Smarty Pants Podcast

Getting Physical

How people experienced their bodies in the Middle Ages

By Stephanie Bastek | November 22, 2019
<em>A verger's dream</em>, Master of Los Balbases (Wellcome Collection)
A verger's dream, Master of Los Balbases (Wellcome Collection)

When thinking of the past, one of the hardest things is to imagine what it would have been like to inhabit a physical body in a world so different in look, smell, and feel from our own. What was it like to go to the doctor 800 years ago? If you cut your finger and bled, what would that blood mean to you? What about the blood of saints—would that be different? What about exercising, eating, giving birth, having sex, burying the dead? The way we think about these experiences fundamentally changes how we experience them. So how has our thinking changed since the Middle Ages? Jack Hartnell’s new book, Medieval Bodies, explores the answers to these questions through a series of vivid objects, stories, texts, and paintings, starting with the head and meandering through skin and heart and stomach all the way to the feet. Along the way, he constructs a living, breathing body of evidence that helps us understand our physical past.

Go beyond the episode:

  •    A medieval uroscopy chart, depicting what urine might reveal about the inner state of the body (Wellcome Collection)
  •    The final of the six tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn, which includes tapestries devoted to touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing (Wikimedia Commons)
  •    The final of the six tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn, which includes tapestries devoted to touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing (Wikimedia Commons)
  •    A medieval uroscopy chart, depicting what urine might reveal about the inner state of the body (Wellcome Collection)

Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek. Follow us on Twitter @TheAmScho or on Facebook.

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