rather than figurative or theoretical interpretations of flaying, and offering a multilayered view of medieval and early modern perceptions of flaying and its representations in European culture. Flaying was rarely used as a method of capital punishment in the medieval period; and when it was — either legitimately or illegitimately — the flayed body was an eloquent canvas on which the punitive excesses of the secular authority may be written.

To learn more about the book Flaying in the Pre-modern World: Practice and Representation, please visit the Boydell and Brewer website.

Buy this book from Amazon.com

1. Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996, rtp. 2006), p. 163.

2. Ibid., p. 1.

3. Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Jill Ross, eds., ‘Limits and Teleology: The Many Ends of the Body’, in The Ends of the Body: Identity and Community in Medieval Culture, ed. Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Jill Ross (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), pp. 3–21 at p. 3.

4. Ibid., p. 3.

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