Life, death and art in Middle Ages from head to foot

Geoff Adams reviews Jack Hartnell's Medieval Bodies, published by Profile Books.

Lecturer in art history at England's University of East Anglia, Jack Hartnell took on a daunting task in his brave effort to define what the world was like for humans 1000 years ago in Europe and the Middle East. He triumphed with the decision to investigate the medieval world using a skeleton model of the human body, 10 chapters labelled from "Head'' down to "Feet''.

Subtitled Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages, it is a fascinating study, copiously illustrated. It shows it is a mistake for people today to characterise medieval times as just an age of darkness, squalor and misery, ravaged by plague, famine and war.

The chapter on the heart discusses biological theories, mentioning that this organ was seen as a "glowing internal sun''. It discusses secular love (ardent troubadours) and religious love (cult of the sacred heart), deciding the medieval heart was "a deeply intelligent organ''.

The book is not simply a study of art but it explains how paintings and reliquaries that celebrated the martyrdoms of saints bound the sacred and spiritual to the physical and familiar. Hearts and heads became powerful metaphors that still shape our societies today. But medieval doctors and scholars were immersed in centuries of misunderstandings of the body, some inherited from Greek philosophers.

If the medieval seems alien to us, Hartnell notes we share essentially the same bodies; not even fundamentally different in height. He demolishes the myth about supposedly stunted forebears. Nor were they all toothless, crippled or constantly sick.

With a collection of saints, soldiers, kings and queens, caliphs, knights, monks and monsters, this is a history book that unfolds like a medieval pageant. Hartnell is obviously in love with his subject and makes it relentlessly interesting, entertaining and sometimes amusing. He has assembled much interesting evidence from medicine, art, poetry, music, politics, and philosophy to provide a remarkable guide to men and women who lived and died in the Middle Ages.

But to grizzle, I thought this book would have been better in larger format, with slightly larger pages and type, and smooth art paper would have improved the reproduction of its 88 illustrations, including exquisite tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, medical textbooks, and other interesting art, in colour.

- Geoff Adams is a former ODT editor.

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