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Medieval Bodies: Life, death and art in the Middle Ages by Jack Hartnell

27 April 2018

G. R. Evans gets under the skin of our ancestors

THIS is an ambitiously interdisciplinary study, combining medicine, history of art, and with a seasoning of theology. It is extravagantly illustrated in colour. The result is a readable and often successful attempt to impose an orderly framework on this account of a vast range of matters.

The book begins with a long general chapter on medieval bodies, sketching the realities of medieval life in terms which expect no prior knowledge, and touching rather lightly on religion, philosophy, and medical science. The sources of medical help for the sick are covered, from the academic study emerging in the new universities, to a variety of practical and charlatan assistance.

The book works its way, chapter by chapter, from the head to the senses, and to skin, bone, heart, blood, hands, stomach, genitals, and feet, with a con­cluding chapter on “future bodies”.

This account is full of lively information. Heads decapitated could become useful symbols for the authorities both secular and religious, stuck up as a warning to the popu­lace or revered as relics of a dead saint. How the senses actually worked was the subject of much speculation, particularly sight; for most philosophers believed that the eyes emitted rays of light besides receiving them.

The “skin” inevitably prompts discussion of the place of leprosy (or skin lesions thought to be leprous); but an instance is given of attitudes to differences of skin colour. In one reported miracle, by St Cosmas and St Damian, a white man whose leg was being destroyed by disease had it amputated and then replaced by the brown leg of a recently dead Ethiopian. Cosmetic surgery might also be available.

The resting-places of bodies were the subject of varied arrangements depending on the wealth of the individual, or on religion. Here the bones were especially important, surviving decay as they did. The heart was the seat of thought to the medieval mind, the place where the human consciousness “lived”. Its function as a pump was not yet understood, and blood was commonly “let” or sucked out by medicinal leeches as a treatment for many diseases.

The hands, the stomach, the genitals, and the feet yield further rich and varied examples of medieval attitudes. Indigestion could be portrayed as a result of the stomach’s over-heating in its function of the body’s cauldron. The genitals naturally take the author into the complex world of medieval attitudes to procreation and the parts played by the sexes.

The final chapter on “future bodies” may be a little disappointing to a reader of the Church Times. The author sees “the future of our under­standing of medieval bodies” mainly in terms of the growing availability of specimens, for example from the plague pits ered in the course of the Crossrail excavations in London. Modern science makes it possible to learn things from such finds which it would have been impossible to do until recently, but not about a bodily heaven to come.

Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.

Medieval Bodies: Life, death and art in the Middle Ages
Jack Hartnell
Wellcome Collection £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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