Head, shoul­ders, knees and toes

En­joys a vivid new book that uses the hu­man body to bring the me­dieval world to life, warts and all

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews -

Me­dieval Bod­ies by Jack Hart­nell Pro­file, 352 pages, £25

“Born, bathed, dressed, loved, cut, bruised, ripped, buried, even res­ur­rected, me­dieval bod­ies are a path to un­der­stand­ing the very essence of ev­ery­day life in the past.” So Jack Hart­nell presents his the­sis: through this study of me­dieval at­ti­tudes to head, senses, skin, bone, heart, blood, hands, stom­ach, gen­i­tals and feet, the reader will come to un­der­stand what it was like to be alive in the me­dieval pe­riod.

It is cer­tainly an ex­cel­lent and im­mer­sive in­tro­duc­tion for read­ers un­fa­mil­iar with the pe­riod. Hart­nell vividly evokes a pic­ture of an era when the world had a dif­fer­ent scale, sen­sory stim­uli and even sound­scape to our own. This is also an am­bi­tious work in terms of scope. While a lack of clear chrono­log­i­cal and ge­o­graph­i­cal bound­aries means it feels rather over-ex­pan­sive at times, it is full of in­ter­est­ing ob­ser­va­tions and there are co­her­ent themes threaded through. What’s more, Hart­nell writes in a non-fusty style, draw­ing mod­ern par­al­lels, and weav­ing nar­ra­tives to com­pel the reader on.

When analysing strange ‘oth­ers’ like the Blem­myae (hu­mans with their faces in their chests) recorded in me­dieval manuscripts doc­u­ment­ing the ‘won­ders’ of Africa, Hart­nell spec­u­lates whether “per­fectly sen­si­ble me­dieval peo­ple re­ally be­lieved that such a strange race ac­tu­ally ex­isted”. He draws a par­al­lel with a be­lief in aliens – ‘the lit­tle green men’ – that some hold to to­day. It’s an ef­fec­tive mod­ern anal­ogy. I am all for tak­ing the me­dieval away from be­ing per­ceived sim­ply as nasty, brutish, su­per­sti­tious and dark. Surely, ‘they’ were sim­ply ‘us’ but a few cen­turies back? True, but this fails to tackle some of the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences be­tween our me­dieval an­ces­tors and our­selves, not least the En­light­en­ment pur­suit of rea­son and the sci­en­tific de­vel­op­ments that have since shaped our un­der­stand­ing of the world.

Hart­nell’s in­tro­duc­tion rapidly un­packs our no­tions of ‘the me­dieval’ by high­light­ing pop-cul­tural in­ter­pre­ta­tions from Dis­ney princesses to Bruce Wil­lis. Years of re­search un­der­lie all his points, but at times the need to shock the reader into tak­ing no­tice sub­sumes this schol­ar­ship. I wanted foot­notes, maps and data, scrib­bling in the mar­gins ev­ery time I was left want­ing more.

The chap­ters are all full of anec­dotes, many of which are use­ful for high­light­ing the ma­jor themes and draw­ing at­ten­tion to the­o­ret­i­cal de­vel­op­ments in the field. For ex­am­ple, the treat­ment of women in an­cient gy­nae­co­log­i­cal texts not only high­lights the com­par­a­tive lack of un­der­stand­ing be­tween anatom­i­cal stud­ies then and now, but also flags up more re­cent de­bates in terms of fem­i­nist di­a­logues in his­tor­i­cal study.

There is a great need for this sort of cross-dis­ci­plinary work, which draws con­nec­tions be­tween the hu­man­i­ties and sci­ence. Hart­nell has at­tempted some­thing am­bi­tious, which is em­i­nently read­able and stuffed with nuggets of fascinating in­for­ma­tion. More texts on the me­dieval pe­riod need to be sim­i­larly in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary and am­bi­tious, but they also need to show their work­ings out. I wanted more de­tails to sat­isfy my in­sa­tiable cu­rios­ity into the me­dieval world. But, like a de­li­cious starter at the be­gin­ning of a feast, this book will whet many ap­petites and open up many fur­ther av­enues of in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Jan­ina Ramirez is a doc­u­men­tary-maker and writer, who lec­tures in art his­tory at Ox­ford. Her de­but chil­dren’s fic­tion book, Rid­dle of the Runes: A Vik­ing Mys­tery, is out in July

Hart­nell rapidly un­packs our no­tions of ‘ the me­dieval’

One of the Blem­myae, a myth­i­cal race whose faces sup­pos­edly sat in the mid­dle of their chests. He stands in the mar­gin of the 13th-cen­tury Eng­lish man­u­script The Rut­land Psalter

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