Face Off: Flaying and Identity in Medieval Romance,

in Flaying in the Premodern World: Practice and Representation, ed. Larissa Tracy, 322–48 (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017).

By Larissa Tracy

Few forms of punishment are as brutal as flaying — literally removing the skin as a way of figuratively excising the crimes and the identity of the accused. Robert Mills explains medieval notions of skin as memory: ‘to flay someone alive would be to tear away the bodily surface onto which transitory memories and identities could be inscribed — only to fashion an etched parchment in its place (the dead skin), from which “timeless” moral lessons could be read’.[1] Flaying is a prominent medieval literary and artistic motif as this volume attests; it occurs most frequently in a variety of texts across the geographical and linguistic span of medieval Europe. In medieval romances like Cligès, Havelok the Dane and Arthur and Gorlagon, flaying features as a form of punishment, threatened or inflicted in the course of legal procedure, legitimate or illegitimate. It marks not only the bodies of those whose skin is removed, but also the reputations and identities of those who remove it. As a method of judicial interrogation or punishment, flaying leaves lasting scars even if it is not fatal — it generally precedes further abuse and execution. In Havelok, the skin of the criminal is removed to erase the royal identity that Godard sought to bestow upon himself by taking it from Havelok. In Cligès, Fenice’s skin will bear the marks of her identity as an adulteress even as she heals and is reunited with her heroic lover. In Arthur and Gorlagon, it is the fatal sentence for adultery and treason. Removing skin by flaying reveals a multitude of identities for the flayer and the flayed — tyrant or adulteress.

But skin removal is not always a form of judicial punishment. The Scandinavian, or ‘Viking’, fornaldarsögur — tales of mythical heroes equivalent to romances — Örvar-Odds saga (Arrow-Odd’s Saga) [hereafter ÖO] and Egils saga einhenda og Asmundar saga berserkjabana (The Saga of Egil and Asmund) [hereafter EA] include flaying episodes where the skin is removed in the heat of battle or in the fulfillment of a quest; the resulting scars are identifying markers of supernatural difference, not criminality or sanctity.[2] The mid-thirteenth century ÖO[3] draws upon flaying motifs from the Arthurian tradition, such as a cloak made from kings’ beards,[4] but adds another dimension to skin removal within the narrative when Oddr rips off the face of his demonic opponent. In the fourteenth-century EA,[5] the heroes encounter a skinless hag, whose face is pulled off in pursuit of a magical chessboard. But each flayed figure contradicts the assumptions of its scars as monstrous and either aids, or makes peace with, the central heroes. In most literary texts, flaying is a barbaric practice that casts aspersions on kingship as in the twelfth-century Cligès and the thirteenth-century Havelok the Dane. But in contemporary Viking romances, flaying is most often a motif that signifies the noble transformation of the character from monster to ally; excoriation creates new identities of reconciliation rather than punishment.

[1] Robert Mills, Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure, and Punishment in Medieval Culture (London: Reaktion, 2005), p. 68.

[2] There is another distinct genre of chivalric romances in the Norse tradition — riddarasögur — works ‘peopled by knights’ that are either adaptations of Arthurian romances or Icelandic imitations of them (Marianne E. Kalinke, Bridal-Quest Romance in Medieval Iceland [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990], pp. 6–7). But it is the specific flaying episodes of the fornaldarsögur that concern us here. While many of the magical aspects of the fornaldarsögur are stock motifs, flaying is relatively unusual. There is an analogue to the episode in ÖO in Orms þáttr Stórólfssonar, a family/legendary short story, where Ormr tears the skin off the ogre Brúsi’s face, but it is one of a series of injuries Ormr inflicts on Brúsi before finally killing him by carving the ‘blood-eagle’ on his back — which is itself a contested literary motif. See: John McKinnell, Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2005), p. 128. In Two Icelandic Stories (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1967, reptd. 2011), Anthony Faulkes suggests that the flaying motif in Orms þáttr comes from ÖO (32–4).  http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Text%20Series/2IcelSt.pdf (accessed 25 March 2015). But McKinnell contends that it is part of a pattern of Þórr stories, a pattern better preserved in Orms þáttr than in ÖO. He concludes that ‘Orms þáttr may have been influenced by a lost version of ÖO, but it is perhaps more likely that echoes of Þórr-derived motifs were commonplace in this kind of story’. However, the flaying motif does not occur as often as the other aspects of the Þórr-derived stories, like ogre or giant(ess) killing, and while Þórr does feature in both ÖO and EA, neither of these tales is simply an echo of ‘myths about Þórr’ (Meeting the Other, p. 129).

[3] There are two editions in Old Norse: Fornaldar sögur Norðrlanda, ed. C. C. Rafn, vol. 1–3 (Copenhagen, 1829–30) and Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, ed. Guðni Jónsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, vol. 1–4 (Reykjavík: Bókútgáfan forni, 1943). All Norse quotations are taken from http://www.snerpa.is/net/forn/orvar.htm (accessed 20 Jan. 2015). There is an electronic version of the 1829 edition: https://archive.org/stream/FornaldarsogurNo000121901v2FornReyk/FornaldarsogurNo000121901v2FornReyk_orig#page/n179/mode/2up (accessed 20 Jan. 2015). All translations are from Seven Vikings Romances, ed. and trans. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards (London: Penguin, 1985), pp. 25–137. Hereafter, page numbers are given in parentheses. ÖO survives in two versions, the earliest of which was composed about the middle of the thirteenth century (Pálsson and Edwards, p. 20). The older one survives in a manuscript from the early-fourteenth century and the more complete, younger version survives in a late-fourteenth century manuscript. One codex dates from ca. 1300–25, part of which is found in the Royal Library in Stockholm (MS Sth. perg. 7 4to), part in Arnamagnæn Institute in Copenhagen (AM 580 4to). An eighteenth-century paper manuscript survives in the Museum of Iceland, MS AM 344 b 4to. See: Kalinke, Bridal-Quest Romance, pp. 4–5.

[4] See in this volume: Michael Livingston, ‘The Closest Shave: Flayed Faces and Arthurian Authority’, pp. XX–XX.

[5] EA survives in fifteenth-century manuscripts and some later paper manuscripts in the Museum of Iceland. All Norse quotations are from: http://www.snerpa.is/net/forn/asberser.htm (accessed 20 Jan. 2015). All translations are from Pálsson and Edwards, pp. 228–57. Hereafter, page numbers are given in parentheses.