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.