The dragon’s skull: how can zooarchaeologists contribute to our understanding of otherness in the Middle Ages?

The dragon’s skull: how can zooarchaeologists contribute to our understanding of otherness in the Middle Ages?

By Aleksander Pluskowski

Animals and Otherness in the Middle Ages: Perspectives across disciplines, edited by Francisco de Asís García García, Mónica Ann Walker Vadillo and María Victoria Chico Picaza (BAR International Series, 2013)

Supposedly Dragon bones in Wawel Castle in Krakow, Poland – Photo by Nick Richards / Flickr

Abstract: Perspectives of the ‘other’ in medieval European society have been almost exclusively constructed and debated by historians, literary historians and art historians within medieval studies. The ‘other’ was defined, in part, through definitions of the normative. Within Christian theology, animals were separated from humans, although some were more familiar than others, and the true ‘monsters’ lived beyond the realm of individual experience; whether in a lake or some remote land. People who crossed these cosmic boundaries (or were perceived as crossing this boundary through their projected appearance or behaviour) were by definition ‘monstrous.’

Since zooarchaeologists are concerned with animals, conceptually separated from humans within medieval Christian society, they are well placed to contribute to our understanding of otherness. This paper explores how the study of animal bones, and the material practices associated with responses to other species, can build on the foundations of existing scholarship on otherness, alterity and monstrosity.

Introduction: In recent years, the notion of otherness has developed into an important area of enquiry within medieval studies, naturally dominated by the multiple expressions of the ‘other’ constructed and documented in written and artistic sources; the blurred spectrum from ethnic and social difference through to physical monstrosity and hybridity. Archaeologists have also contributed to our understanding of otherness, particularly through the study of burial rites in both the early and later Middle Ages, as well as the physical traces of minorities, particularly Jewish communities within medieval Christian towns. Visual and literary constructions of otherness in medieval Christian (as well as Jewish and Muslim) societies often employed animal metaphors in a process of graphic dehumanisation. If social differences were deliberately emphasised through the projection of animalistic characteristics, aberrant behaviour was readily associated in the minds of religious commentators with meat consumption and its related vices: gluttony and sexual promiscuity.

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