Are books becoming an adjunct to TV? Both of these are good reads, but both feel influenced by — and yearning for — television. Medieval Bodies could be the script for a landmark BBC Four series, while the author of How to Behave Badly in Renaissance Britain came to prominence as farthingale consultant on programmes such as Tudor Monastery Farm. She can tell you everything you never wanted to know about codpieces.
Medieval Bodies skips between English, Welsh, Hebraic and Islamic medicine with ease, touching on caliphs and kings, Mamluks and djinns. One gem here is the inventor Ismail al-Jazari, the Heath Robinson of 13th-century Baghdad. He designed for the Artuqid King Salih a mechanical device to wash his hands — a sort of ablutionary Teasmaid which included a singing model bird and an automatically proffered towel. This in 1206.
But before we can learn more, the author whisks us onwards, because the book is structured so that each chapter is a different body part, and the handwashing machine is part of the chapter about hands and we need to get on to the ‘handfasting’ of a couple in marriage, the king’s hands healing scrofula, the sign-language used between silent monks at the Abbey de Cluny in the 10th century, and so on.
There’s super material here, but the overall impression is that one is touring a wunderkammer, rather than following any meaningful theme or argument. But Jack Hartnell is a humane and insightful cicerone, an art historian who, like so many scholars, has discovered, thanks to the generosity of the Wellcome Collection, his underlying interest in medicine. He guides us from the top of the medieval head — ideally not sparsely covered in blond hair, as according to humoral theory that indicated deviousness — to the black foot of the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich III, amputated by a bold surgeon in 1493. It is such a pacy, piecemeal book that it may pique the curiosity of those not usually engaged in history. The emperor, I might add, survived. For a few weeks.
But like so many recent prestigious historical presentations, it becomes little more than a succession of objects arranged in eye-catching but facile groups. The book’s many illustrations are a feast, but reduce the text essentially to an extended caption. We’re too soon on to the next, wonderful, very different object. There’s not enough context, nor argument — there isn’t time, because the author needs to fit in too many cultures, hit too many targets. Still, the book ends with medieval bodies unlocked by the power of ancient DNA sequencing (‘aDNA’), a momentum poetically foretold.
Ruth Goodman comes at Renaissance Britain inside out, without professorial baggage but with the long-term historical re-enacter’s experience of wearing the garb and acting the part (and popping up on the One Show, forsooth). Like a drama student, she knows the weight of a swash and buckler, the slow, clodded walk of the ploughman, the long-skirted plod of the Franciscan friar, the mincing gait of a miss in cork-soled pantobles. She knows just how insolent and provocative it is to keep eye contact while curtseying.
This is history as sensation, as commitment: Method history. The granular detail covers the casual rudeness of displaying the underside of a hat, the merriment a shared two-gallon fowler can make, and how Tudor and Stuart bodies were cleaned by the ‘exfoliating and absorbing rub of linen’. She has even
personally experimented with this hygiene regime, living for extended periods without water washing, instead wearing and regularly changing a full set of linen undergarments. And to my surprise, I have found that a quite acceptable level of personal cleanliness can be maintained. The skin remains in good health — better, if I am honest, than with the showering regime.
She strikes you as so sensible — and then you remember how she spends her Saturdays.
There is also a political edge here. This is defiantly a peoples’ history. She never misses an opportunity to condemn the upper classes, such as the moment the rapier arrives from Italy: ‘Naturally, the swords assisted a young man in his attempts to exploit and intimidate the lower classes most satisfactorily.’
Bizarrely, the whole book pretends to be an inverse etiquette guide, which is so that she can put a rebellious, don’t-care spin on all the careful, sincere self-improvement sources she is plundering. This is disingenuous, leaving a Horrid Histories taste, as well as being downright weird. Why would anyone want a guide to behaving like a long-dead lout? Perhaps she knows more than we do. I can see her doing very well on I’m a Tudor-bethan, Get Me Out Of Here.