How a Monster Means: The Significance of Bodily Difference in the Christopher Cynocephalus Tradition
A venerable medieval literary and artistic tradition depicted Saint Christopher as a cynocephalus (dog-headed man). This chapter analyses four pieces of hagiography—three in Latin and one in Irish—to understand the cultural work performed by this extraordinary saintly body. The first task is to situate Christopher within the medieval lore surrounding the cynocephali, a lore that positioned monsters as didactic Others, miracles for the benefit of European Christians. In this light, Christopher resembles Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s “freak,” the subject obscured by its different body—a model supported by hagiography that ostensibly presents Christopher solely as the object of the normate gaze. The essay argues, however, that Christopher’s physical embodiedness is central to his message, drawing on Jay Timothy Dolmage’s “Disability Rhetoric” to show that the saint is a maker of meaning, pointing the way to a different, differently bodied Christianity. A more challenging reading of the hagiography, one with Christopher’s extraordinary body at its core, reveals the ways that Christopher exercises communicative agency, unsettles categories, and reshapes communities. Though unquestionably Other, the saint is anything but abject.