Medieval Bodies, Head to Toe

The skeletal diagram in Mansur ibn Ilyas’s fifteenth-century medical text, the Tashrih-i badan-i insan, looks at first glance like it’s been drawn by someone who’s never seen a human body before. The skull is oddly triangular, the jawbone tapering to a sharp point and perched on an over-elongated neck. The script-like scalloping of the clavicle gives way to a rigid stack of rib bones, which stick straight out from the spine like spikes. The proportions are all wrong, femurs stunted in comparison to the enormous feet.

Skeletal diagram from Mansur ibn Ilyas’s Tashrih-i badan-i insan, Iran c. 1390. MS P 18, US National Library of Medicine. (Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine)

Our immediate modern reaction, Jack Hartnell notes in his new book Medieval BodiesLife and Death in the Middle Ages, is to write Mansur’s skeleton off as just another relic of the so-called “dark” ages, a period we imagine to be defined by its ignorance and superstition, marked only by misery and suffering. “It’s a stereotype heard often,” Hartnell writes, “that from roughly the years 300 to 1500 most people inhabited a time oscillating between Braveheart and Blackadder … living in piteous squalor only to make war in the fretful darkness. A useless millennium or so.”1 But, as Medieval Bodies convincingly argues, this is not entirely the case; while our understanding of the body’s systems and biology has certainly changed, the experience of living with a human body has largely not (and if the recent rise in antibiotic resistance continues, we may all soon benefit from some more medieval medicine). “The bodies of medieval men and women would, of course, have been equally varied,” Hartnell remarks, “but none would have been that dramatically unlike our own.”2

To illustrate this, Hartnell works through the medieval body head to toe, considering it in all its detail. Chapters are organized by body part, starting with the head and moving through features like the senses, heart, blood, bones, and genitals. Besides creating a compelling narrative structure, this arrangement echoes the process of anatomy itself. Just like the early dissections it describes, the book divides and examines the body in its component parts to consider how medieval cultures understood, represented, and experienced each aspect of embodied existence. For each feature, Hartnell thinks both literally and metaphorically: the chapter on “Skin,” for example, considers dermis, race, clothing, and parchment manufacturing, while “Bones” explores osteological medicine, burial rituals, funerary architecture, and memento mori art.

This approach – moving through the body less as a concrete object and more as a constellation of associations – builds on Hartnell’s disciplinary background. An art historian, Hartnell presents the body as both a concrete physical object and as a kind of touchstone for making sense of the world. That is, Medieval Bodies asks us to think critically about the body not just as a biological fact but as a cultural product, something that creates and is created by its representations in art, literature, and medicine. For example, in the chapter “Heart,” Hartnell recounts the story of Santa Chiara de Montefalco, a fourteenth-century Umbrian abbess. At her death, Santa Chiara’s body was cut open and her heart excised, revealing in its chambers “a tiny sculpted image of Christ on the cross and, alongside it, a whole collection of miniature objects associated with the Passion … wrought from the flesh of Chiara’s heart itself.”3 For Hartnell, this moment perfectly illustrates the recursive influence of culture on flesh. The heart’s medical associations with bodily heat and humoral balance gave it great physical importance, a value that then was transferred metaphorically to the body’s faith and emotion – the heart as a symbol for love, both divine and secular. Those cultural values then, in turn, affect the way the physical heart is understood, creating the space for a story like Santa Chiara’s where the very material of the body is shaped by its metaphorical association with love.

Wound Man, from a c1420 Bavarian surgical treatise. MS.49, Wellcome Library. (Courtesy the Wellcome Collection)

This way of understanding the body’s relationship to culture is amply supported by the book’s generous use of visual art. Medieval Bodies is bursting with illustrations: the Wound Man from a c1420 Bavarian surgical manual; John of Arderne’s instructions for treating anal fistulas; marginal illustrations from the Luttrell Psalter, to name only a few. Hartnell draws from a wide range of genres, from more practically-minded surgical texts to more self-consciously artistic fresco traditions. But, in doing so, he helpfully does not make distinctions of value or artistic skill; rather, Hartnell uses the variety of representations to help piece together a more nuanced understanding of the body’s life in the medieval world. The full range of bodily experience – pain, joy, ecstasy, agony – is present here in vivid color.

