Monthly Archives: July 2012

Insides and Outsides: Blood, Hybridity, and Bodily Anxiety

By Esther W.

According to Kenneth Himmelman, “the body has been, and will continue to be, an important semiotic key to understanding any culture’s conception of the world” (198). In the early modern period, scientific and artistic practice reflected this concern via a shared obsession with depicting and defining the body. So what does early modern depiction of the body reveal about the collective social consciousness of early modern thought? As the title of this article suggests, early modern science and art literally depicted physical bodies, inside and outside. However, in depicting the literal body, early modern science and art also revealed its ambiguity. During the Renaissance, the body is thus both inside and outside definition.

Though images of women having sex with swans might seem a surprising method of representing bodily debates, early modern artists were fascinated with the myth of Leda and the Swan for this reason.  In the tale,  Zeus assumes the form of a swan and has sex with Leda on the same night that she consummates her marriage to Tyndareus, the king of Sparta. Leda conceives and gives birth both to the children of Zeus and those of Tyndareus (in some versions, the children of Zeus hatch from swan’s eggs). This myth was such popular fare that artistic imaginings of their sex and childbirth were reproduced in countless paintings, engravings, and even jewelry.  It is potentially useful here to consider that the swan is a feminized form, and that early modern laws surrounding lesbianism specifically criminalized sexual relationships between women that used penetration. Early modern scientific thought posited that, through the overheating of the blood, women could sometimes transform into men. Physicians also categorized this hybridity with distinct (and indistinct) terms. These women might be, “Female sodomites, tribades, hermaphrodites, or spontaneous transsexuals” (Traub 42). It’s clear that early modern scholars were pathologically concerned with the literal and figurative hybridity of the female body, which is reflected in the scene of Leda and the Swan. Depicting the female body in the act of sex and childbirth illustrates its literal liminality- It exists in hybridity, one can be both inside and outside its space. This hybridity is also figurative- through sex with the feminized swan, Leda’s body exists both inside and outside definition. It is simultaneously feminine and masculine, human and animal. The action of birthing complicated these categories further, as it was often equated with defecation.

While artists gravitated toward complex myths, early modern science debated the practice of corpse medicine, or medicinal cannibalism. In such cases, physicians prescribed “mummy” (embalmed human flesh) to be consumed by patients to treat illness (Sugg, 2078). Epilepsy sufferers were told to suck the blood of open wounds, and would line up after public executions to purchase and drink the hot blood of a freshly hanged criminal (Gordon-Grube, 407). Like Leda and the Swan, medicinal cannibalism also depicts the literal and figurative liminality of the body. Through the consumption of flesh, cannibalism blurs the physical distinction between inside and outside and between bodies. Corpse medicine also exists inside and outside figurative definition, blurring the lines between human and animal, life and death, health and poison, veneration and disgust.
In both the female body and corpse medicine, we find two examples of early modern body hybridity, as well as two sources of intense social anxiety. Liminal space, the absence of polarity and static category, freaks us out, and early modern art and science depicted the body as the ultimate liminal space. This body hybridity is also liminal in the response it creates- in the early modern period, the body was both a source of fear and of fascination.


Image: Bos, Cornelis. Leda and the Swan. Early 16th century. Engraving. British Museum.

Gordon-Grube, Karen. “Anthropology in Post-Renaissance Europe: The Tradition of Medicinal Cannibalism”. American Anthropologist. 90.2 (1988): 405-409. Print.

Himmelman, Kenneth P. “The Medicinal Body: “An Analyisis of Medicinal Cannibalism in Europe, 1300-1700”.
Dialectical Anthropology. 22.2 (1997): 183-203. Print.

Suggs, Richard. “Corpse Medicine: Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires”. The Lancelot. 371.9630 (2008): 2078-2078. Print.

Traub, Valerie. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.

A Brief Introduction Into Perrault’s Renaissance Tales

By Benjamin S.

