“Dissections, preserved body parts, and penis trees” – Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell

There is a lost language from world history. Not a spoken one but signed. The remnants of it are hinted at in texts that survive from that period of history known variously as the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages, or the Medieval era. In a lexicon provided to monks, over 118 of these lost signs are described.

“For the sign of something bad, place your fingers spread out on your face and pretend that it is the claw of a bird grasping and tearing at something.”

The Medieval era is an era steeped in stereotype, author Jack Hartnell argues in his brilliant book Medieval Bodies. A stereotype that believes

“that from roughly the years 300 to 1500, most people inhabited a time oscillating between Braveheart and Blackadder, a world of generalised ignorance, living in piteous squalor only to make war in the fretful darkness.”

The book Hartnell has written is his argument against such stereotypes, a deep dive into life, belief, and death.

Cannily structured in accordance with Medieval rankings of importance placed upon various parts of the body, Hartnell begins with the head, and ends with the feet, working his way down the body. Along the way he creates a fascinating guide into a world of dissections, preserved body parts, and penis trees. There are the gory details and lurid accounts of strange medicines, but alongside that there are nuns writing feminist graffiti in books, and an overwhelming sense that the era was on the cusp of great discoveries.

Any Cop?: A terrific reconsideration of a stereotyped age. Well worth a read.


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