One of Hartnell’s other great successes in this book is his expansive approach to mapping the medieval world, both culturally and geographically. Medievalists have been publicly struggling in recent months with the field’s associations (sometimes involuntary, sometimes not) with increasingly vocal white supremacists. Hartnell makes it clear from the outset that he has no interest in those anachronistic misreadings of history. From its introduction, Medieval Bodies reveals that the medieval world was, in fact, culturally and racially diverse. Hartnell centers his study on the medieval Mediterranean, focusing on exchanges between European, Byzantine, and Islamic cultures. Consequently, the bodies of Medieval Bodies are, refreshingly, not all white. The cover image, for instance, is of a fifteenth-century Spanish fresco that Hartnell discusses in detail in the “Skin” chapter. The painting depicts the miraculous interracial limb transplant performed by Saints Cosmas and Damian and provides the anchor for Hartnell’s extended discussion of medieval attitudes on race. Elsewhere, Arabic medicine, Hebrew spiritualism, and European art traditions come together to reveal a complex web of medieval cultural exchange. Hartnell’s text traces dense mesh of the medieval Mediterranean, helpfully pushing back against the starkly white medievalism that seems to still pervade pop culture.

Medieval Bodies: Life and Death in the Middle Ages by Jack Hartnell. (Courtesy W. W. Norton & Company)

All told, Medieval Bodies demonstrates what excellent mainstream historical scholarship can do. Hartnell’s book introduces readers from other disciplines and eras, including general readers, to the basics of the history of the medieval body. But, in addition to this mainstream appeal, Hartnell is also asking an important theoretical question about how we study historical bodies. The human body, as a historical object, is a kind of paradox. On one hand, it can be the ultimate key to unlocking similarities across time and culture. “Once loosed from the confines of a distant ‘Dark’ Age,” Hartnell writes, “we can begin to see that the lives of these past bodies are not so very far from our own.”4 And yet, at the same time, the body is itself the ultimate barrier. As Hartnell notes in his chapter on the senses, bodily experience is “individual and subjective … extremely difficult to describe or to share.”5 Even if our bodies are fundamentally the same as those of our medieval predecessors, they are still insurmountably different – from them and from one another. So is the history of the body one that draws us closer together, or further apart? Can it do both?

Perhaps. In his reading of Mansur’s skeleton, Hartnell notes that if we approach the bodies of the past looking only for difference, we are sure to find it. “Those in search of an ignorant Middle Ages might quickly write this [diagram] off as an error,” he argues, “the work of an illustrator who had no idea what a skeleton really looked like.”6 But in fact, this skeleton is designed to communicate “a different kind of knowledge.”7 Instead of the front-facing anatomical display we’re used to, the diagram is in fact a dorsal view, “designed to make the detail of the bones more memorable. It conveyed terminology, an intellectual framework for medical understanding, built up around the body’s bones.”8 This is not a skeleton drawn for someone looking to see one for the first time, but rather a skeleton designed by a specialist concerned with communicating his experience. If we are looking for differences, the medieval period is an easy target. The harder task, and the one Medieval Bodies does so well, is looking through that difference to find the shared center.

Notes

  1. Hartnell, Jack, Medieval Bodies (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019), 3. Return to text.
  2. Hartnell, 12. Return to text.
  3. Hartnell, 134. Return to text.
  4. Hartnell, 17. Return to text.
  5. Hartnell, 60. Return to text.
  6. Hartnell, 110. Return to text.
  7. Hartnell, 112. Return to text.
  8. Hartnell, 112. Return to text.

About the Author

Share your Thoughts