Medieval Bodies is not what you might expect from the cover or from the title. Based on a podcast I heard in which Jack Hartnell was interviewed about his book, I was expecting something about medieval medicine and medieval illnesses. I was wrong, but in a good way.
It’s a book that looks at the parts of the body (head, hands, feet, skin etc.) and asks how such things were thought about in the Middle Ages. Each chapter is about a different part of the body, starting with the head and ending with the feet. Within each chapter, there’s a look at what medieval medical science thought about that particular body part and then there’s a consideration of what that part meant to people at the time, both physically and spiritually. The chapter on genitals, for instance, talks about medieval childbirth in reality and in art. I enjoyed the chapter on feet, which talks about some of the odd fashions in footwear in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Hartnell doesn’t just cover thoughts about bodies from Europe, but he also includes Jewish and Islamic writings and illustrations. Islamic works were being translated into Latin from the twelfth century, bringing long-forgotten Greek learning and philosophy into countries north of the Mediterranean. This wider knowledge is reflected in a change of ideas about medicine, while the church had to consider whether or not physicians and surgeons should be allowed to follow the teachings of the pagan Greeks.
There are colour illustrations on almost every other page, making this a book to be browsed as well as read. I enjoyed it very much, although it, of necessity, deals with each subject superficially. Any book with ‘medieval’ in its title already has to spread itself thin, since the Middle Ages lasted more than a thousand years. Medieval Bodies compounds the problem by going beyond the bounds of Europe.