Medical Violence and 'The Miracle of the Black Leg'
Below is a preview of my essay published in Synapsis: A Health Humanities Journal, an open-access journal that connects topics on medicine with the humanities. If you are citing this piece, please cite it from the full entry on the Synapsis website.
CW: Visual and textual depiction of violence against a Black body
The legends of Saints Cosmas and Damian, the patron saints of medicine, pharmacy, and surgery, are dramatic miracles to the highest degree. These early Christian martyrs lived and died in the third century, in what is now modern-day Syria. As two traveling doctors, the saints refused to take payment for their services, and subsequently received the epithet anargyri (Greek ανάργυροι) meaning “the silverless ones,” which underscored their Christian humility. Together, they performed cures of ailments like blindness and paralysis, resolving fevers and everyday sicknesses. Other times, their legends present them in their more necromantic element: raising the dead, expelling snakes from the breast, and praying with camels. But in the Middle Ages, these two holy physicians became best known for their miracle of leg transplantation. The saints’ leg-grafting miracle was popularized in Jacobus de Voragine’s thirteenth-century compilation of saints’ lives, the Legenda Aurea (the “Golden Legend”). De Voragine’s Latin translation of the Greek stories is the first text to describe the grafted leg as Black. The miraculous transplantation occurs between a Black man and a white verger.
This curious detail of the Black leg in the saints’ leg-grafting miracle is as an example of what medievalist Cord Whitaker calls medieval “race-thinking” present in racial metaphors, that is, “black metaphors, or the literary and rhetorical presentation of black humans and inanimate objects, as well as the white metaphors they call forth…” (7). In this short piece, I want to think through the implications of a medieval medical imaginary—in texts and images—that privileges white healing over Black life and embodiment. Considering the violence and racism embedded within the history of science and medicine, the “Miracle of the Black Leg” shows an unforgiving prefiguration of racialized medical practice long before the pseudoscience of eugenics.
Figure 1: Image of the well-known medieval story, “Miracle of a Black Leg.” Sts. Cosmas and Damian, ca. 1370–75, Master of the Rinuccini Chapel (Matteo di Pacino) (Italian, active 1350–75), tempera and gold leaf on panel. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh
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