According to Graham Seal, “Stories involving heroes and heroines, transformations, supernatural beings, and happy endings exist- and presumably have existed in most of the world’s many cultures” (460). Stories depicting transformations and supernatural beings date all the way before Aspeh wrote his Greek fables (Ca. 620-640 BC). However, as Seal asserts, a fairy tale is different from other forms of story-telling, and the form “is almost entirely an invention of Western literature” (460). Indeed, it was “in the seventeenth century that the story form we now recognize as the fairy tale began to be given its familiar shape, mainly, though not exclusively, by French writers Charles Perrault (1628-1703) and Comtesse d’Alunoy (1650 or 1651-1705)” (460).

Within the pages of The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Neil Philip’s introduction states that “the fairy tale could be defined as a story which the characters, by means of a series of transformations, discover their true selves the inner meaning of such stories cannot easily be explained or defined. Rather, they are full of possible meanings, which resonate with the experiences and the characters of teller and listener” (12). The original written set of fairy tales such as Goldilocks, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood are credited to the French Renaissance author, Charles Perrault. Perrault wasn’t the person who invented these stories, but he wrote down these oral cautionary tales as told by the public. In doing so, the author captured each tale as it was known by the public, and he did not rush or flourish his texts with literary spoils. However, at the end of each fairy tale, Charles Perrault would write a short moralité, or moral of the story, to address the reader as (s)he finished. These morals were composed of rhyming verses that would allow the reader to identify easily the meaning of each story (Perrault 12).

The picture above is a scene from Perrault’s story Little Red Riding Hood, as illustrated by Gustave Dore. In this illustration, a young girl is lying in bed with a wolf disguised as her grandmother before the wolf eats the small child. Little Red Riding Hood is a cautionary tale of seduction, and warning the reader of the perils that come with being misled by strange men. Story analyst Bill Delaney says that Little Red Riding Hood was told to young children to teach them “not to speak to strangers because you do not know what could be used against you” (71). Delaney speaks about Little Red Riding Hood, and her appearance. He mentions that Little Red is wearing a red garment, carrying a basket full of goods, and is riding a pony alone through a forest in the story. Delaney notes that these activities are uncommon for young girls during this time period, and this raises questions about whether Little Red is actually in a dream state. Delaney questions if the young girl’s dream-like demeanor is the cause of her nativity. Bill Delaney concludes that, if so, it’s no wonder that Little Red doesn’t listen to her mother’s advice of not talking to strangers, and gets eaten by the anthropomorphic wolf at the end of the story (70).


Image: Dore, Gustave. “Little Red Riding Hood.” Les Contes de Perrault, dessins par Gustave Doré. Paris: J. Hetzel, 1867.

Delaney, Bill. “Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood.” Explicator 64:2 (2006): 70-72.

Perrault, Charles. The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. New York: Clarions, 1993. Print.

Seal, Graham. “Fairy Tale Heroes.” Folklore: An encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art. Charlie T. McCormick and Kim Kennedy White. Vol. 2. California: Santa Barbara, 2011. Print.

The Threat of Feminine Power and Madness in Bruegel’s Dulle Griet

By Samantha P.

 In 1568, a book of proverbs  was published in Antwerp, containing the claim that “One woman makes a din, two women a lot of trouble, three an annual market, four a quarrel, five an army, and against six the Devil himself has no weapon” (Roberts). This proverb, especially when considered next to the Bruegel’s Dulle Griet (above), reflects a number of the concerns about women existent within the Renaissance population. Categories of human identification were arbitrarily defined, placing different bodies within a different status depending on by whom and from which angle they were examined. Renaissance art, especially paintings, examined some of these anxieties.

Notably Dulle Griet draws together an army of atypical women and a group of demons pouring from the mouth of hell. The figure of the demon is not only an entity related with an excess of feminine power, but, even more significantly, it is a being that crosses the lines between human and animal. Demons are generally pictured as humanoid figures with animal qualities in physical body, and they are strongly associated with witches–women who exchange sexual intercourse with these demons for otherworldly powers.  Dulle Griet, or “Mad Meg”, is a woman allegedly in possession of “otherworldly” powers. Bruegel’s central figure has been assigned several identities from Flemish folklore: the figure of Fortune, another the “personification of covetousness,” and the “quarrelsome woman”  (Sullivan, 55). She in undeniably masculinized, and is clearly surrounded by an army of demons at the mouth of hell.

