Medieval Bodies

I was lured into reading this book by the extraordinary cover art: a giant monochrome human figure raises their head to reveal the anatomical structure beneath their skin. These scientifically rendered innards have been overlaid with brightly coloured demons, angels, strange creatures and abstract forms from the margins of manuscripts. The cover art encompasses the book itself: dealing with the earthy, flesh-and-blood reality of medieval bodies (sex, illness, food, death and childbirth); but simultaneously thinking about a second layer, a richness of beliefs, ideas and theories about how the body worked, its relationship to God and its place within the cosmos.

Jack Hartnell conjures up a vivid picture of medieval life in a refreshingly non-hierarchical way, using a categorized overview of the body rather than a chronological or geographical framework to explore areas such as pilgrimage (feet), gender (genitals), race (skin), love (heart) and faith (blood). He moves fluidly from discussing Islamic, Jewish and Christian ideas, and often highlights the strong relationships between them, pointing out that these three faiths never existed in isolated bubbles. The book is so jam-packed with historical anecdotes, explorations of medicine, theology and social life, as well as stunning illustrations, that upon finishing it I felt like I had time travelled across the medieval centuries with Hartnell as my guide. The book was an effortless read despite being bursting at the seams, and despite its breadth it never once felt tedious or dense. Hartnell’s tone is light yet never loses its authority, happily pointing out the comedic while dealing sensitively with the inevitably difficult topics that arise, such as rape, racism and religious violence.

One of the reasons why this book is so effective is because of the inherent familiarity of its core focus – the human body. It is too often so easy to forget that people in the distant past inhabited the same living, breathing, malfunctioning and messy human bodies that we do today, especially when the past is so often enshrined in liminal museum spaces or canonised in dense academic texts. Hartnell’s book produces the same uncanny experience of immediacy and connection that we feel when looking at freshly colourised photographs of the First World War, or a facial reconstruction made from an Iron Age skull. It is a cliché to claim that such things ‘bring the past to life’: the author’s skill is in not making this claim, but rather revealing how the past does not need to be brought to life; it is already vivid and compelling, and often familiar.

Familiarity and unfamiliarity are happy bedfellows here. We of course recognise the timelessness of the human body, all its aches and pains and its sensual delights, and much of the ideas resonate powerfully across the centuries too, from fart jokes and bawdy sexual humour to the pain of lovesickness and grief, and the fundamental desire to understand what is going on beneath the surface of the skin. Alongside this are ideas that are completely strange and exotic. A deceased nun’s heart is cut open to reveal a tiny crucifixion scene carved into the inner flesh. Humanoid creatures with no heads but their faces in their chests are believed to exist on the outer edges of the world. Illustrated nuns pluck penises from a tree in the borders of a book. Tomb sculptures portray the deceased holding bags of their coiled intestines. These kinds of marvels, mysteries and downright oddities are a fascination for me, and have inspired my love of Gothic art. Hartnell allows us to take pleasure in the weirdness of these beliefs and imagery, to enjoy the exoticism of the past, but grounds them in a scholarly logic that helps us to understand medieval thinking, rather than to alienate it from our own.

The medieval period – a big, baggy period of hundreds of years with debatable delineation – has faced a lot of historical prejudice, which Hartnell outlines at the beginning of the book. On the one hand, it has been seen as a muddy, violent and gloomy time of plague, incessant war, superstitious ignorance and short life expectancy. On the other hand, an equally problematic interpretation construes it as a glorious ‘Age of Faith’, when people were united by a common codes of chivalry honour, society was neatly structured with a valiant nobility fighting bravely for their faith, their king or the subject of their courtly love. This fantasy emerged in the 19th century and took on a racist and violent form in the KKK, who modelled themselves on a deeply misconstrued idea of medieval knighthood and ideals. Hartnell’s book undermines both of these misconceptions through its frankness and realism. While celebrating the richness of this period he exposes its dark side: the endemic anti-Semitisim, the religious and racialised violence of the Crusades, and the often-appalling attitudes towards women and the disabled. No historical period is truly glorious just as no period is a true ‘dark age’: Hartnell lets us see the shades of grey, the nuances and contradictions, allowing us to experience both the light and the shadows.

A spectrum of light and shadow is met with a spectrum of disciplines. This book was in the ‘medical history’ section of my favourite bookshop, which fits well as Hartnell often discusses medieval surgery techniques, medicinal treatises and healing practices as well as medical ideas about the workings of the body. But the text spans multiple disciplines: biological anthropology, social history, art history, literature, theology, political history and food history. I believe this kind of interdisciplinary scope is the future for academic study; it is only by seeing a panoptically rather than telescopically that we can come close to a true understanding of the past. Hartnell makes no claims to coherently covering medieval history, but his frequent cross-connections between texts, image, archaeology and pathology meant I finished the book feeling like I had looked at a medieval map: broad, sweeping, with ambiguous edges, but multiple routes criss-crossing each other and uniting