MEDIEVAL BODIES by Jack Hartnell


Life and Death in the Middle Ages
Email this review


An in-depth look at the medieval conception of the human body.

Some readers may be put off initially by this head-to-toe dissection of the body, but they should press on to encounter a delightful mixture of thought, experiment, discovery, and religion. In his debut book, Hartnell (Art History/Univ. of East Anglia, Norwich) uses his knowledge of art history and the drawings and paintings that showed then-current thinking on organs, bones, blood, and the body in general. The key to understanding this era is the interaction among diverse cultures. “A shared classical heritage undeniably binds together the medieval history of the regions on all sides of the Mediterranean,” writes the author, “separating them somewhat from the busy parallel stories of the Far East, India, China, sub-Saharan Africa or the pre-Columbian Americas. Three principal inheritors of the legacy of Rome [Byzantium, Western and Central Europe, and the Islamic world] come to the fore, each representing a different texture of the medieval bodies that I want to try to trace.” With the exception of the Crusades, the Muslim kingdoms thrived through tolerance for other religions and cultures, enabling trade and, most importantly, the sharing of ideas. For Hartnell, two of the most interesting illustrations are the “Hebrew Bloodletting Figure” and the “German Wound Man.” The bloodletting figure provided a map of the most efficacious spots to bleed a patient while the Wound Man offered cures for punctures and other wounds as well as instructions on the placement of a styptic. Among other intriguing topics, the author discusses a 10th-century Arabic author who provided dental advice and instructions on suturing wounds. As Hartnell shows, medieval conceptions of medicine and the body fluctuated between tangible and fantastic and often conflated thoughts, philosophy, and religion with artistic imagination. When we consider that observational dissections didn’t regularly take place until the 1500s, the scope of the work of these cultures is quite impressive.

A wise, eye-opening interdisciplinary view of an era that “featured numerous exciting conceptions of the human form.”

Pub Date: Nov. 12th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-324-00216-1
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2019