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Reviews > Book reviews >

Here’s the smell of the blood

Jane Stemp finds this study meticulous, but a little limited

Medieval Blood
Bettina Bildhauer
University of Wales Press £55
(0-7083-1940-8)
Church Times Bookshop £49.50

AS the dust-jacket claims, this is indeed “a sustained study of one of the crucial elements of medieval imaginations of the world: blood”.

It would have been helpful if the title had been “blood and gender”, and had stressed the aspect of “imagination”; for blood and how it distinguishes the genders is dealt with solely as it appears in literary descriptions and scientific theory in medieval Germany, with a look back at some classical sources.

There is little discussion about how real people in the medieval world reacted to epics, medical theory, or menstruation; and there is no mention, for example, of the pilgrimage site of the Holy Blood of Hailes, nor the miraculous blood of San Gennaro in Naples. Owing to the careful selection of texts, even their authors seem to be building theories rather than setting out to inform or entertain.

This, however, is in the nature of a book of critical theory rather than of general information, and perhaps one should not complain. Bettina Bildhauer has been meticulous in her research, and does not denigrate, as is only too usual, the nature of medieval theories. “I believe that both medieval and modern periods negotiate different levels of scientific and religious knowledge, and that a difference between medieval lack and modern wealth of knowledge cannot be upheld,” she says.

It is fascinating to have glimpses of the German medieval texts less well known to British readers in this area of study. It is to be regretted, perhaps, that while she uses Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice with reference to its pound of flesh, she has not similarly pointed her discussions with references to other familiar texts. Referring to the belief that the corpse of a murder victim bleeds once more in the presence of the murderer, she cites the Nibelungenlied (c.1200), but not the similar folk belief attached to the death of William Rufus in 1087.

Her theory that adding armour, especially dragon’s-blood protection (as with Siegfried), actually pro-voked fiercer attacks and thus greater vulnerability, neglects the moral dimension visible in the earlier Beowulf, where the hero is more successful the less weaponry and armour he uses, or, as is strongly implied, the more he trusts in God’s help.

The book is well produced, and the illustrations interesting if rather grey. This could not, though, be called a book for the general reader, coming as it does from the world of critical theory, where “abject” and “gender” have both become verbs: indeed, its price, too, puts it firmly in the academic bracket. None the less, for the student and the interested researcher it is a detailed and hardworking text in an area that deserves further study.

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