Jane Gilbert: Metamorphosis

My research into medieval literatures has for long moved into, out of, and around questions of metamorphosis, or the self’s radical transformation. Metamorphosis comes to the Middle Ages through three paths. It is the subject of one of the most famous poems by the Latin poet Ovid (43BCE-17/18CE), whose work medieval writers were obsessed with imitating, rivalling, and transforming. Rewriting metamorphosis in this mode was a prestige-winning act in a culture which wanted to be the equal of Greece and Rome. Metamorphosis also occurs in folk and fairy tales, in voices from cultural and social strata ‘below’ that of educated writers and courtly audiences. In this mode, it expresses the exoticism of land and people, the ‘other within’. Finally, Christianity: a religion whose central figure was a god transformed into a man encouraged dreams of radical transformation, of fallen angels and sinners become saints.

Medieval literary and artistic metamorphoses, therefore, yield rich, multi-layered, and ambiguous readings. People turning into animals or trees and vice versa figure the relations between colonisers and colonised, ‘civilised’ and ‘savage’, both in Europe’s marginal areas and at its very heart. They may also stand for the terrible deformations that sin performs on the sinner, for passion’s devastating or transcendental effects on the lover, or for the contortions of a writer faced with the pagan past’s troublesome glories. Metamorphosis tests and defines the boundaries of the Western human ‘self’ as subject and as object, as creative and as receptive.

In the final-year and MA course that I teach, ‘Metamorphosis: The Limits of the Human’, we read metamorphoses in medieval narratives and lyrics from a range of European languages, countries, and traditions. We investigate how modern ‘post-human’ or ‘post-humanist’ philosophical approaches (including the work of Deleuze, Derrida, Latour, animal studies, and thing theory) can throw light on medieval literature by such authors as Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Gower, Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Bernart de Ventadorn, Heinrich von Morungen, and Gerald of Wales, as well as the more common anonymous works. And, crucially, how the pre-humanist Middle Ages can turn an eerie, defamiliarizing gaze on our post-humanist world.

Medieval metamorphoses help us to see – and to see beyond – some of the ruts into which modern thinking has fallen. For instance: today the werewolf is almost our only ‘manimal’, but encountering the proliferation of hybrid medieval beings allows us to pose much more varied, and different questions about the sinuous distinctions-connections between human and animal. Or, we have become accustomed to thinking of Narcissus gazing into his mirror as alone, solipsistic: ‘narcissistic’. In medieval texts (and with older mirror technology), however, reflection explores how the self in love is transformed by and into the other, and how that transformation is both loss and gain. The vocal presence of Echo (following but transforming Ovid) introduces a spectator, another lover, and a poet (since rhyme ‘echoes’) into the scene. Far from being isolated, Narcissus always loves and dies within a network of relationships. Medieval metamorphoses inspire us, modern subjects, to look again.