In folklore, the figure was called “Gret Sauermal,” and she was a woman who argued with her husband and could visit the gates of hell only to come out unscathed, perhaps due to her shrewish and quarrelsome ways (Hagen, 182). She does not fall within the realm of proper womanhood due to her behavior, but is also masculinized through the wearing of armor traditionally made for men. Meg is not the only figure in the painting that rejects the expected roles for women, however. There are other Flemish phrases personified such as the woman tying the devil to a cushion, which means that the woman is brave, domineering, or both (Hagen, 182).

This becomes an issue of faith because of the use of demonic figures instead of simply using animals to represent a lower symbol of status as well as the use of powerful women. In reality, the men were the domineering ones, leading to powerful women being construed as witches. Craftswomen were ousted by their trades, and with advances of science, healing became a man’s pursuit. The women in this painting seem to be the personification of the anxiety that women might gain too much power and get out of hand. Remember, “No one causes more harm to the Catholic faith than the midwives (Hagen, 183).”

All of the women in this painting are acting outside of the expected realm of women. They exhibit a greater power, an elevation of self, not only above the men that should be controlling them, but above animals and animal-human hybrids as represented by the demons. These are the women that can march up to the mouth of hell and walk away unscathed. These are the women that can fight against the devil and win, giving the women in this painting a frightening power that upsets the already problematic definitions of human and animal, or even the status of different human bodies. There is no status in this image, only chaos at the hands of women with too much power.


Images:  Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Dulle Griet, circa 1562. (Currently exhibited at Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp.)

Hagen, Rose-Marie, and Rainier.  What Great Paintings Say.  Vol 2. Koln: Taschen, 2003.

Roberts, Keith. Bruegel. London: Phaidon, 1971.

Sullivan, Margaret A. “Madness and Folly: Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Dulle Griet.” The Art Bulletin 59:1 (1977), 55-66.

The Transformation of Suppressed Human Immorality

By Sarah W.

Within 16th and 17th century Renaissance cautionary tales, depictions of werewolves aid authors in questioning the extent of separability that exists between the human body and human soul. During my research, I explored what it means when human reason, intention, and identity can be temporarily hidden beneath an animal form, and to what degree early modern people believed that a transformed individual could still manipulate the animal body in which his human soul resided. If human consciousness were present during and after the transformation, then what does the human’s choice to willingly commit pre-meditated crimes against and within society inside of the animal body imply? To what extent does it illustrate suppressed, sinful desires of the human? If so, how does this blur the line that separates human from animal?

Renaissance literature ultimately portrays werewolf transformation as a way in which the immoral human can be punished by the “moral” human. Bacchilega states: “the werewolf or ‘manwolf’ embodies the proverbial peasant distrust of human nature” (55). Due to the difficulty of detecting a werewolf as a human, many focused on identifying the human as the werewolf instead: “Any neighbor or relative could be such a shape-shifter and turn dangerous” (Bacchilega 55). As a result, werewolves began to be associated with the “sub-humans” of society, such as criminals, murders, those possessing deficient levels of intelligence, or overly sexual females. According to 16th century alchemist-magician, Paracelsus, “if man has given way to his carnal and bestial cravings, then his phantasm is earthbound, in the guise of some terrifying and repellent animal – a wolf” (O’Donnell 13).

The poem of Lycaon in Ovid’s Metamorphoses illustrates this idea that an openly immoral human should be punished by “trapping” his sinful desires within an othered body. Hugo Goltizuis’s engraving, entitled, “Jupiter Changing Lycaon into a Wolf-Man” depicts Lycaon, king of Arcadia, who is suspected of committing evil deeds within his society. Indeed, he reveals his brutality by openly slaughtering a hostage and then serving his human flesh to the god Jupiter as a meal. Deemed a punishable act of cannibalism, Zeus retaliates by striking Lycaon’s palace with lightning, frightening him into the wild, where his werewolf transformation occurs.

