The Word and the Flesh

The last couple of weeks I have been reading one of the most fascinating books that the treasury called the library of humanities of the University of Bergen has offered me: “Animal Skins and the Reading Self in medieval Latin and French Bestiaries” by Sarah Kay (2017).

This is a study “undertaken”, according to the author, “in order to explore how a widely read and influential genre may have shaped readers’ sense of the relationship between themselves and other animals” (p. 149). Kay proposes that “the bestiaries’ impact will have been twofold, operating both through the content of the texts themselves and through their transmission as parchment books”, and she further argues that “these two factors are consistently sutured one to the other via textual references to skin and because of the fact that the pages themselves are instances of skin” (idem.). Thus, sutured may also be humans and animals, through the surface of the parchment pages, which mirror both the exterior feeling of the skin, shared both by humans and animals, and what is hidden below the skin, to the depths of the soul. The last dimension is reached through metaphors, similitudes and the theologization of the otherwise natural-sciences specific descriptions of the beasts populating the contents of these medieval books.

A superb example of the suture of the categories of content and surface of page can be found in the chapter on the Hydrus and the Crocodile. The Hydrus is a serpent-like beast that “smears itself with mud”, from the Nile where it lived, “then creeps into a sleeping Crocodile and devours it from the inside by chomping through its entrails; allegorically this refers to the incarnation of Christ and the harrowing of Hell” (p. 52). In relation to a depiction of this violent symbolic penetration from Philippe de Thaon’s bestiary preserved in the Royal Library of Denmark, Copenhagen, Kay explains:

“The artist has threaded the Hydrus through the Crocodile with care and deliberation. Although the streams of blood from its exit and entry points indicate the lethal effects on Crocodile of the Hydrus’s progress, the overall impression remains – or it seems to me – more decorative than traumatic. What makes the “hide of the flesh” appear as such on this page is not its representation in the image but the margins of the page itself, the long sewn up tear in the top right hand margin of fo. 21r producing an emphatic parallel to the holes bored by the Hydrus in the Crocodile … The teaching that impresses itself on the reader’s mind is borne in this manuscript by a skin that can be identified with the “hide of the flesh” of the Hydrus and the harsh hide of the Crocodile. And because it expresses her own human “hide of the flesh”, filling it with thoughts that are assumed as hers, the hide of the page appears in some sense as the reader’s own skin. She herself and not the Crocodile are to be pierced and internally consumed by the incarnate Christ.” (p. 59)

It is this focus on the skin made parchment and its participation in the violence, the fragility, the mortality shared by the animals depicted and the human reader, that primarily attracted my attention on the work of Kay. I was subsequently intrigued by the distinction she makes between what Martha Rust in her work Imaginary Worlds in Medieval Books (2007) has called “codicological consciousness”, namely the “awareness on the reader’s part of such aspects of book production as ordinatio (expl.: the structural arrangement of a book’s parts) and the quality of illustration” (p. 142), and Kay’s own advocacy for “a codicological unconscious in which reading can be subject to contingent interference from the look and feel of the page itself” (idem.)

Consequently, all through her work, Kay proposes that the cuts, holes and mendings on the parchment pages are used and/or made consciously by the scribes in order to awake in the unconscious of the reader, feelings and sensations related to the nature of the “beasts” described and depicted in each chapter. And this is where my interest became a fascination to discern a conscious effort of the scribes, whose works from Nubia I study, to awake codicologically an unconscious relation between their readers and the page as surface and content.

These days I am trying to finish up a new edition of the British Library Sahidic manuscript Or. 6804 (no. 80 in Layton’s catalogue), together with my dear colleagues Christian Bull from the University of Oslo and Nikolaos Kouremenos from the University of Athens. The manuscript contains the Book of the Resurrection of Christ by the Apostle Bartholomew. This manuscript was destined for an unidentified Nubian site and is thus very interesting for my post-doctoral research on Religious Literature from Christian Nubia; and it is interesting for this blog post, since it presents tears and mendings on two folia, nos 8 and 10, which were made before the scribe copied the text, since the letters move around these page-scars. Now, in the colophon of this manuscript the scribe proudly states that it is himself who prepared the parchments, and I had always considered this statement at best as a paradox given such poor result on a couple of pages, at worst as an indication that the scribe, either a Nubian or working for a Nubian client, was not that professional with the art of making parchment, binding sheets into quires, creating precious codices. But how could that be if the skins needed to make a codex meant that many animals had to be slaughtered and time and effort invested, making the whole venture a very costly one? Reading Kay’s book, I realized that the scribe of the BL manuscript made this statement fully aware of its significance: that just like the content of the work was carefully copied and nicely decorated (aspects that will be discussed by our publication with Christian and Nikos), equally carefully were the pages selected, equally nicely were they made part of a well-calculated codicological product. If this was the case, then the use of the sheets with the tears on folia nos 8 and 10 might also have been calculated. Could it possibly be the case that the scribe of the Bartholomew manuscript was operating based on similar codicological consciousness, and was awakening a similar codicological unconscious in his readers, as Kay discerned in the relation between scribe and readers of the medieval Latin and French Bestiaries she studied? I had to turn to the text itself.

