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Gender and species intersect in the subject-matter, readership, and authorship of medieval beast-books. First, androcentric norms result in inconsistent gender references to species: the grammatically feminine eagle (Aquila) is represented as a stern father, the masculine turtledove (Turtura) as a clinging wife. More broadly, male exemplars represent nearly all species regardless of grammatical gender.
Second, both discursive norms and bibliographic practice presumed an exclusively male readership for the bestiary, but external and internal evidence suggest that bourgeois mothers used bestiaries in educating their children.
Third, a more radical intervention in androcentric bestiary norms is an instance of female authorship. I argue that the four animal sections of Hildegard of Bingen’s Subtilitates diversarum naturam creaturm (“Subtleties of the different natures of creature”), or Physica, constitute a beast-book, structurally similar to Physiologus (the ancestral bestiary) but very different in effect. The animals in Physiologus are fundamentally textual; those of Physica are material. The telos of bestiary animals is human understanding and instruction; the explications in Physica concern bodily healing, supported by representations of interspecies analogy and reciprocity. The creatures of Physiologus are signifiers; those of Physica are agents. They are, moreover, gendered agents—predominantly gendered female, explicitly and by default. But they remain materially non-human. As an alternative to both androcentrism and speciest humanism, Physica offers genuine ecofeminism.
Hildegard of Bingen, Bestiaries, Bestiary, Grammatical gender
Copyright © 2018 Carolynn Van Dyke
Van Dyke, Carolynn. "Women and Other Beasts: A Feminist Perspective on Medieval Bestiaries." Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality
54, no. 1 (2018)
Available at: https://doi.org/10.17077/1536-8742.2110