November 2019

Medieval Bodies

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Perusing the pages of Jack Hartnell’s gloriously illustrated Medieval Bodies: Life and Death in the Middle Ages, my eye caught on an elegant depiction of a tree, reproduced from a 15th-century German manuscript and surrounded by pear-shaped vials and delicate writing. Enchanted, I stopped to admire it and read the accompanying caption: “A wheel of urine sprouting from a tree.” But of course.

It’s easy to laugh at the Middle Ages, their beliefs and medical practices—easy, too, to forget that the people who lived then were people just like us. While capturing the humor inherent in looking so far back in time, Hartnell points to the common humanity between our modern selves and the men (and women!) who left behind these writings. (Some of this humor was even intentional; in forgetting that medieval people were simply people, we may find ourselves surprised to discover a sense of humor not far removed from our own when we encounter, for example, an illustration of a penis tree in the margins of a French manuscript.) Their bizarre logic seems especially evident when presented alongside the technology that was available then. Indeed, the seeds of modern science can often be found amid what initially appears to be extremely outdated nonsense.

Hartnell’s book isn’t just about the peculiarities of the medical arts in the Middle Ages. Then, as now, bodies were the vehicles through which people experienced life, and so Hartnell’s head-to-toe examination of the medieval body invokes nearly all other aspects of medieval culture and life. Food, literature, music and the prevalence of the spiritual are all present in great detail in Medieval Bodies, and it makes sense: We, on an ordinary day, do not perceive ourselves as a collection of viscera. We understand ourselves, both physically and otherwise, in relation to the things we come into contact with in the surrounding world. This was also true of our long-ago ancestors—and in making this clear, Hartnell’s book provides a most human look into a world that is neither so far away nor very separate from us at all.

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