BL 80 fol 8r

The recto of folio 8 contains a hymn to Mary, the mother of Jesus; a blessing that her son addresses right before ascending to the heavens. As the text runs towards the end of the page, we read the promise given by Jesus to his mother that she will be with God after she’s left her body: “And your body, I will make the Cherubim with the sword of fire keep watch over it, and twelve hundred angels will also keep watch over it, until the day of my appearance and my kingdom”. So, at the place where a cut in the parchment is mended, a promise is given that Mary’s body will be guarded, preserved, venerated. Here, according to Kay’s analysis, the reader’s mind should recognize the corporality of the page. Then, if the scribe, who also made the codex, was indeed aware of where he was placing each parchment sheets, in the case of the mended folio 8, he made an excellent choice: the reparation of the cut in the lower-right corner reminds the vulnerability of the human nature and the need for protection by superhuman agents. Moving from the suture of human and animal in the bestiaries, in the Book of Bartholomew we see the hide of the flesh suturing the human and the divine; an act appropriate for the person who united the divine and human natures through the miracles of her Immaculate conception and the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, according to the theology our scribe.

Turning to the verso of folio 8, we follow Mary bringing the good news of the Resurrection to the Apostles, who praised her. Then, we return to the image of the ascending Christ. The folio contains the end of the scene with Mary, and the focal point is her holy body, her blessed womb, and the praising she receives as the last act of Jesus before leaving his earthly state. The focus on the body and womb that brought Christ among the humans is accentuated by the skin surface marked as a carrier and marker of humanity. Kay’s paradigm seems to work perfectly here.

BL 80 fol 10v

Folio 10 contains the first hymn of the angels in honor of Jesus who forgave Adam through his crucifixion and thus saved him and “all his sons”. Interestingly, the framed explicit of the hymn characterizes the son of God as “our perfection”. The text in the rest of the verso exhibits rich red-color decoration of all the letters pi for the definite article in the expression p-eoou (the glory), the element which opens each phrase (verse?) in the hymn to Jesus (“glory to you the good shepherd, Amen; Glory to you, the …”). In this manner, the contents of the page are invested with sacrality, as has been observed in several occasions for the use of red ink in Nubian manuscripts. At the same time, the folio is marked by a mended cut, shorter than the one of folio 8, but clearly visible and again present before the scribe copied the work. Does this cut remind the readers of the imperfection of their own nature? And does the scribe underline his humbleness in front of the glorious miracles he describes in his manuscript? Can it thus be that the scribe consciously placed this scarred page here in order to awaken in the unconscious of his readers the distance between the earthly world of the skins and the world of the heavens where everything finds its perfection?

These ideas are nascent and perhaps speculative, but they are rendered probable through comparison with the ways Kay understood the content and form of the Latin and French bestiaries she studied. Kay’s work offers us one more plausible insight into the world of codicological consciousness and unconscious, an insight related with the topic of the work itself, which was proudly presented by our scribe to his Nubian clients, namely the Book of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by Bartholomew the Apostle; a saint that martyred during his apostolic work in Armenia by being flayed and then crucified head downwards.

Byzantine mosaic from the Basilica of Saint Marc in Venice depicting the flaying of Saint Bartholomew

The flaying of Bartholomew inspired one of the first attempts by Sarah Kay to investigate the possibility that “the wounds in the parchment may have been seen as a graphic realization of the text’s content, an uncanny precipitate of its ideas in concrete form” (Sarah Kay, “Original Skin: Flaying, Reading, and Thinking in the Legend of Saint Bartholomew and Other Works“, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36.1 (2006), pp.  35-73; the citation from p. 36). Is it just a coincidence that we have discerned similar ideas in the Copto-Nubian literacy in precisely the manuscript that preserved the longest version of one of the works attributed to this specific Apostle?

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