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In the Skin of a Beast

Sovereignty and Animality in Medieval France

In medieval literature, when humans and animals meet—whether as friends or foes—issues of mastery and submission are often at stake. In the Skin of a Beast shows how the concept of sovereignty comes to the fore in such narratives, reflecting larger concerns about relations of authority and dominion at play in both human-animal and human-human interactions.

Peggy McCracken discusses a range of literary texts and images from medieval France, including romances in which animal skins appear in symbolic displays of power, fictional explorations of the wolf’s desire for human domestication, and tales of women and snakes converging in a representation of territorial claims and noble status. These works reveal that the qualities traditionally used to define sovereignty—lineage and gender among them—are in fact mobile and contingent. In medieval literary texts, as McCracken demonstrates, human dominion over animals is a disputed model for sovereign relations among people: it justifies exploitation even as it mandates protection and care, and it depends on reiterations of human-animal difference that paradoxically expose the tenuous nature of human exceptionalism.

240 pages | 16 color plates | 6 x 9 | © 2017

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

Medieval Studies

Philosophy: Ethics, Political Philosophy


“In this book, McCracken demonstrates that she is truly the master of her craft: the narrative is lucid, textual and visual explications are thorough and probing. The entire analysis is firmly grounded in historical context backed with a strong theoretical framework. . . . This book serves as a model for how representations of animals and hybrids provide good catalysts for us to think with.”

“In this excellent book, Peggy McCracken subtly and persuasively argues that the marshalling of the non-human animal to construct human being and behaviour as superior, and human power as unassailable, is particularly powerful in medieval literature, which is normally written on animal skin, for the entertainment and enlightenment of aristocrats who are often depicted wearing animal fur. . . . Throughout her book, McCracken engages rigorously and generously with other scholars writing on medieval animal studies; the result is one of the most comprehensive and most compelling works on the reliance of the human on the animal in recent medieval scholarship.”

Medium Aevum

“Animals, whether actual or hybrids such as werewolves and snake women, are a puzzling presence in many medieval narratives. In this thought-provoking study of some dozen and a half predominantly French works from the 12th through the 15th centuries, McCracken (Univ. of Michigan) examines animals as a window on medieval ideas related to the notion of sovereignty. . . . Highly recommended.”


“Peggy McCracken’s In the Skin of a Beast . . . demonstrates that the ways in which medieval people thought or dreamed about animals, monsters, and hybrids goes to the heart of their ideas about humanity, subjectivity, gender, power, and society. . . . An important and valuable work of scholarship.”

H-France Review

“McCracken is one of the foremost scholars in the field, so it comes as no surprise that In the Skin of a Beast represents an insightful, polished, and original piece of committed scholarship. This book is a major accomplishment, a first-class example of expert political and literary analysis.”

William Burgwinkle, University of Cambridge

In the Skin of a Beast is more sophisticated and goes further than any previous discussion in demonstrating the centrality of animals to the medieval polity. McCracken offers elegant close readings of texts while presenting theoretical ideas with precision, great clarity, and above all considerable brio.”

Simon Gaunt, King’s College London

"McCracken’s work as a whole champions Homo faber, an artisan who creates fictions. . .a storyteller who takes precedence over Homo sapiens, the rational animal. Adventuring ahead with this argument for fiction’s crucial function in understanding the animal world. . .In the Skin of a Beast composes a major, significant chapter in recognizing other models of fraternity and kinship."

Helen Solterer | Speculum

Table of Contents

List of Color Plates
1. Wearing Animals: Skin, Survival, and Sovereignty
2. The Social Wolf: Domestication, Affect, and Social Contract
3. Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Sovereign: Skin, Heraldry, and the Beast
4. Snakes and Women: Recognition, Knowledge, and Sovereignty
5. Becoming-Human, Becoming-Sovereign: Gender, Genealogy, and the Wild Man

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