Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages by Jack Hartnell - review by Tim Smith-Laing

Tim Smith-Laing

The Venerable Bod

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


Profile/Wellcome Collection 346pp £25 order from our bookshop

Medieval bodies do not, generally speaking, carry the best connotations. As art historian Jack Hartnell points out, in the popular imagination the medieval world is one of ‘generalised misery and ignorance’, ‘piteous squalor’ and ‘fretful darkness’, occasionally enlivened by a good war. And bodies are the spot where all that squalor and pain get actualised. Imagine the medieval body in relation to the quotidian ordeals of lice, ticks and fleas, to the sweeping scythes of disease, famine and war, or to the horrors of deliberately inflicted pains and punishments, and it is hard not to conceive of it as a fairly wretched object.

Medievalists have, of course, long been in on the secret that the medieval world was not the monochromatic slough of despond of popular belief. If you look beyond what Hartnell fairly terms the modern tendency to ‘patronise’ the period, it reveals itself as one of the most ‘glittering and diverse’

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