Flayed Skin as objet a

Representation and Materiality in Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pèlerinage de vie humaine.
  • Sarah Kay
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In this essay I use allusions to flaying in a late medieval didactic text as a means of purchase on current preoccupations with representation and materiality in medieval studies. These preoccupations often—as this volume attests—converge in the study of clothing, which can be read both as an instance of material culture and as a metaphor of its representation.l My aim is to offer a different perspective by shifting attention from garment to skin, and from undressing the body to flaying it.2


Dialectical Materialist Cardinal Virtue Medieval Study Dead Skin Current Preoccupation 
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  1. 1.
    See most importantly E. Jane Burns, Courtly Love Undressed: Reading Through Clothes in Medieval French Culture (Philadelphia: University of Penn Press, 2002).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. A fine study which writers on mainstream literature might overlook is Jean-Charles Huchet, “Le Roman mis à nu: Jaufré,” Littérature 74 (1989): 91–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 2.
    The theme of flaying remains relatively unstudied in medieval literature, but see W R. J. Barron, “The Penalties for Treason in Medieval Life and Literature,” Journal of Medieval History 7 (1981): 187–202 and, on the iconography of Cambyses, Hugo van der Velden, “Cambyses for Example: The Origins and Function of an exemplum iustitiae in Netherlandish Art of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries,” Simiolus 23 (1995): 5–39. I intend to pursue research in this area.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 3.
    J. J. Stürzinger, ed., Le Pèlerinage de vie humaine de Guillaume de Deguileville, (London: Nichols, 1893). All quotations and references are from this edition. The subsequent volumes in the trilogy are Le Pèlerinage de l’ame and Le Pèlerinage Jesu Christ. Deguileville’s name is spelled in a variety of ways and I follow the editor’s usage.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    The second version remains unpublished, but was translated/adapted by Lydgate. Deguileville’s other best-known reader is Chaucer, whose ABC poem to the Virgin is imitated from the Pèlerinage de vie humaine. On the manuscripts, see Michael Camille, The Illustrated Manuscripts of Guillaume de Deguileville’s “Pèlerinages,” 1330–1426, Ph.D. thesis (Cambridge University, 1985) and Master of Death: the Lifeless Art of Pierre Remiet, Illuminator (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996). On Chaucer as reader of Deguileville, see Helen Phillips, “Chaucer and Deguileville: The ABC in context,” Medium Aevum 62.1(1993): 1–19.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    See C. de Hamel, Scribes and Illuminators (London: British Museum Press, 1992), pp. 13–15;Google Scholar
  7. Gerhard Moog, “Haüte und Felle zur Pergamentherstellung. Eine Betrachtung histologische Merkmale,” in Pergament. Geschichte, Struktur, Restaurierung, Herstellung, ed. Peter Rück (Sigmaringen: Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 1991), pp. 171–81.Google Scholar
  8. See Slavoj Žižek, “Da Capo Senza Fine,” in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 237–38 [pp. 213–62].Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    Jean Pépin, “Saint Augustin et le symbolisme néoplatonicien de la vêture,” in Augustinus Magister. Congrès international augustinien, Paris, 21–24 septembre 1954 (Paris: Etudes Augsutiniennes, 1955), 1:293–306, shows that this process of regress is already present in Augustine’s conception of the body as the clothing of the soul, since that clothing is always already double.Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    Didier Anzieu, The Skin Ego, trans. Chris Turner (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 40. Previously, Anzieu has explained that “[t]he development of a Skin Ego is a response to the need for a narcissistic envelope and guarantees the psychical apparatus a sure and continuous sense of basic well-being” (p. 39). Anzieu, initially a student of Lacan, dissociated himself from him and attached himself instead to the English school of post-Kleinian object-relations theorists.Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    Keith Busby, Codex and Context: Reading Old French Verse Narrative in Manuscript (Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, 2002).Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    For this discussion of the commodity in the first chapter of Marx’s Capital, see Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), pp. 11–28.Google Scholar
  13. 22.
    Louise Fradenburg, “‘So that we may speak of them’: Enjoying the Middle Ages,” New Literary History 28.2 (1997), p. 218 [205–30];CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Sarah Kay, “Analytical Survey 3: The ‘New Philology,’” New Medieval Literatures 3 (2000), pp. 316–20 [295–326].Google Scholar
  15. 24.
    Jacques Lacan, Ecrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966), p. 835.Google Scholar
  16. 26.
    Juliet Fleming speaks of this “uncanny” two-dimensional character of skin in “The Renaissance Tattoo,” Res 31 (1997): 38–9 [34–52].Google Scholar

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© E. Jane Burns 2004

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  • Sarah Kay

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