The lines, “He fled in terror, reached the silent fields,/And howled…Foam dripped from his mouth; bloodthirsty still…/Yet he is still Lycaon, the same grayness,/The same fierce face, the same red eyes, a picture/Of bestial savagery” from Ovid’s poem imply a non-separability in the human soul and body during and after the transformation of Lycaon (Sconduto, 10). This reflection of animal as human and animal as human reveals a suppressed anxiety concerning human’s capability to commit sinful, “animalistic” acts within the human body. Otten states, “To admit the werewolf into human consciousness is to admit the need to examine the moral underpinnings of society” (15).

This study of Ovid’s interpretation of the werewolf illustrates that if the human is able to retain a human soul and consciousness within the animal body of the werewolf then moral-sensitivity is still intact. This is complicated by the fact that the animal does not possess the human brain’s higher-level of intelligence and reason that gives intention to murder, rape, or commit violent acts centered on motives of vengeance or greed. Therefore, my research has allowed me to uncover a human reluctance in acknowledging the evils in which the human mind is capable. Instead, the werewolf works as a body to hide what does not fit in accordance to society. Through the werewolf, the human is able to destroy and punish what he fears in himself.


Image: Goltizuis, Hugo. “Lycaon Changed into A Wolf.” 1558. Engraving. Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book I. Web.

Bacchilega, Cristina. Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

O’Donnell, Elliott. Werewolves. Wildside Press LLC, 2008.

Otten, Charlotte F. A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture. Syracus University Press, 1986.

Sconduto, Leslie A. Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity Through the Renaissance. McFarland, 2008.

An Unexpected Fairytale: “Ted” as a Modern Adaptation of “La Belle et la Bête”

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

When Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve published the tale of “La Belle et la Bête” in her 1740 collection La jeune américaine, et les contes marins, she joined in the tradition of adapting orally-transmitted fairy tales for print distribution.  Such adaptation (and, dare I say, appropriation) continues today, growing in variety as new media become available.  Villeneuve’s version of what is titled in English “Beauty and the Beast” has spawned multiple new texts.  And while the Disney Empire has laid popular claim to the story in film and stage-musical formats, it does not hold a monopoly.  Indeed, the tale at times gets fractured and reimagined, as is the case in Seth MacFarlane’s newly released “Ted.”

The origins of both Villeneuve’s Beast and MacFarlane’s Ted are magical.  While the Beast transforms from human to pseudo-animal as a result of denying the sexual advances of a fairy, Ted obtains anthropomorphic subjectivity following a child’s Christmas wish.  Much like the Beast, Ted possesses a blend of “civilized” and “animalistic” qualities that trouble his social status, and he clings to an at-times hesitant human companion to combat isolation. To say that John (Mark Wahlberg) is an unexpected Belle figure surely is an understatement.  But his good heart, and his desire to please the two cornerstone figures in his life—Ted and Lori (Mila Kunis)—suggest that he might just fit a role that was defined more by a “pure heart” than by physical beauty.  In addition, just as Villaneuve’s tale begins in an urban setting (unexpected at the time), “Ted” features Boston as its characters’ home base.

Clearly there are a number of misalignments between the two texts.  And some of the overlap seems circumstantial. Such is the case with cultural appropriation (as opposed to outright adaptation). The components that do link “Ted” to “La Belle et la Bête” evoke its participation in fairytale re-scripting. I would argue that, in this sense, “Ted” enters Villeneuve’s world from an experimental angle that dialogues with theories of gender, psychoanalysis, and class.  After all, the movie possesses residue of Villaneuve’s characters and spreads them inconsistently among its own figures, creating a fractured web akin to that which Freud describes in The Interpretation of Dreams.  The film further questions what occurs when a male child rather than a female one lives long-term with and feels affection for a human-animal hybrid—the hilarious result, in this case, is that John evinces more “uncivilized” qualities as each year goes by though Belle remained steadfast in her purity.  Finally, much as Villeneuve’s urban setting implied changes in class mobility and economic markets that could accommodate an emerging middle class with spending power, so too does “Ted.” The film’s concern with its Bostonian, northeastern, middle-class roots makes it accessible across markets, and it reveals that a powerful majority of consumers will buy (and lead to the success) of MacFarlane’s product.

