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Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries

Just like we do today, people in medieval times struggled with the concept of human exceptionalism and the significance of other creatures. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the medieval bestiary. Sarah Kay’s exploration of French and Latin bestiaries offers fresh insight into how this prominent genre challenged the boundary between its human readers and other animals.

Bestiaries present accounts of animals whose fantastic behaviors should be imitated or avoided, depending on the given trait. In a highly original argument, Kay suggests that the association of beasts with books is here both literal and material, as nearly all surviving bestiaries are copied on parchment made of animal skin, which also resembles human skin. Using a rich array of examples, she shows how the content and materiality of bestiaries are linked due to the continual references in the texts to the skins of other animals, as well as the ways in which the pages themselves repeatedly—and at times, it would seem, deliberately—intervene in the reading process. A vital contribution to animal studies and medieval manuscript studies, this book sheds new light on the European bestiary and its profound power to shape readers’ own identities.

232 pages | 28 color plates, 28 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Art: European Art

History: European History

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory, Romance Languages

Medieval Studies


“Extraordinary . . . . Not a word is wasted . . . . This is clearly a book that has set a new mark of excellence in a buoyant field and will be the obligatory reference on the topic for a very long time to come.”

French History

"Exceedingly well researched and organized, and richly illustrated with twenty eight color plates and numerous black-and-white reproductions from illuminated bestiary manuscripts, Kay’s close readings of bestiary texts, images, and parchment will be of tremendous interest to students and scholars from a wide range of disciplines, including medieval studies, manuscript studies, animal studies, and skin studies." 

French review

“This book represents a substantial achievement in the study of medieval literature in French and Latin, but readers trained in other national literary traditions and with an interest in the developing field of animal studies and contemporary critical theory will find much to admire in this study of bestiaries.”


“Whatever we thought about bestiaries before reading Sarah Kay’s Animal Skins, her tour de force of philology and philosophy offers new insights into the genre… Thanks to skillful melding of material philology, philosophical anthropology, and ecological perception, Kay’s mix of medieval and modern approaches breathes new life into bestiary studies.”


“This beautifully illustrated book brilliantly shows how medieval Latin and French bestiaries thoroughly impacted a wide range of readers both via the content of the texts themselves and via their transmission as parchment books. The bestiaries’ clever interplay between their many textual references to skin, and the fact that their pages are themselves instances of skin, helped readers shape their own identity as human and/or animal and reflect on their relationship with other animals.”

Sophie Marnette, University of Oxford

Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries is quite simply a tour de force. Kay, one of the foremost Occitan and French medievalists in the world, has chosen to write a book about bestiaries, a medieval genre that extends from the early Christian era to the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. The originality of this study resides in its astute assemblage of an astonishing variety of medieval and modern discourses revolving around these works and, most centrally, the manuscripts that have transmitted them. Never have all of these aspects been brought together so convincingly with respect to a single cultural and literary phenomenon such as the medieval bestiary.”

David Hult, University of California, Berkeley

“I know of no book in animal studies, medieval studies, or manuscript studies that does what Kay’s book does: no such text in recent years—and indeed, recent decades—has visited the archives with anything like her thoroughness. Through Kay’s methods, Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries calls on medievalists to do more with manuscripts and attests to the value of hands-on study in an era of mass digitization.”

Karl Steel, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries is an innovative analysis of how medieval bestiaries are apprehended by their readers—visually, intellectually, and emotively. Kay’s focus on skin works brilliantly to link the bestiaries’ literal and figurative content to its material expression on animal parchment. Kay intersects postmodern theory, animal studies, and manuscript studies in a rich array of close readings.”

Susan Crane, Columbia University

"The aim of the book is to explore how bestiaries may have shaped their readers' sense of the relationship between themselves and other animals. This exploration is done by not only studying the texts but also the pages on which the texts are written, pages that are made of parchment, i.e. animal skin. Sarah Kay calls her method for this project 'close reading' (17) which is an apt description when one realises that she also 'reads' the page: i.e., she pays close attention to everything that can be seen, not only the written text, but also illustrations and remarkable aspects of the parchment itself. This combined attention to abstract and material aspects of bestiaries makes this study really remarkable."

The Medieval Review

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Conventions Used in This Book

Introduction: Skin, Suture, and Caesura
1 Book, Word, Page
2 Garments of Skin
3 Orifices and the Library
4 Cutting the Skin: Sacrifice, Sovereignty, and the Space of Exception
5 The Riddle of Recognition
6 Skin, the Inner Senses, and the Soul as “Inner Life”
Conclusion: Reading Bestiaries


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