What we can learn from medieval views of the human body

Some ideas have morphed while others have strangely stayed the same.

Several years ago, I spent a rainy afternoon at the Wellcome Library in London examining a 15th-century birthing girdle. The eagle-eyed curator watched my every move, making sure I didn’t touch the stained and disintegrating roll of parchment. Inscribed on the narrow manuscript were instructions for its use: it was to be wrapped around the body of a woman in labor with its images of Christ’s wounds to be placed on her skin and its charms and prayers recited to ensure protection during the harrowing process of giving birth.

It is easy to dismiss objects like this and the culture that produced them as primitive, but Jack Hartnell suggests that they might have something to teach us if we are able to consider them on their own terms. Hartnell, an art historian at the University of East Anglia in Nor­wich, England, does just that. Seek­ing to counter modern assumptions that the Middle Ages was a period of rampant superstition, dogmatism, and scientific ignorance, he offers a rich survey of medieval ideas about the human body. While Hartnell aims to make the medieval world more comprehensible to a modern audience, he also preserves the fascinating and often illuminating strangeness of the Middle Ages.

Hartnell’s book reveals a world similar in many ways to our own. Medieval people suffered from many of the same maladies as we do. Diet was considered a key to good health. Doctors successfully grafted skin, amputated limbs, and performed surgeries. People suffered from undiagnosable diseases, prayed for medical miracles, and sometimes received them. Skin color served as a means of racial and religious differentiation, denigration, and demonization. Thinkers debated the relationship between body and spirit, taking stands on such issues as when exactly life began after conception (Their answer? When the soul entered the fetus: 40 days after conception for a male fetus and 80 days for a female).