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21.08.24 Scott/Barbezat, Fluid Bodies and Bodily Fluids in Premodern Europe

The Medieval Review

21.08.24 Scott/Barbezat, Fluid Bodies and Bodily Fluids in Premodern Europe


Fluid Bodies and Bodily Fluids in Premodern Europe is a book about the fluid body from the medieval to the early modern period. In this collection "fluid" refers both to the liquid nature of a body (blood, tears, and other viscosities) and to the capacity of a body to transform (i.e., a body's fluid nature). The editors write that the contribution of this volume is that it "focuses on the body and its fluids as tools for signifying and understanding processes of change" (2). Fluid Bodies is interdisciplinary in its scope; essays move between literature, art, theology, philosophy, and medical discourse to consider the possibilities and limits of bodily change. There is a wealth of scholarship that attends to the history of the body and corporeality in the premodern world and Fluid Bodies is a welcome addition to this conversation.

The book is tripartite in its organization and each section explores the body's potential to "become fluid" (4). From Margery Kempe's liquid pilgrimage to the participatory emotional engagement of passion iconography, the first section "Transformative and Manipulative Tears" investigates a subject's use of crying within public spheres. In the second section, "Identities in Blood," the chapters focus on expressions of sanguinity in allegorical, religious, and dramatic literary texts. The final section, "Bodies and Blood in Life, Death, and Resurrection" considers the body as a mediator of fluid in medico-religious discourse and iconography.

It is appropriate for a book on premodern fluids to begin with a chapter about Margery Kempe's tears. In a new approach, Anthony Bale's chapter "Where Did Margery Kempe Cry?" presents a geographic tour of Kempe's effluvial tears rather than a specifically gendered analysis of her affective piety. In what Bale refers to as a "tour of weeping," Kempe's pilgrimage to Jerusalem gives literal and figurative space to weep alongside some of Christendom's most liquid sites. Her crying is both personal and public and the performative geography of Kempe's tears take on a "territorial aspect" (28). And still, this territorial aspect of Kempe's tearful intimacy with Christ is grounded in the spiritual locus of her own body. Drawing on Laura Kalas Williams' work on Margery Kempe's medical mysticism, tears and blood, as Bale notes, are both coded as wet and warm humors. This heightens Kempe's embodied experience of Christic weeping as "pseudo-stigmatic" (21). From Norwich to Jerusalem to Rome, Margery Kempe's tears are deployed in specific geo-sacral spaces as a self-authorization that brings her closer to Christ.

While Kempe's experience of Christ's passion is embodied and mediated through literature, Hugh Hudson's chapter turns to passion iconography to understand lamentation. As Hudson notes expressive emotions were typically suppressed by the Church before the thirteenth century but became crucial to "personal, emotional, and participatory engagement" (32) with liturgical and Passion ceremonies in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This chapter looks to Bartolomeo Bellano's stone sculpture the Lamentation of Christ, ca. 1476-1497, which is depicted on the cover of the collection of essays. Hudson argues that "church doctrine, sumptuary law, and conduct texts" (33) influenced how artists depicted the emotional engagement of men and women who flocked to Christ during his passion. While biblical figures are typically portrayed with obvious signs of grief, Hudson shows that the figures of the donors--included alongside these biblical figures--are presented rather stoic and impassive in their expression. Hudson suggests that the impassivity of emotion in passion iconography is a function of historical embeddedness. The uncertainties around figural identities in religious iconography, Hudson writes, "contributes to the tensions or contradictions in the way they model devotional behavior" (34). Early modern devotional art shows that the way tears were visually presented suggested particular models for devotional practice.

The final essay in Part 1 examines the political performativity of shedding tears. Susan Broomhall's chapter considers the political power of Catherine de Medici's tears after the death of her husband Henri II in 1559. Catherine de Medici's tears were mediated in both the space of the public domain and in her diplomatic relationships. Broomhall writes "Catherine's corporeal and emotional experiences as a grieving widow were performed as visual and material presentations through which both the gendered body and political agency were simultaneously produced" (55). Catherine de Medici's tears carried important political data that male diplomats and ambassadors had to interpret and convey, a responsibility that Broomhall suggests was an "emotionally challenging event" for them (69). Through crying Catherine de Medici employed an affective political strategy that not only constructed her own political identity but the larger political ethos of the sixteenth-century French court.

The essays in Part 2, "Identities in Blood," begin with Anne M. Scott's chapter on the "blody brethren" (bloody brethren or blood brotherhood) of Piers Plowman. Blood is of crucial importance to the poem since, as Scott writes, it is an "exploration of what is means to be fully and corporeally human in the contemporary world of fourteenth-century England" (76). As Scott's chapter demonstrates, Piers Plowman invokes Christ's blood and its "miraculous liquefactions" (77) in order to instruct the narrator of the poem, "Wille," to connect his own corporeality to Christ's body. In other words, Wille must become "blody bretherne" with Christ. The poem shows that the shedding of Christ's blood is the "only corrective to sin" and "means of salvation" (89) for Wille.

