Accessible Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter March 15, 2014

Language and the Edges of Humanity: Orang-Utans and Wild Girls in Monboddo and Peacock

Sebastian Domsch


In late eighteenth-century Europe, attempts at defining the human and differentiating it from other species were closely linked to inquiries after its historical origins, and these again were related by a number of writers to the genealogy of language. Among those writers was the Scottish lawyer and philosopher James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, whose theories, especially those on the similarities of man and orang-utan, alienated most of his contemporaries. This essay investigates the consequences of Monboddo’s use of language as a defining trait of the human by first looking at his treatment of the orang-utan on the one hand and of Marie-Angélique Leblanc, the “wild girl of Champagne,” on the other. Both serve as examples where the blurry boundaries of humanity are reached, albeit from two different directions. The orang-utan provoked controversy among his contemporaries and inspired fictional treatments of the “cultivated ape,” the most striking example being Thomas Love Peacock’s Melincourt. The last part of the essay therefore studies Peacock’s novel as a fictional embodiment of Monboddo’s most controversial theory in a satirical framework, where the romantic author employs the enlightenment anthropologist for testing once again the boundaries of humanity

Online erschienen: 2014-03-15
Erschienen im Druck: 2008-01

© 2014 by Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co.