Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages, by Jack Hartnell

Book of the week: Rachel Moss praises a study that peels back the skin of a misunderstood era often defined by death

April 26, 2018
medieval surgery

In the Middle Ages, skin stretched beyond the body. Calf or lamb’s hide washed and scraped into smooth parchment, found in every monastery and royal court, was the foundation on which medieval libraries were built. But parchment is not just a historic curio. Until 2017, the United Kingdom’s laws were still painstakingly recorded on it, until MPs voted to save £80,000 a year by switching to paper. An obvious cost-cutting decision, maybe – and one that reflects a modern understanding of the law as mutable, editable and of its time. Paper falls into decay centuries faster than near-indestructible parchment, a skin stripped of its fleshy corruptibility and able to withstand most of the vagaries of time.

Ravaged by plague, war and famine, the Middle Ages can seem an era defined by mortality – a millennium of corrupt decline following the fall of Rome, before a heady rebirth of science and culture in the Renaissance.

But as Jack Hartnell argues in this dazzling tour through physiognomy and across time, medieval bodies are a route into understanding a richly imaginative and curious age, where the barriers between earthly, heavenly and infernal worlds were parchment-thin – and where immortality was found within the pages of books as well as in a life beyond this mortal coil. A lecturer in art history at the University of East Anglia, Hartnell peels back the skin of the Middle Ages to reveal the meat of a distinctive culture now gone the way of all flesh.

As this capacious and entertaining volume reveals, while most of the medieval world has disappeared, reduced to artefacts in museums and libraries, its influence is still felt today. Medieval people had a sad sense that they were living through a time between periods of greatness. As the 14th-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarch put it, “There was a more fortunate age and probably there will be one again…My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms.”

That feeling of unease might be queasily familiar in modern Britain, where tabloids endlessly hark back to the good old days of penny sweets and lax regulations – and Brexiteers eagerly proclaim that exit from Europe will lead us into a glorious future: a vision shaped more by a nostalgia for an imperial past than by the realities of a contemporary multicultural society. Modernity’s view of the Middle Ages is part of this wider narrative, where “medieval” becomes shorthand for all that is brutish, cruel and illogical, not only in the past, but also in the present day. Hartnell urges us not to “patronise this seemingly distant moment in time simply to make ourselves feel better”.

Misunderstanding the medieval flattens a richly multivalent, multicultural set of societies into a set of stereotypes. It says more about our contemporary preoccupations with national origins, identity and embodiment than it does about the Middle Ages.

Hartnell begins by unpacking the theoretical and philosophical foundations of the medieval understanding of the body. He explains that religion did not dominate medieval life in the sense that it crowded out all other thoughts and conversations, but rather that it formed an essential baseline for how people understood the world – as inarguable and as inescapable as the existence of gravity. Physical health was directly related to spiritual wellbeing and illness could be both punishment for sin and a means of spiritual growth.

This ambiguity meant that in medieval Paris there could be an “entertainment” that featured blind beggars given clubs and encouraged to beat a pig to death for food, even while St Lucy – who according to one tradition removed her own eyes to dissuade a persistent suitor – was widely venerated for her piety. The body acted as witness to internal corruption and proof of inner virtue, both together. Hartnell elegantly dissects its secrets.

Defining “medieval” is difficult, given that it is a term applied to more than a thousand years of history and spanning far more than Western Europe. Hartnell makes a concerted effort to incorporate as much of this world as possible, drawing together Byzantium, Rome and the Islamic kingdoms by defining the medieval as “multiple complex cultures indelibly bound together through a shared Mediterranean past”. His way of binding these disparate parts together is to organise the book around the human body, a point of commonality between these different cultures and our own time. No matter how alien the medieval past might seem to us, we share essentially the same bodies – not even fundamentally different in height, as Hartnell notes, demolishing another myth about our supposedly stunted forebears. Medieval men stood at an average height of 5’7”, only two inches shorter than their modern British counterparts.

There are some surprising omissions in this otherwise marvellously detailed work. Although the book makes space in the chapter on bone to discuss interment as well as fractures, and the chapter on head touches on mental illness alongside baldness, the discussion of disability is limited, both as a category of analysis and as a lived experience. This is despite a flourishing field of scholarship in medieval disability studies that Hartnell could have drawn on, not to mention that disabilities may well have been more visible in the medieval period than they are today, even if they were not better understood.

In an era of high mortality and outbreaks of disfiguring diseases such as syphilis and plague – and limited treatments for progressive illnesses – how many medieval people would have been able-bodied in modern terms? What kind of lives did disabled people live? Such questions find only anecdotal answers in these pages.

Meanwhile, for all Hartnell’s insistence that we recognise the Middle Ages as a capacious category incorporating diverse and rapidly changing societies, Medieval Bodies has a tendency to obscure the differences between those societies. Although he is careful not to make “medieval” synonymous with “Christian” and “western European” – and provides full discussions and images of other cultural traditions – the Christian West is still too often the starting point to which Jewish and Muslim cultures are compared.

Some loss of nuance is inevitable in a book as ambitious as this one. It takes us from the crown of the medieval head down to the feet, beginning at the outermost edges of the then-known world – Ethiopia, where headless cannibals were feared to roam – and taking a pilgrimage on foot to the holy city of Jerusalem.

The book ends on another boundary point: the mythical land of Abarimon, where men’s feet point backward, so that they forever walk away from what they look towards. Hartnell’s elegant, energetic volume cannot be accused of doing the same.

One medieval school of thought held that sight was an “almost tactile process”, where the eye extended invisible rays to touch objects and spaces. Medieval Bodies lets its readers see through medieval eyes. Guided by Hartnell’s expertise, we gaze upon a long-ago world.

Rachel Moss is a lecturer in late medieval history at the University of Oxford.


Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages
By Jack Hartnell
Profile Books, 352pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781781256794
Published 12 April 2018


The author

Jack Hartnell, lecturer in art history at the University of East Anglia, was born in Hertfordshire, just outside London, and initially attended the Courtauld Institute of Art. Studying in central London, he recalls, gave him “so many opportunities to see great artworks in the flesh”. Not only did this make “a deep impression” on him but “close looking definitely helped train my eye and taught me how to think visually”. He went on to become the inaugural postdoctoral fellow between the Victoria and Albert Museum and Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and a Mellon postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Columbia University in New York.

In trying to cover such a broad sweep of history and geography in Medieval Bodies, Hartnell admits that “keeping the subtleties of the past – be they visual, cultural, social, intellectual – can be really difficult when you are trying to give the reader a sense of the big picture. This is especially difficult for the Middle Ages, given that so little substantive material survives today, and we often have to read broader traditions from a small group of objects or texts”. Yet he also believes that “Mediterranean medical traditions that sprang from a shared classical heritage” help to unify his wide-ranging material.

Asked about the continuing relevance of medieval approaches and attitudes, Hartnell argues that “the sources of so many of today’s big issues can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Medieval attitudes don’t just illuminate our world – in many cases they are our world. And although life would have been undoubtedly difficult for many 1,000 years ago, when we actually look closely at medieval opinions on things such as gender, sexuality or race, we find a huge spectrum of ideas, lots of which are far more nuanced than those expressed in today’s global politics of the body”.

Matthew Reisz

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