Carved into the Flesh

Barbara Newman

  • Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages by Jack Hartnell
    Wellcome, 346 pp, £25.00, March, ISBN 978 1 78125 679 4

For medievalists, the bodily turn has had a profound impact not just on the histories of medicine and sexuality, as one would expect, but also on those of art, religion and ideas. Thirty-five years or so after the body emerged as a newly problematic category, an entity with a tangled history or a rebellious subaltern that had finally found its voice, ‘medieval bodies’ have become such a rich field of inquiry that Jack Hartnell can use them to ground a History of Everything for the common reader: ‘life, death and art in the Middle Ages’. Hartnell is an art historian, so his book is copiously illustrated. But it’s also a history of medicine and much more, treating each topic under its pertinent body part. Thus the head inspires discussions of mental illness, hairstyles, beheading, and the rival relics of John the Baptist’s head. Under the rubric of skin, Hartnell ad-dresses flaying, leprosy, plastic surgery, racial difference and manuscripts – for, as others have pointed out, most of what we know about the premodern past is written on the skins of dead animals. Blood raises questions about phlebotomy, the antisemitic ‘blood libel’, bleeding icons, and devotion to the blood of Christ. Hartnell’s Middle Ages encompass the Jewish, Islamic and Byzantine worlds as well as Christian Europe, with technical terms supplied in Greek, Arabic and Hebrew. The result is a thick, spicy plum pudding of a book.

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