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Transformation and Medieval Aristocracy: Werewolves, Lepers, and the King’s Body


Medieval writers of epics, histories, lives, and romances find a rich symbolism and significance in the way sovereign bodies change through time, disease, or injury, because the royal body is a source and figure for individual power and social organization. When a ruler’s body transforms, sickens, or ages, bodily instability becomes an opportunity to explore problems of authority and physical force. However, despite the appearance of bodily instability, the core behavior and character of nobility remain unaltered or actually intensify. This study will consider texts that exemplify these ambiguous transformations and their unexpected benefits. These works – Beowulf, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanneae (The History of the Kings of Britain), William of Tyre’s Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum (History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea), and Sir Orfeo – stage the bodily transformations of rulers to explore the temporality of political authority.

Through these texts, we will examine two loosely defined but sometimes related and often overlapping concepts: physical transformation and disability. “Transformation” is a purposefully imprecise term because it needs to cover many variations of change. Some transformations are natural and foreseeable, such as age. Other forms of physical alteration, less natural and predicable than the changes brought by age, are transformations into bodies that are either more than or less than human. In the category of more than human are giants and berserkers. Among the less than human are dragons and werewolves.

I will also be considering the changes brought by disability or illness. Though having a chronic illness such as leprosy is very distinct from having an alternate physical interaction with the world such as being mute, lame, or blind, they share in common some of the issues I will be exploring. This project seeks to test the “edges” of medieval disability, moments when the concept of disability is reversed. Often a perceived or expected disability or illness turns out not to be a disability at all, especially in royal and aristocratic circles. As we shall see, for some kings, impairments almost seem to be an advantage, enhancing their ability to inspire and encourage their followers.

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