Sunday, January 2, 2011

Get Well Cards

Roger of Salerno. Chirurgia
Iris, the plucky rational one, has been sick: massive head cold which inevitably led to an ear infection which led to antibiotics which led to stomach troubles - the works.  Not one to wallow in self-pity nor ask for help, she used her brother's Moshi Monsters (don't ask) account to send herself a get-well card.  Who does this? Who does this at the age of almost seven, and then not tell anyone? There I am singing Oliver's praises for being such a good brother in sending his sister a get-well card (it went from his Moshi account to hers) and all the while it was she who had broken into her brother's account, constructed a get-well card and sent it to herself, never taking credit (letting her brother get all the praise) until he couldn't stand it anymore and outed her ploy.  I. love. her. 

14th c. Urine Chart
The whole incident has prompted thinking about the possibilities of getting well in the Middle Ages, and the illuminations thereof. I'm trying to decide how much of an emphasis on medieval medicine I'm going to put in my "Women and Medieval Art" class next semester (fantastic images on birth and sex await). I'm also thinking through what place medieval medicine might have in my idea for a new class on "Environmental Consciousness in Medieval Art" (medieval medicine being so microcosmically inter-related to the natural world).  So I've started thinking of images that show hope for wellness.  Roger of Salerno's 12th century surgery book never ceases to fascinate a) for its amazing "how-to" illuminations and b) for the placement of these beneath religious scenes (you see the Flagellation in the top central panel above).  We struggled with these images in dear Michael Camille's "Medieval Art and Medicine" seminar - the religious imagery flows narratively from one page to the next, and while every once in a while you can make a connection between the religious narrative image and the surgical image below, most of the time they seem to exist in parallel space and meaning with each other: no direct correlation.  People didn't only pray to get well in the Middle Ages.  But the body was more contingent: upon the planets, the stars, the seasons, the zodiac and, sure, God.  Urine analysis was always a favorite visual moment of mine - the aesthetics of it in those charts, as multiple colors of health and illness encircle the physician and his apprentice.

Vovelle and Vein Man, 14th c.
Ok, writing about these makes me want to give several weeks over to medicine in the environmental consciousness class.  It's the idea of the contingency of the body upon the greater natural world that seems worth exploring.  And it's not in a "child of the universe" kind of way, either.  It's a precise series of correlations that defy modern understanding at first - it's correlations between body and planets and stars etc., but also ratios and proportions thereof.  This becomes very important in blood-letting, thus the vovelle which is a wheel co-ordinating lunar and planetary movements in ways I can't describe (but (ha!) will be looking into).  Blood-letting allowed you to re-establish the balance of your humors, to, in brief, get well.  I'm going to want the students and I get mired in issues of agency: is it the modern or the medieval body that is more contingent? Yes, the Enlightenment gave us the promise of an enclosed, complete self, to be managed and nurtured, but that self is more permeated than ever today with genetics, pharmaceuticals, and (ah) the environment.  Was Adam (to rethink Donna Haraway's awesome critique of Eden) ever whole?

Jewish Zodiac Blood Man
There will be much to talk about in this course on the issue of whence Western medieval environmental consciousness came from: the rich inheritances/appropriations from Muslim medical traditions (themselves worked from Greek medicine) - and then this wonderful illumination of a Jewish (noticeably circumcised) zodiac man: the signs of the zodiac writhing all over his body, indicating which blood-letting spots are best used when (pisces at the feet seem particularly eager to demonstrate the technique).  I've always loved the stoicism of these medieval medical figures - I know that seeing emotion is not the point of these images, but there's something  poignant to me about the patient and vulnerable stance that they always take: displayed, sometimes flayed, always penetrated in some way.

Zodiac Figure. 14th c.
The only one(s) to remain enigmatically closed is the twinned figure from Jean Duc de Berry's 14th century Tres Riches Heures. Is this a fantasy of wholeness - the body looking out to our space and beyond to where we cannot see, ungrounded but certain, marked and encircled by a sure and predictable universe. Or is it a fantasy of contingency? Those strange clouds whirling faster the more you look at them, the twins grasping greedily on each arm, the self in fact split not twinned.  For some reason, it is an image of wellness for me: contingent, momentary, enjoyable,  somewhat unconscious - as all wellness is.  Perhaps I'll show this to Iris, as she works her way back to wellness, and can once again run about, gloriously uncontingent.


  1. I think Iris is really on to something with the idea of sending herself Get Well wishes! So perceptive.

    I really wish I could take any of your classes, but especially the new one on "Environmental Consciousness in Medieval Art". It speaks to me as a scholar of (German) Romanticism who is interested in Concepts of Nature and "Naturphilosophie" and I can't help but wonder how the concept of "The Book of Nature" fits into this--perhaps as another "fantasy of wholeness -or contingency".

  2. Ah! You and I meet in the work of Caspar David Friedrich (who has his own website by the way! where the self, it seems to me, is whole but lonely because it is the world (as represented by? as displayed in? as projected through? nature) that has become contingent - on time, if not the vicissitudes of humanity. Mmmm - wish I could join you, Bill and Hansi for that cup of coffee and more talk.