Comparative Guts

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500 – 1500 CE

Medieval EUROPE

Claire Bubb

Assistant Professor of Classical Literature and Science, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University
The Medieval period in Europe is bracketed on the one side by Late Antiquity and on the other by the early Renaissance. There are no precise dates that mark the transitions between this period and its neighbors—and, indeed, the period itself can be further divided into early, high, and late—but the millennium from roughly 500-1500 CE can fall generally under the heading of Medieval. The geographical boundaries of Medieval Europe are similarly slippery to define: borders, both internal and external, fluctuated often. The core of the region, as treated here, were the lands previously encompassed by the Western Roman Empire. To the southeast, the Byzantine Empire waxed and waned, sometimes claiming a significant presence in the Italian peninsula. To the west, the Muslim caliphates vied for control of medieval Spain with their Christian neighbors. Indeed, the element that most coheres Medieval Europe as a unit is the pervasive dominance of Christianity, which shaped life across religious, civic, and cultural spheres. Medical conceptions of the body in the early medieval West centered on Late Antique packaging and translation of the largely Greek medical wisdom of antiquity into Latin. Starting around the twelfth century, an influx of Latin translations of Arabic and Greco-Arabic material greatly expanded both the understanding of internal anatomy and the approach to its study.
Medical texts drove much of Medieval Europe’s depiction of the insides of the human body. In the earlier centuries, medical knowledge centered on a comparatively circumscribed canon of texts, which appear to have contained minimal illustration. The illustration that does survive leans towards the conceptual (fig. 1). In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, an influx of texts from the Arabic world—translations of, adaptions from, and additions to ancient Greek texts—enriched European medical thinking. Likely coming in with this wave of material were the illustrations known as the Five/Nine-Figure series (figg. 2, 3) which remained popular across the Medieval world, in western Europe and beyond (see Arabic Materials, (figg. 3, 4), Though integrated with a short anatomical text, these images largely operated as their own didactic unit, rather than as subordinate illustrations. One set of nine, for example, (fig. 3) was sewn together into a stand-alone booklet, the text being confined to the level of captions. Indeed, this independent operation of anatomical images continues to be visible into the 15th century, where illustration (e.g., fig. 5) can represent the only coverage of the subject of anatomy in the document. By the early fourteenth century, human dissection became a regularized feature of medical education in Bologna, but the practice was not immediately adopted universally. The Italian Guido da Vigevano, personally experienced with the dissection of human cadavers, created his set of anatomical illustrations (fig. 4) to circumvent French belief that human dissection was contrary to religious doctrine. Though there it was seen as a damper, Christianity had its own role to play in the imaginary of the body’s recesses: the embalming of saints’ bodies for relics and the depiction of their demises equally invited contemplation of the guts (see Birth of Modern Anatomo-Pathology, fig. 1) The images collected here are diverse in many respects, but all attest to a desire for detailed understanding of the viscera—unsurprising given the foundational roles medieval medicine assigned to anatomy in medical theory and to diet and digestion in overall health. Further, each grapples in its own way with the conundrum of how to represent a three-dimensional conglomeration on the page: some isolate individual organs or organ systems (figg. 1, 2, 3) others offer multiple, complementary views (figg. 4, 5).