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
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