Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages (Review)

In this post, Jane Draycott reviews Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages (Profile and the Wellcome Collection, 2018), authored by Jack Hartnell.


In Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages, Jack Hartnell uses the medieval body as a starting point from which to explore the medieval world. While he bookends the volume with discussions of actual medieval bodies that have been excavated and scientifically analysed, he goes well beyond these parameters. This is a medieval world that he is keen to make clear from the very outset did not just encompass western Europe and consist of white Christians. Hartnell’s study thus ranges geographically southwards to North Africa, eastwards as far as China and Japan, and even westwards into the New World. He incorporates not just Christianity and Christian approaches to the medieval body but also Judaism and Islam, and Jewish and Islamic ones. Considering recent and ongoing discussions regarding the necessity of broadening – and being publicly seen to broaden – the narrow parameters of traditional approaches to the classical and medieval worlds in the face of increasing amounts of misappropriation and misrepresentation of various periods of history by white nationalist and supremacist groups, this is an extremely timely piece of work.

In the opening chapter, Hartnell sets the scene for what follows and provides context for his explorations, systematically correcting common misconceptions about the Medieval period, and its frequent unfavourable comparison with the Renaissance, emphasising its inherent diversity, and explaining the structure of the work, which follows the a capite ad calcem (‘from head to heel’) format so popular with medieval medical writers. Over the course of the following ten chapters, Hartnell uses each part of the body (the head, the senses, the skin, the bone, the heart, the blood, the hands, the stomach, the genitals, and the feet) as a starting point from which to explore a wide range of different aspects of medieval cultural history. Each chapter opens with a representative case study, often in the form of a close reading of a relevant objet d’art, before proceeding through a free association discussion of the body part and a variety of practices related to it. So, for example, the fourth chapter, ‘Skin’, begins with an illustration of St Bartholomew, not from a religious text but from a surgical one, then moves through dissection, post mortems, plastic surgery, skin colour, parchment, textiles, and dress, while the fifth chapter, ‘Bone’, begins with a page from a manuscript of the Persian author Mansur ibn Ilyas that depicts a schematic view of the human skeleton, moves on to osteological treatises, then to death and burial, funerary monuments, death in poetry, and finally to objects carved out of bone.



Hartnell aims to explore how medieval people saw themselves, rather than projecting a flawed understanding and reconstructed image back onto them, and so he uses the body as a proxy, a way into exploring a wide range of aspects of medieval life, society and culture. He facilitates the reader’s access to the unfamiliar and thus frequently misunderstood medieval mind, showing how to interpret, uncover hidden meanings and unpack similes and metaphors. A prominent theme that runs throughout Medieval Bodies is, unsurprisingly, health and medicine. Through this, Hartnell offers an accessible overview of medieval theories about the body and its workings, noting the foundational contributions of the classical precedents of Hippocrates and Galen but also the new(ish) developments of the Medieval period and its theorists and practitioners.

As befitting a work that primarily uses art to frame, illustrate, and advance its argument, Medieval Bodies is a beautifully produced volume. It is richly illustrated throughout, and most of the illustrations are sizeable and reproduced in full colour (the endpapers are particularly noteworthy, reproducing sections from the fourteenth century Catalan Atlas, an appropriate choice considering the expansive scope not only of the Atlas but also of the work itself). There is also an extensive bibliography, designed with accessibility in mind and so helpfully organised into sections according to the chapters and the subjects covered in them, that facilitates further research into the immense range of topics covered.

In this incredibly rich collection, Hartnell not only brings together a vast amount of information about the past but also looks to the future, questioning how our understanding of the medieval body might continue to develop and change as new archaeological evidence is uncovered and advances in scientific analysis are brought to bear on it alongside the more traditional approaches that he espouses here. Consequently, Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages is simultaneously a thought-provoking read for medieval historians and will also serve as an up-to-date introduction to the medieval world for anyone interested in learning more about this much-misunderstood and maligned period of history.


About the author:

Dr Jane Draycott is Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Research Fellow in Classics: Ancient Science and Technology at the University of Glasgow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.