Monstrous healing
Aldhelm’s leech riddle – Peter Buchanan
in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
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Aldhelm’s Enigmata depict a range of monstrous figures described in terms of a dual nature. Against this backdrop of monstrous duality, the leech (sanguisuga) reveals itself through a monstrous visage but a healing touch. The monstrous appearance of the leech builds into a figure of apparently monstrous touch. Stripped of appendages, the leech is reduced to a biting mouth, even as Aldhelm’s characteristic sound-play puts emphasis on the mouth of the speaker with strings of bilabials. A sudden turn at the end turns the bite of the monster into a beneficial kiss. This chapter contextualises the metaphor of the salvific kiss with reference to Aldhelm’s own depiction of Christ’s kiss as a synecdoche for the healing touch, reinforced by the connection of the leech with the dead. The disjunction between the leech’s sensory reduction and the human’s misleading sensory richness allows for a reappraisal of the phenomenological tradition’s treatment of flesh. The leech’s reduced capacity gives the lie to the idea that these expressions are equivalent and points to a way in which senses not only enhance each other, but also deceive.

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