Book Review: Jack Hartnell’s Medieval Bodies

It has been a long time since I have fallen for a book as hard as I have fallen for Jack Hartnell’s Medieval Bodies. The blend of art history, medical history and history of religion and empire gives a depth to the work, which I have rarely seen in a book smaller than a hefty and inaccessible tome. The book’s scope ties together the forces within a medieval person’s life which would have impacted the way they understood their body, how their bodies interacted with the world and also the bodies of others, be that friend, foreigner or foe. In this way, the text presents a much more well rounded and three dimensional discussion on medieval bodies than a book purely focused on medicine, or art, or religion.

A book like this could easily become overwhelming and muddled, but the structure of Medieval Bodies maintains a clarity over the whole text. Each section focuses on one aspect of the body or bodily experience. This allows Hartnell to explore the significance of each body part in great depth, without having to sacrifice any content for the sake of a specific or restricting sustained narrative. This layout is also unbelievably valuable for people like me, who often write on medieval understandings of the body (and specifically on how the intersections between medieval understandings of religion and medicine clash with post-reformation doctrine) and a text divided by body part would have been an amazing starting point for so many of my projects and essays. This is a book that I am definitely going to use time and time again within my academic career and in my blog.

Medieval Bodies was bought for me by a friend as I struggled with my last undergraduate exams and I managed to have the willpower not to touch it until I had finished. The book doesn’t just detail historical curatives, my tired eyes found it to be a curative itself. Resurrecting my love for learning and reading after it had been bludgeoned by the exam diet – the book is stunning, exquisite even, and not just the cover. One of my pet hates is when a book sticks all its photographs and illustrations in an index at the back. Medieval Bodies is chock full of beautiful images of relics, medical texts and art, which have all been arranged on the page in a way which compliments the text around it. This means that the reader will never be taken out of the reading experience by having to flick back and forth to locate images. It is always a great moment when a book about art can marry its own artistry with an accessible reader’s experience. Medieval bodies is a work of art in its own right.

The issue that cropped up with this book for me is that the dust jacket has become worn very quickly. This is partly (if not wholly) my fault, though. As I said, I fell for this book hard and fast and I have taken it everywhere with me – to work, to the park, in my weekend bag. I haven’t loved it gently. That being said, I do wish the cover had a plastic or laminate or at least a more sturdy cover. As much as I am fascinated by material book culture and the analogous relationship between books and bodies, it makes me sad that the beautiful cover of my book has become tarnished and scuffed.

To sum up, this book strikes a balance between being a work of art and providing a detailed and nuanced discussion of medieval bodies that is so far unsurpassable by any other book that I have read, both in my studies and spare time. I know that this is a book that I will come back to again and again, whether that be to inform my academic writing or to rejuvenate my love of learning and soothe my reading tired eyes.

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