Book Review: Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages

Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages is a compelling and, at times, gruesome read that explores the Medieval world through the body. 

This beautiful book is published by the Wellcome Collection and written by art historian, Jack Hartnell. It has been critically acclaimed and was one of the Sunday Times' Books of the Year. 

Medieval Bodies

Over the course of the book's ten chapters, author, Jack Hartnell uses each part of the body (the head, the senses, the skin, the bone, the heart, the blood, the hands, the stomach, the genitals, and the feet) to explore the many fascinating and often bizarre ways that people in the Middle Ages viewed their physical selves. 

His chapters roam widely on subjects closely and sometimes tangentially connected with the chapter title, so his chapter on the head inspires discussions of mental illness, hairstyles, beheading, and the rival relics of John the Baptist’s head. Under the chapter on skin, Hartnell addresses flaying, leprosy, plastic surgery, racial difference and manuscripts. Drawing on art, medicine, literature, science, politics, history, philosophy and ranging across Europe and the Middle East, the scope can be quite dizzying at times. 

Medieval Bodies book

The book is written with warmth, wit and erudition and is filled with fascinating nuggets. Every chapter is illustrated with images that add interest and intrigue to the accompanying text. These images range from the wheel of urine sprouting from a tree (for diagnosis) to nuns picking penises from a tree, to a ninth-century illustration of foetuses gambolling in the womb. 

Medieval Bodies

Perhaps the most impressive image is that of the Wound Man - a figure covered with a multitude of graphic wounds and diseases such as dagger pierces, swollen glands, thorn scratches, bee stings and snake bites. Scattered around him are texts offering individual cures and paragraph references to signpost readers to right section of the book.

At first glance, many practices can feel at best illogical and at worst barbaric.

The Syrian Qusta ibn Luqa, writing in about AD900, believed that rational thought was based on a liquid brain substance. In a quick-witted, brilliant mind — inevitably male — this substance passed 'smoothly and fluidly at lightning pace'. In the lesser minds of children, 'idiots' and women, the liquid moved sluggishly. Medieval eye doctors believed that microsurgery to the cornea could be done with fine needles, which, says Hartnell, 'almost certainly did more harm than good'. 

Twelfth century thoughts on contraception were exotic:

'Take a male weasel, and let its testicles be removed and let it be released alive. Let the woman carry these testicles with her in her bosom and let her tie them in goose skin or in another skin, and she will not conceive.'

If there is no weasel to hand, the 12th-century guide proposed an alternative: 'Let her carry against her nude flesh the womb of a goat which has never had offspring.' 

This was a full millennium before internal scans, detailed investigations, and the microscopic understanding of the body. Much of the understanding of the body in the Middle Ages was constructed often viewing the body as part of a larger system of natural philosophy which meant that the body was open to the seasons and motion of the planets and needed to be kept in the appropriate balance. 

Activities revolved around reading external signs such as pulse and colour of urine to understand and restore internal balance. Seen in this light many of the practices have their own logic.

In other ways areas of Medieval medicine can feel familiar and contemporary, like the boom in plastic surgery.  Rhinoplasty and trauma surgery had a surprisingly long history. 'The fourth century author, Oribasius discussed repairing the tip of the nose with an H-shaped flap of skin taken from the cheek'.

Rhinoplasty was used to fix those who had been disfigured on the battlefield, or were victims of the 1490 outbreak of syphilis - a disease which can lead to the collapse of the nose's bridge.

Medieval Bodies

The book also uses medicine as an angle to understand more about the Medieval world, in particular, how people in the Middle Ages conceived of difference in terms of race, religion and gender.  For example, men and women were thought to have a fundamental humeral difference. Men's bodies were considered  to be much hotter than women's bodies and have a propensity towards greater physical and intellectual growth.

The book concludes with a chapter exploring how we are learning more about the Medieval body through bio-technologies such as DNA analysis and radiology which are helping historians to understand more abut the diet and health of the Medieval body and can help bring the Middle Ages to life.

It also includes a list of illustrations, an index and an extensive bibliography that is helpfully organised into sections according to the chapters and the subjects covered in them, and facilitates further research into the immense range of topics covered.

This book is a fun and illuminating read  - I loved it.

Further resources

Listen to Jack Hartnell talking about his book on this History Extra podcast.

Read an extract of the book