‘To have no head revealed more than anything a deep-seated and particularly un-Christian streak of sinfulness.’ So concludes the first section of Jack Hartnell’s hugely readable history of the human body in medieval art and artefacts. Medieval Bodies has recently been published in paperback, which is good news for the student bank account; we can also be cheerful that the illustrations, thanks to modern strides in softcover printing, are all to the same standard of colour and detail as they were in hardback. Hartnell has avoided the fate, which some may remember, of Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, whose transition to an affordable format meant a downgrade to black-and-white image reproductions. Here, they are of a fantastic quality, and enormously enhance the experience.

Hartnell’s headless heathens are the Blemmyae, mythical islanders with faces in their chests; for several centuries they thronged the illustrated margins of European manuscripts, threatening from the outskirts – just as they were thought to dwell at the edge of the world itself, and roam its unexplored archipelagos. Taking one such illustration as his prompt, Hartnell broadens his scope to examine the human head, and its absence, in the iconography, literature, philosophy, and medicine of one thousand years of European and Eastern tradition. In each chapter, he does the same with a lower body-part, until arriving at the feet, and his conclusion. A wealth of images accompanies a fact-packed text. Medieval Bodies is not a long book, and if this sounds like far too much to cram in, you won’t necessarily have revised that view upon finishing it. 

However, you will probably find yourself won over. Hartnell’s stated purpose, to strip away the prejudices of subsequent centuries and get to the bottom of ‘what medieval life was really like’, is not to be taken seriously. While claiming to avoid generalisations about the Middle Ages, he is forced to generalise relentlessly, skipping back and forth between the tenth century and the sixteenth, Christianity and Islam; while wishing to debag the notion of a dreary, ignorant Dark Age, he indulges in plenty of gruesome detail. Beheadings, eviscerations, martyrdoms, sawings-off of diseased limbs – all common fare. However (unlike its hordes of dead people), there is nothing to mourn in this: Hartnell selects a wealth of the most gripping material, balanced by a trove of visual esoterica, and then takes us through it, combining intellectual seriousness with great lightness of touch. I read it after a term of scholarly reading, and blinked with disoriented enjoyment at the resultant breath of fresh air.

The body-parts framework is simple but strong: thirty pages on the medieval attitude to skin gives way to the same on bones, then another on the heart, and monotony is thereby banished without trace. The various members are treated as physical – subject to disease, surgery, artistic representation or literary description – but also metonymic. Among numerous others, Hartnell discusses the evolution of ♥ to symbolise love in medieval iconography; the figuration of the English King as ‘head’ of state (who would often be-head people); and the timeless tradition of representing Death as a cheeky, upwardly mobile skeleton. One illustration commemorates a deliciously macabre practise in fifteenth-century Western Europe, in an ivory rosary bead of two lovers kissing. The posing skeleton pressed up behind them is only visible from the back, his banner reading ‘recognise in me what you will soon be’. Rosary beads were made to be turned over by the fingers during prayer, so that each devotion would unearth this memento mori at unremitting intervals. As Hartnell says, ‘the violence and impending doom of medieval bones seem to have met the eye uncomfortably often.’

At its strongest, the book essentially consists of such vignettes. In his exploration of the hands, we are told of the medieval manuals on chiromancy which advised that ‘a doubled “oo” sign’ in the wrinkles of a man’s palm ‘suggested an imminent loss of testicles for the bearer or his younger brother.’ Science before the Renaissance had not described the blood’s circulation, but a whole judicial method was established around its cruentation: the belief that a corpse would start to bleed afresh in its murderer’s presence. The stomach, meanwhile, leads Hartnell on to a colourful story, from the Old Icelandic saga of Egill, about one of the organ’s most direct uses; Egill is so disgusted with his host’s bad hospitality that he vomits into his face, ‘so that Ármóðr approached suffocation.’ In a more austere history this would pass for unsavoury relief, but Hartnell rests for not a moment; a page later we have read an Anglo-Saxon riddle about the anus, and been transported to the twelfth-century court of Henry II – which ‘boasted one Roland the Farter, paid handsomely for amusing the royals’. Hartnell avoids mugging these examples up, however, and his wit is dry and sparing. I defy anyone not to learn much they didn’t know, and be thoroughly entertained.

His tone is not faultless. Hartnell’s wide-eyed, non-judgemental tone sometimes veers too far into the simplistic, resulting in accidentally funny moments of banality. He sometimes concludes that the eyes were used in the Middle Ages to see with, or the feet to walk with, while ‘Hands in the Middle Ages let the world in. Their touch gave shape to experiences and objects’ – as if this somehow lets the reader into anything. Elsewhere he is overready to sentimentalise about attitudes too. Blood ‘warped from the flowing stuff of life into fuel for racial hatred and division across the continent,’ he writes, leadenly. On the flipside, the grave of ‘Anna, mother of Grisanto’ in Palermo may bear a quadrilingual inscription, but can this one example from Sicily in 1149 be exploded into a ‘sign of medieval multicultural sensibilities’? This feels like a wishful whitewash. 

The only sustained disappointment, though, is the chapter on genitals, which I was looking forward to after all the gleeful trivia about the medieval anus. Hartnell instead abandons his mission to undermine preconceptions about the past, in favour of an information-light newsflash on the medieval oppression of women. The already well-established fact that women a millennium ago were disenfranchised and their bodies objectified is given another lick of paint – plus a totally unhelpful diagnosis of ‘severe castration anxiety among medieval men’ due to the womb’s hollowness, which surely won’t do. The best part is a painting, by a husband-and-wife manuscript team in fourteenth-century Paris, of two nuns picking penises off a tree and stuffing them into their pockets. Mind you, that would stand out under any circumstances.

The reader who goes in having already studied some aspect of the world before 1500 will not find their paradigm shifted, then. What Medieval Bodies offers is rather the life-affirming sense of a bustling and compendious canvas, almost limitlessly diverting. Those studying medieval literature – particularly its carnally-fixated ascetics, like Julian of Norwich – should treat this episodic but ingenious book as a rich backdrop to their more detailed reading, and plunder it for nuggets of context. Hartnell’s holistic gaze takes in areas, like Hebrew medical writing, which illuminate mainstream currents of European thought while never troubling any mainstream reading lists. 

One of the most arresting images in this highly visual book is from a copy of Jean Froissart’s Chroniques (c.1475), showing in gratuitous detail the gory beheading of four French traitors. The blood is very red, and the heads awfully detached – but the main interest is in the spectators’ expressions in the background, exchanging glances with a grim mixture of approval and titillation on their childish, oval faces. Hartnell’s Middle Ages are marked by various flavours of motiveless physical cruelty. However, his open and likeable sense of compassion is usually mute on these points; it emerges most when human ignorance, rather than malevolence, is concerned. His publisher, the Wellcome Collection, is associated with charitable efforts to improve world healthcare, so this is only fitting. 

The most troubling vision here, Hartnell implies, is of men and women whose bodies were just like ours, but who lacked – or were deprived of – the means to look after them properly. ‘Neither able nor willing to redesign their ideas about the body from scratch, the deep-rooted classical traditions that doctors were nobly perpetuating had an unshakable hold, even if it meant draining several pints of blood from a perfectly healthy person.’ This frequently-sounded note of regret is like a curator’s pause for thought during a gallery tour. It lends heart to a book which, though good for the eyes, would otherwise be slightly skin-deep.