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19.12.13 Walter, Middle English Mouths

19.12.13 Walter, Middle English Mouths

As the author of the fourteenth-century The Book of Vices and Virtues pointed out, humans only have one mouth; moreover, it is relatively small in comparison to the rest of the body. This, he argued, was an indication of its relative unimportance, and of the necessity of "sobrenesse"--for if we were meant to eat and drink a lot, we would have two mouths. Katie Walter, on the other hand, is convinced of the significance of the mouth, and her Middle English Mouths makes a compelling case for the importance of this organ in late medieval medical, religious and literary traditions.

The book opens with an introduction in which Walter sets out her intellectual and methodological framework, and outlines her sources- primarily (although not exclusively) fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Middle English medical, theological and literary writings. Chapter 1 ("Natural Knowledge") focuses on medical and physiological approaches to the mouth, and in particular explores how it interacts with the viscera, heart, and brain. Such interactions cannot, however, be understood in purely scientific terms: the senses of the mouth were closely linked to the senses of the soul, and control of the mouth (and by implication of the stomach and anus) also had important implications for spiritual wellbeing.

Chapter 2 ("The Reading Lesson") examines the mouth's place in the body, engaging with the idea that the upright posture of the human body is a sign of spiritual orientation. Is the mouth an instrument of speech, and therefore part of the upper body, or does its connection to the digestive tract place it firmly within the lower body? Medieval theologians thought it significant that adult humans learn to control both their hunger and their excretion, freeing them up to focus on spiritual things; this is what distinguishes them from the animals, and indeed from infants and the elderly. The chapter is rounded off with a consideration of falling and vomiting as metaphors for confession, in which the mouth becomes an agent of spiritual reform.

Chapter 3 ("Tasting, Eating and Knowing") is a two-part exploration of the relationship between the mouth and the acquisition of knowledge. It opens with a detailed examination of the infant mouth, and shows that the presence (or absence) of teeth was strongly linked to rational capacities. Consequently, teething was closely associated with a child's moral and spiritual development, and an old man's loss of teeth was assumed to herald loss of reason. Whilst keeping a tight focus on the topic at hand, this wide-ranging discussion also includes some fascinating nuggets of information about medieval childrearing. For example, we learn that rubbing the gums, teeth, tongue and palate with salt, honey or butter was thought to ease teething, but also to encourage speech, so that this was seen as an integral part of teaching a child to talk. The second part of this chapter demonstrates how reading was often understood as a form of eating. Bernard of Clairvaux said that the psalms should not be swallowed whole, but must be chewed thoroughly, otherwise the palate is deprived of the delicious flavour. There were, however, limits on who should be allowed access to such spiritual foods: a common image described the knowledge appropriate to the clergy as meat, whilst the laity should be allowed only milk.

Walter next turns her attention to "The Epistemology of Kissing," tracing the long history of the spiritual kiss and arguing that it achieved a new significance in the twelfth century, from which date it was increasingly understood in psychophysical terms. More than just a symbol, the kiss was a form of touching which potentially involved the exchange of breath and saliva, and which affected both body and soul. This effect could be a positive one, for example when kissing a relic mediated some of its sacred qualities into the body, or when Judas' kiss with Christ materially changed his mouth so the Devil could not touch it. But to sin with one's mouth was to let the Devil in, and sinful kisses could lead to decay of both the body and soul.

The final chapter ("Surgical Habits") opens with an overview of medical procedures such as the scraping and filing of teeth. (Extraction was, Walter argues, a last resort, not just because it was dangerous but also because the association between teeth and reason made toothlessness an undesirable state.) These procedures were often employed in metaphorical contexts: "grammar" was frequently personified as a physician performing oral surgery, and confession was often compared to dentistry, with the former cleaning the soul as the latter cleaned the mouth.

Overall, this is a dense study which deals with some complicated ideas, but is ultimately a rewarding read which will be of interest to both historians and literary scholars. By providing a detailed and wide-ranging study of both the physical and metaphorical mouth, and its place in medieval culture, Walter makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the medieval body and the senses. More broadly, her book demonstrates the importance of studying the past on its own terms: whilst the modern mind instinctively tries to separate body and soul, Middle English Mouths skilfully weaves these themes together, and thus sheds new light on the relationship between religion and medicine in late medieval England.