Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell – review

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I bought this book for two main reasons: I love medieval stuff and I love the cover.  What I didn’t expect was quite how much fun it was going to be.

Starting at the head and working down, the author gives us a colourful and exuberant guided tour of the medieval body, not simply addressing literal, medical approaches to human physiology but its more abstract significance too.  The body as a whole was a universally understood metaphor for the functioning of medieval society, with the monarch as the head, the peasants as the labouring feet and all other levels of life in between, everyone working within their God-given social sphere to keep the state functioning as it should.  The phrase “the body politic” is of course one we still use today.  Beyond that generality, however, it turns out there were a huge number of bodily parts that had their own philosophical significance; one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the connection it highlights between the spiritual meaning attached to the various body parts and the age’s prevailing scientific understanding of how they functioned.  The heart, for example, had for several centuries been regarded as the seat of the soul and, as opposed to the brain as we now know, the organ that governed actions and emotions – hence the plethora of art and literature depicting deep feeling, but in particular love, as being almost literally linked to a person’s heart.  In fact, for all culture vultures out there, this is a very satisfying book, including its fair share of analysis of art forms ranging from tapestry to music, sculpture to literature, all presented in the context of the medieval body.  A real bonus is that rather than the small section of colour plates often found in the centre of non-fiction paperbacks, this book has coloured illustrations throughout, which definitely adds to the reading enjoyment and appreciation.  What I really liked as well was the fact that this bodily exploration isn’t just confined to English medieval history, but also takes in Europe and the Middle East, the latter in particular providing a fascinating comparison and an opportunity to introduce many artworks with which most of us won’t be at all familiar.

In case you were getting worried, don’t fear – there’s also a lot of the inevitable gruesome fun to be had from the accounts of medieval medical procedures and pictures of surgical instruments and body parts.  Of course we regard it all as incredibly primitive stuff, but the author is keen to point out that we shouldn’t look down on the middle ages too harshly; he demonstrates that diagnoses and treatments weren’t plucked out of the air according to pure superstition, but rather followed their own definite logic to what was considered a reasonable conclusion, even if that isn’t the conclusion we would draw today.

Far from being dense or heavy-going, Jack Hartnell writes with a light, easy style and a definite sense of humour.  The only drawback I found was that because the subject is so vast, certain aspects of the body are abandoned just as you were getting interested.  I wouldn’t say it’s unsatisfying by any means, but it definitely leaves you wanting to find out more.  The flipside of that though is that it’s accessible to absolutely everyone, and as such I think there are loads of people out there who may not be particularly into medieval history that will still find this a really absorbing read.