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  • Writer's pictureMicah Goodrich

Medieval Body: Head

This year I have the great fortune of teaching at Boston University. We're a week into the semester and the students in both of my courses are brilliant and vivid thinkers - I am thrilled to spend the next fourteen weeks learning alongside them. One of the courses that I am teaching is "Medieval Worlds," a course which can take many different forms depending on the professor's interests and organization of material. When I found out I was slated to teach the course, I knew I wanted to form the syllabus around the body in some way. We're using Jack Hartnell's Medieval Bodies: Life, Death, and Art in the Middle Ages - it is a gorgeous and brilliant book published by the Wellcome Collection. Hartnell is an art historian and I chose his book largely because it offers students a glimpse into the material world of the Middle Ages. Organized by body part, the book also helps to form our course schedule. Each week we will attend to a part of the medieval body, reading Hartnell's chapters alongside literary texts that engage with that week's topic. What we end up with is a partitive literary history of the medieval body, one that - I hope - students find both strange and familiar.

I'd like to spend each week writing alongside my students to think in new ways about a topic that I've spent most of my career thinking about. Medieval discourses on the body were wide ranging, drawing from different religious traditions, scientific thought, and medical knowledges (not so different from our modern discussions of the body!). This week, we are beginning at the top of the body - the head. In medieval political writing, the head was of central importance to the body because it sat on the top of the "body politic." Popularized largely by medieval political theorist John of Salisbury, the "body politic" was the nation metaphorized as a body, divided into controllable parts. In his Policraticus (c. 1159), John of Salisbury measures the body politic by the health of its parts:

The head of the body of the commonwealth is filled by the prince, who is subject only to God and to those who exercise His office and represent Him on earth, even as in the human body the head is quickened by the soul. The place of the heart is filled by the Senate, which initiates good works and ill. The duties of the eyes, ears, and tongue are claimed by the judges and governors of provinces. Officials and soldiers correspond to the hands. Those who always attend upon the prince are likened to the sides. Financial officers and keepers may be compared with the stomach and intestines, which, if they become congested through excessive avidity and retain too tenaciously their accumulations, generate innumerable and incurable diseases, so that through their ailment the whole body is threatened with destruction. The husbandmen correspond to the feet, which always cleave to the soil, and need the more especially the care and foresight of the head since, while they walk upon the earth doing service with their bodies, they are more likely than others to stumble over stones…[i]

Because of its neat and tidy model of social health and order, John of Salisbury’s design of the body politic was modified and adapted by authors throughout the medieval period. Medieval theologians and political theorists believed that a productively operating body politic represented a healthy body politic and used wellness metaphors to describe the state of the social body.

The idea of the body politic saturated political and social climates, and the head became "a vivid means of

A medieval manuscript from c.1300 depicting Judith decapitating Holofernes
Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XIII 1, fol. 211 v, Austrian (c. 1300)

social control."[ii] Whether in a political register or through religious martyrdom, beheading was a major part of the medieval imaginary. One of the more delicious beheadings of the Middle Ages was Judith's decapitation of Holofernes. In visual depictions, the severity of gore shifted based on the choices of the illuminator, but the story remained more or less the same: the leader of the Assyrian armies, Holofernes, has backed the Israelites into a corner and Judith takes it upon herself to save her people. Holofernes' sexual aggression toward Judith frames her vengeance and Holofernes' subsequent drunkenness gives the narrative room for Judith to take up arms. She finagles her way into his bedchamber where Holofernes' lay drunkenly asleep. Judith beheads Holofernes, freeing the Israelites from the militancy of the Assyrian army.

Judith decapitating Holofernes
British Library, Yates Thompson 20, f. 215r

In both of the manuscript images here we can see the action of the decapitation. Holofernes, crowned in both instances, spurts blood to signal his final demise. One image places Holofernes in his bed, the linen also red to saturate the scene with his beheading. As Dana Oswald, Asa Simon Mittman, and others have shown: monsters get beheaded.[iii] Yet, when the decapitation is that of a king, ruler, military leader - the lines of monstrosity can become blurry. In this instance, Holofernes represents a violent, non-Christian king who the audience comes to dread by his treatment of Judith. Her decapitation of Holofernes is so iconic and enduring because there is so much at stake.

Students in the "Medieval Worlds" seminar are reading "The Passion of Saint Edmund" (Aelfric's version) in translation. This story, in many ways, inverts the Judith and Holofernes narrative. The Christian king Edmund is martyred at the hands of the violent, non-Christian Vikings. In class we will be checking out some manuscript images from "The Life and Miracles of St. Edmund" (Morgan Library) MS M.736, to consider the role of the head across the visual narrative.

[i] John of Salisbury, Policraticus, Trans. Cary J. Nederman, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012): 60–61.

[ii] Jack Hartnell, Medieval Bodies, 43.

[iii] Asa Simon Mittman, Maps and Monsters in Medieval England. (London: Routledge, 2006) and Dana Oswald, Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature. (London: D.S. Brewer, 2010).

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