‘Blood Matters’: Book Review

Alexandra Barmpouti reviews Bonnie Lander Johnson and Eleanor Decamp’s Blood Matters: Studies in European Literature and Thought, 1400-1700 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

Blood is not merely a biological substance but has often acquired cultural, religious and socio-political connotations. Historically, blood has been perceived as a familial, class or racial bond; as spiritual and purifying matter; but also as a sign of corruption and filthiness. The collective volume Blood Matters: Studies in European Literature and Thought, 1400-1700 discusses the medieval and early-modern social perceptions of blood, mainly through the spectrums of art and literature. The historical and conceptual starting point of the book is William Harvey’s discovery of blood circulation (3). However, going beyond the scientific/medical approach, the book reveals the versatility of blood and the controversy blood has provoked during the time under consideration.

Lander Johnson and Decamp divide the book into five parts, namely Circulation, Wounds, Corruption, Proof and Signs and Substance. The reader soon realizes that the overall narrative is uninterrupted as parts intersect with the other. Five chapters discuss aspects of the medical history of blood. Margaret Healy’s thorough chapter on Harvey’s discovery of circulation is related to the politics of blood, heart and circulation. It serves as a second introduction to the volume and it is rightfully placed as the first chapter. Several authors refer to conflicting perspectives on menstrual blood – sometimes it was seen as the source of life itself and at other times as a filthy substance with the potential to harm, as Frances E. Dolan describes in the context of the presence of blood in agriculture (214), while Tara Nummedal demonstrates that the ambivalence of menstrual blood was present both in alchemical and in medical texts (112). Gabriella Zuccolin and Helen King reveal the unexpected relationship between menstrual blood and nosebleeds. Discussing bloodletting, Eleanor Decamp shows how the bleeding bowl’s size defined the ‘quality’ of the practitioner, distinguishing the licensed from the unlicensed practitioner.

In Heather Webb and Joe Moshenska’s chapters, we encounter a meticulous analysis of Latin and Italian literature related to blood. Dante Alighieri’s famous works are central to both chapters. Heather Webb quotes the most relevant and important parts of Dante’s works concerning the spiritual aspect of blood and its relation with Catherine of Siena’s ethical teachings (33-35). Joe Moshenska presents the theme of bleeding trees as the artistic way of expressing human suffering, highlighting the fact that the presence of blood outside of the body denotes suffering and death (98).

A surgeon binding up a woman’s arm after bloodletting. Oil painting by Jacob Toorenvliet, 1666. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Five chapters exclusively base their content on one or more Shakespearean plays. Katharine A. Craik, using the examples of Henry IV and Henry V, explains how aristocratic versus plebeian blood was a significant form of separation between social classes during peaceful periods, while they were interdependent during wartime (57). From a different angle, Hester Lees-Jeffries and Elisabeth Dutton discuss the difficulties in using blood in the actors’ performance in Shakespearean plays in their respective chapters. The former argues that the bloody stained clothing of the actors reflected the wounded body, whereas the latter explains the necessity of blood on stage. Dutton compares the Croxton Play of the Sacrament with some Shakespearean plays, mostly focusing on Macbeth, associating the theatrical plays with anti-Semitism and notes the role of blood in this association. Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is discussed by Patricia Parker who also puts emphasis on the connotations of bloody cloths, such as the hymeneal blood as proof of the loss of virginity. Inspired by Juliet’s “greensickness”, Bonnie Lander Johnson offers a remarkable analysis on the associations between the binaries womb/blood and breast/milk (139) which eventually paved the way for her claim for a three-fold continuum: blood, milk and poison.

The chapters on Shakespearean theatrical plays succeed in discussing the socio-political and cultural role of blood. However, in over-representing Shakespeare the collection under-represents other artistic forms. The only chapter dealing with depictions of blood in paintings is Dolly Jørgensen’s chapter on images of pig slaughter in late medieval illustrated calendars. This is one of the most interesting additions to the volume which shows at once a work of art and the medieval attitude toward animal blood. In the same chapter, the particularity of the pig as the most closely related anatomy to that of the human is also discussed in the context of the Christian religion (231) and literature and art (233).

Helen Barr’s chapter discusses the provocative, anonymous poem The Canterbury Interlude which tries to disgrace Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and, in particular, the martyrdom and the miraculous

Pewter bleeding bowl, Europe, 1601-1900. Credit: Science Museum, London. CC BY

blood that Chaucer ascribes to Thomas Becket. Ben Parson’s chapter on youth corruption at schools shows that in medieval times the behavioural problems of adolescence were largely attributed to excessive blood in young bodies. Discipline was to be achieved by taking into account the anatomy and sanguinity of the pupils (131). Lesel Dawson’s chapter on ‘cruentation’ explores how in early modernity, it was believed that a murdered body’s wounds would start bleeding in the sight of its murderer. Although attributed to divine intervention, this spontaneous bleeding was used as concrete evidence against the murderer (152, 156). Similarly to other chapters, blood is described as being seen simultaneously as a source of life and death. More accurately, inter alia, blood was regarded by the medieval Europeans as the visualization of vitality.

Blood Matters is a significant addition to the medieval and early-modern scholarship because it combines issues pertinent to the medical humanities, history, art and literature in discussing the much-contested matter of blood. The broad range of topics provides the reader with a holistic picture of notions of blood during the given period. The volume impressively combines medieval medicine, alchemy, culture and art, thus definitely fulfills its aim to become one of the few collective works about the unique history of blood.

Alexandra Barmpouti is a historian of medicine and eugenics and author of Post-War Eugenics, Reproductive Choices and Population Policies in Greece, 1950s–1980s (Palgrave Macmillan 2019).

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