The result of “Ted,” from this standpoint, is that it exposes the continuing cultural-subconscious role of fairytales in our own lives.  What’s more, it adds new, humorous, unexpected levels to the issue of what counts as “humanness.”

Given the speculative nature of today’s post, Performing Humanity invites work that continues the conversation and further explores these issues.


Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is an assistant professor of Early Modern and Medieval Literature at Ball State University in Indiana.  She is the editor of “Performing Humanity,” and her research emphasizes women’s roles in Stuart drama. Her work on women’s silence and disruptive compliance  in closet drama, masque, and commercial theater have appeared in The Journal of Narrative Theory, Studies in English Literature, and This Rough Magic. 


Images: (1) Scott Gustafsen, “Beauty and the Beast”  (2) Seth MacFarlane, “Ted”

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Empire Books, 2011.

Hearne, Betsey.  Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Lemire, Christy. “‘Ted’: So Cuddly, So Wrong, So Hilarious.” HTR News: The Associated Press (30 June 2012):

Villeneuve, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de. La jeune américaine, et les contes marins.  Paris, 1741.

Understanding and Relating “Daphne and Apollo” to Renaissance Literature

By Molly M.

There have been many instances of transformation within Renaissance literature. One well known example occurs is in William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Katherine’s psychological change within the play derives from Ovid’s tale of Daphne and Apollo. Within The Metamorphoses, humans were often transformed either into animal or vegetative forms, both causing the loss of a human body. As Tzachi Zamir points out, “The loss of a human body […] brings out the body’s singular significance for those what are changed and for those with whom they communicate” (Zamir 439). Daphne’s transformation into a tree shows the positive and negative effects of human transformation.

According to Zamir, the transformation of a person into a tree “results from an attempt to avoid intercourse’ (Zamir 444). This uncovers the reason behind Daphne’s transformation. Ovid’s tale of Daphne and Apollo is relatively straightforward, as “the arrows of Cupid, belittled by Phoebus, simultaneously incite the god to pursue Daphne and the nymph to flee, until appeals to her father Peneus change Daphne into the laurel tree” (Wills 143).

In Ovid’s stories “physical metamorphosis becomes an example of proper female behavior” (Liu 7). This is why when a woman in transformed within an Ovidian tale then the transformation is permanent. Aileen Lui argues that, “in cases when the girl herself is transformed of tries to resist the sexual advance, she faces exclusion from society” (Liu 7). When Daphne begs her father to alter her body to avoid the advances of the god Apollo, she ends up removing herself from human society. Once her transformation is complete she will no longer be able to possess her human body again. Her “active rejection of the god’s sexual advances, therefore, directly condemns her to an eternity of Otherness and utter lack of agency” (Liu 8).

Because Daphne’s transformation was in an attempt to defend herself from Apollo, her figure was “kept as close to living human beings as possible, while being removed from the sensible experience that could render them vulnerable to pain or undesired sex” (Zamir 444). So while she lost her status and agency as a human she still possess the somewhat appearance of a human. It would seem that the keeping of her appearance did not completely deter Apollo. Although he could not rape her, as she was in the form of a tree, she was still vulnerable to his touch and caress.

This tale allows us to see the benefits and consequences that came with human transformation. If it were not for the tales such as those contained within Ovid’s Metamorphoses many of the concepts that fall within the plays of Shakespeare and his affiliates would not exist. That is why reading and understanding these tales is so important when reading or studying Renaissance literature.

Liu, Aileen Y. “‘Am Not I Your Rosalind?’: Ovidian Identity and Transformation in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.” Scribd. 1 Dec. 2008. Web. 13 Feb. 2012.

Wills, Jeffrey. “Callimachean Models for Ovid’s ‘Apollo-Daphne'” Materiali E Discussioni per L’analisi Dei Testi Classici 24 (1990): 143-56.

Zamir, Tzachi. “Talking Trees.” New Literary History: A Journal Of Theory And Interpretation 42.3 (2011): 439-453.

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