Building on the communal aspect of blood, Samuel Baudinette explores the somatic piety of fourteenth-century Dominican mystics. Just like Margery Kempe, medieval Dominican nuns sought a connection with Christ through corporeal suffering. Baudinette argues that this corporeal mysticism through penitential practice manifested in the deliberate drawing of blood and effusion of tears. The Dominican sisters' somatic piety was expressed through the Schwesternbücher ("Sisterbooks") and Offenbarungen ("Revelations"), which centered the importance of flagellation and bodily hurt as spiritual development in their religious communities. In a period when the "mystical significance of blood" took root in medieval Germany, Baudinette suggests that both the Schwesternbücher and Offenbarungen responded to the social atmosphere of speculative mysticism with a "practical mysticism" (99). The overlap of bodily mortification and devotional practice united under the material reality and mystical symbol of blood, Blutmystik (101). These penitential practices cohered in what Baudinette calls "theatrical asceticism," a performative register of mediating and manifesting Christ.

The final essay in Part 2 continues the discussion around performance and blood by looking to William Shakespeare's Macbeth and King Lear through sixteenth and seventeenth century medical theories of sanguinity. Karin Sellberg's essay brings together early modern medical texts with cultural-literary conceptions of the regulation of passions. Sellberg argues that the emergent focus on blood circulation and sanguine balance in early modern English vernacular medical texts, such as Nicholas Gyer's The English Phlebotomy (1592) and Helkiah Crooke's Mikrokosmographia (1615), offers a particularly useful way of reading Shakespeare's tragedies centered on the spilling of blood. Through what Sellberg calls Lear and Macbeth's "sanguine systems" (121) we see how the flow or cessation of blood comments more broadly on the "public and individual circulation of blood, seed, and passions" (120). Juggling concern over bloodlines and generation, both King Learand Macbeth use blood as a tool to materially route and reroute passions of the heart.

While the first two sections explore the form and function of bodily fluid, Part 3, "Bodies and Blood in Life, Death, and Resurrection," places the body at the center of the discussion to consider the materiality of blood within the boundary of the body. Diana Hiller's chapter, "Saintly Blood: Absence, Presence, and the Alter Christus," explores the absence and presence of blood in early modern Italian religious paintings. While the omission of blood on saints' bodies suggests a testament to unwavering faith, some saints such as Saints Sebastian, Francis, and Peter Martyr, are frequently portrayed with flowing blood. Hiller suggests that the visual tradition of "blood iconography" (156) on the body of Christ was imported to these saints in order to highlight the saint's status as an alter Christus, an alternative Christ.

Absence of bodily fluid is taken up again in Helen Gramotnev's essay on the treatment of the body in Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632). During the Protestant Reformation when the body was a "transformative tool" following the maxim "God made flesh," Gramotnev shows how Dutch artists were concerned with the realism of bodies. In Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson he depicts the public dissection of a criminal – most likely the body of Aris Kindt--by Praelector, or Head Surgeon, Nicolaes Tulp. The body shares much of its realism with contemporary paintings of animal carcasses, and Gramotnev suggests that this reflects the "interest in death in order to preserve life" (165). Gramotnev links the imagery of Christ's body covered in a loincloth in Andrea Mantegna's Lamentation over the Dead Christ (ca. 1478-1485) with the body of the criminal dissected by Tulp in Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson. Arguing that the guild of surgeons is "sacrificing" the body of the criminal to science, Gramotnev suggests that Rembrandt's painting is not a comparison with the body of Christ but rather with the divine knowledge of the human body.

Closing out the collection is Michael David Barbezat's chapter on Augustinian thought on the resurrection of bodily flesh in the De Fide et Symbolo. In the De Fide Augustine is concerned with the "relationship between matter...and divine perfection" (178); specifically, he is focused on the materiality of the body and how it would resurrect in the end times. Despite the body's nearly complete transformation, the resurrected body would continue to be a human body. For Augustine this is because not every body is made of flesh; this material consideration removed flesh and blood but retained corpora at the time of resurrection. Barbezat shows that Augustine's questions about the balance of an incorporeal spirit with a material body are not too far from our contemporary ideas of trans-humanism; "where is it" Barbezat asks "that personhood resides" (190)?

The essays in Fluid Bodies and Bodily Fluids in Premodern Europe range from literary drama and medieval philosophy to art history and biography. Many chapters are in conversation with the groundbreaking scholarship on blood, devotion, and bodily fluids such as Caroline Walker Bynum's Wonderful Blood (2007) and Fragmentation and Redemption (1991), Bettina Bildhauer's Medieval Blood (2006), and Elina Gertsman's Crying in the Middle Ages (2012). Moreover, when read together, the essays complicate and enrich each other in important ways. I can envision this volume being used in an undergraduate seminar on the history of the body or a course on the literature and art of fluids. The collection is a valuable addition to premodern studies of the body and religious studies; it offers specific contributions that will be of interest to art historians, historians of medicine and science, and literary historians.