Splitting Hairs: The Creation and Dissolution of Boundaries in Thirteenth-Century French Literature
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Medieval authors often blur the boundaries between humans and animals in their works. In “Splitting Hairs: The Creation and Dissolution of Boundaries in Thirteenth-Century French Literature,” I study how medieval authors dehumanize people by inscribing bestial traits onto the human body via hair and hairiness in order to interrogate acts of self-definition, religious practices, social identity, and gender roles. The work examines a wide variety of literary and nonliterary texts of the thirteenth century including encyclopedias, medical treatises, hagiographies, romances, satirical poetry, and fabliaux. I explore how and why authors use the visibility, malleability, and shared human and animal quality of hair to blur boundaries between species. I argue that because hair encodes social meaning such as adherence to religious orders, marital status, or wealth, examining the context under which such manipulations occur will reveal an interrogation of larger socio-cultural questions of religion, social class, and gender.
Chapter one studies Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ De proprietatibus rerum and Aldebrandin de Sienne’s Regime du corps to show how medieval intellectuals defined hair in scientific discourse and how it troubled human acts of self-definition. The chapter concludes by illustrating how these intellectual concerns surrounding hair question the nature of the protagonists as male or female, human or beast, in Heldris de Cornouaille’s contemporaneous romance the Roman de Silence. The second chapter shows how animal traits can be written on the saint’s body through abnormal hair growth in Rutebeuf’s Marie l’Egyptienne and the anonymous Robert le Diable. The animal presence in these texts creates a devotional space for wild saints which questions whether sacred pursuits are compatible with life in society. Chapter three examines how animal hides blur the boundary between humans and animals in Guillaume de Palerne, and how the transformation of these hides into clothing via human engien, or ingenuity, both reinforces noble identity and sovereignty, and questions the innateness of that identity. Finally, chapter four studies how Jean de Meun’s continuation of the Roman de la Rose, the anonymous Dit des cornetes, and the fabliau Tresces inscribe animal traits onto women’s styled hair to dehumanize them. Poets use this animal discourse either as a justification for male domination of women, or as a means for women to play a more active role in love pursuits, thereby dominating men.
This work shows that even a subtle, linguistic animal presence in medieval works can reflect a changing society. By studying how thirteenth-century French authors use hair to impose bestial traits on human characters, this work demonstrates how texts which are sometimes dismissed as frivolous, moralistic, or misogynistic, in fact engage deeply in the broader religious, political, and social discourses of the thirteenth century.
Chair and Committee
Tili Boon Cuillé, Seth Graebner, Jessica Rosenfeld, Harriet Stone,
Thompson, Cassidy Devon, "Splitting Hairs: The Creation and Dissolution of Boundaries in Thirteenth-Century French Literature" (2018). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1592.
Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/K7MW2GMD