top of page
  • Writer's pictureMicah Goodrich

Medieval Body: Heart

Jehan de Grise and his workshop, "The Heart Offering," 1338-1344. Illustration from The Romance of Alexander, Bodleian Library, Oxford, England
Jehan de Grise and his workshop, "The Heart Offering," 1338-1344. Illustration from The Romance of Alexander, Bodleian Library, Oxford, England

When did the heart get the shape ♥ that we now use in doodles, cards, and emojis? What was once illustrated like an apple or a pear (see the image to the right), the heart now has two bulbs that end in a point, is flushed red, and looks nothing like its own anatomy.

As the fourteenth-century image to the right shows, the heart has been a steady source of love, affect, and emotion. Aristotle's treatise "On the Soul" (De anima) outlined the importance of the heart as the material manifestation of the soul. The Latin word anima refers to the soul, life-force, vital energy, spirit, as well as air. This is where we get words like animal and animation and animate. For Aristotle and followers of his writings on natural philosophy, all living entities had a soul. The soul was causally responsible for a living entity's capacity for life - to be animate. As Jack Hartnell writes, "for medieval thinkers in the Aristotelian mould, the heart was considered by some distance to be the body's principal and most powerful part, its theoretical core, a proxy originator of action and understanding."[1]

A marginal heart in The Book of Margery Kempe British Library Additional MS 61823, f. 44v
A marginal heart in The Book of Margery Kempe British Library Additional MS 61823, f. 44v

But what about the body? While the heart as a physical organ lives within the material body, the soul was distinct from the heart. For medieval thinkers, the relationship between the body and the soul could be wildly fraught or beautifully divine. As depicted in the literature of the "Body and Soul" tradition, the personified Soul rebukes the personified Body - often a rotting corpse - for living poorly. This is because the body was affiliated with the temporal, the earthly, the corrupt, and in its gendered valences, women (though not always). Alternately, the soul represented divinity, eternity, and perfection, and associated with male logics like rationality. This is where we start to see the mutability between heart turned soul turned mind.

In the image above we can see a cute little heart symbol ♥ in the margin of the fifteenth-century text The Book of Margery Kempe. This is in a passage about the "fire of love" one feels when encountering Christ; it is a warmth that burns in the chest. I love the three dots above the heart because it looks like it could be sparking with flame or, perhaps, it is retaining its depiction as an apple/pear and bears the stem at the top. It is around this time that the symbol of the heart ♥ became quite popular and commonplace. For instance, in the famous image of Venus the Lover by Meister Casper, c.1485, we can see Venus standing

Image of the goddess Venus standing over a broken hearted lover. She is surrounded by various hearts that she has broken in various ways, such as burning or impaling.
"Venus/Frau Minne and the Lover" (Venus und der Verliebte) by Meister Casper, c. 1485

above a broken-hearted lover. She is surrounded by several hearts, all of which are in the throes of violence.There is a heart on fire, one speared, another being sawed in half, while others look like they are in a panini press. The image is so spectacular because it joins the affective and physical registers of hurt.

From a medieval medical perspective, the heart played a crucial role in distributing blood to the rest of the body, allowing the animating life force to take place in the limbs, the eyes, the head, etc. In these two medical images, one from thirteenth-century Persia and another from fourteenth-century England, the venous system is depicted in quite similar ways.

What is important to note, however, is that medieval physicians did not have a sense of a closed circulatory system that we understand today. That concept "originated" with William Harvey, an early modern physician in his 1628 text Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus, "An Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Living Beings"). Medieval thinkers knew that the heart was associated with blood, that it delivered blood to the veins, but it was not a closed-circuit. This open and almost porous idea of the heart allowed different kinds of relational imaginings of how the body operated.

For our text this week, students read Lai d'Ignaure "The Lay of Ignaure," a medieval French lai composed in the early thirteenth century. A lai is a type of poem associated with the Bretons and popularized by Marie de France, an Anglo-Norman poet in England. Lais are short rhymed stories about adventure, quest, preternatural creatures, fantastical feats, chivalry, and love. In "The Lay of Ignaure," we encounter a bizarre story about a knight named Ignaure who cuckolds twelve men by loving their twelve wives. The twelve women form a council and elect a central priestess to facilitate confession. All the women discover that they love the same man, Ignaure, and together force Ignaure to choose one of them to love. While Ignaure chooses the priestess, a rogue overhears the council and conversation and tells the twelve husbands of the treachery of their wives. The husbands catch Ignaure, kill him, slice off his penis, and cut out his heart before making a stew for their wives to eat, replete with Ignaure's body parts. The women eat and love the dish before finding out that they have consumed their lover's heart and dick. The twelve women then decide they will never eat again and starve themselves to death.

Since lais are heavily didactic, what could possibly be the moral here? Do not love? Do not have sex? Do not confess your feelings? Do not RSVP to any dinner ever? I find that the story revels in the idea of the desires of the heart - in wanting to be fully consumed by and fully consuming your lover. Despite Ignaure choosing one woman to love, the jealous husbands create a situation where every single woman gets to have a part of Ignaure's heart and dick. Of course, the entry point into the body is unconventional (mouth) but we can see in this lai how desire is not easily governed since the poet equalizes genitalia and the heart. No one comes off well in this tale, yet the indulgence of the feast and the death of all lovers (beginning with Ignaure) might act as a satirical warning to lovers. Be careful in affairs of the ♥.

[1] Jack Hartnell, Medieval Bodies, 135.

10 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page