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The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature$
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Dorothy Yamamoto

Print publication date: 2000

Print ISBN-13: 9780198186748

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198186748.001.0001

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The Wild Man 1: Figuring Identity

The Wild Man 1: Figuring Identity

(p.144) chapter seven The Wild Man 1: Figuring Identity
The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature


Oxford University Press

Poised between two worlds, liminal between the known and the unknown, the figure of the wild man brings to a head questions about the dividing line between animals and humans. The Giant Herdsman in Chrétien's Yvain reflects the putative ugliness of ‘peasants’ back to a courtly readership, while other texts discussed, including Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, Mandeville's Travels, and the Prose Life of Alexander probe the vital question, ‘Is the wild man a man?’ (and therefore a candidate for salvation?). The iconography of the wild body is explored, particularly the motif of hairiness. It is argued that the wild man's hairy body stands at one end of a spectrum that extends the other way to the over-tended ‘fanne’ of Absolon in the Miller's Tale. In the ‘dressing’ of the wild man that happens in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight there is often deliberate play around his borderline identity.

Keywords:   wild man, Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, Sir John Mandeville, Life of Alexander, The Miller's Tale, hairiness

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