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22.08.32 Borland, Visualizing Household Health

22.08.32 Borland, Visualizing Household Health

This very handsome (and heavy) volume is a study of the images of seven manuscripts of the Régime du Corps by Aldobrandino of Siena. This health guide--written, according to some of the manuscripts, for Beatrice, Countess of Provence, and her four daughters, queens of England, France, Sicily, and Germany, in 1256--is one of the earliest examples of its genre in the vernacular (French). It survives in seventy-five manuscripts, most of which are unillustrated. This edition focuses on the few manuscripts that include historiated initials, mostly depicting the topic of each chapter. The manuscripts fall into two chronological groups: three date from the late thirteenth/early fourteenth century and have close associations with the English and French royal families (although they cannot be linked directly to Aldobrandino’s original text); the other four manuscripts date from the fifteenth century. Although there are still links to the English royal family, there is evidence for circulation with this later group in less elite circles too, among the sixteenth-century English gentry. All the manuscripts are extremely expensive, lavish productions.

The Régime du Corps is a substantial guide to health divided into four sections on dietetics, bodily conditions and healthcare, foodstuffs and drinks, and physiognomy. The main medical theory underpinning the text is the six “non-naturals,” which arose out of the ideas of the Ancient Greek medical authority Galen (second century CE) as developed in the Islamicate world in the ninth century. These six things are air, food and drink, exercise and rest, sleep, evacuation, and the “passions of the soul,” usually identified as the emotions. The theory includes bathing, bloodletting, sexual intercourse, and other physical activities. Major ninth-and tenth-century texts on dietetics written in Arabic by authors such as Ḥunayn b. Isḥāḳ al-ʿIbādī (known as Joannitius in Latin) and Isḥāḳ b. Sulaymān al-Isrā-ʾīlī (known as Isaac Judaeus in Latin) were translated much later into Latin and circulated in European intellectual centres. They seem to have gradually come to influence daily life in elite circles, but the process of how and when these ideas became absorbed into European cookery, healthcare, and hygiene practices is not very well known. The production of the Régime and its circulation is a key part of this process, and is especially important for the representation of women engaged in these practices in some of the manuscripts.

Borland’s study is divided into four chapters on the visual languages of the Régime, the audiences of the illustrated manuscripts, the medical context, and the evidence in the images for household management and care of the body. It is not entirely clear why the detailed visual language of the manuscripts is studied before we are fully introduced to the manuscripts and their contents, or why the idea of the household, mentioned in the book’s title, is not discussed until p. 131. Generally, the book is well written bar an overenthusiastic use of the word “robust.” The author is committed to the idea of manuscripts as objects with their own biographies. Therefore, the introduction, chapter 2 and the appendices explore thoroughly this approach to these manuscripts, including the evidence for their circulation, their artists, and their other contents. The appendices provide extremely useful tables to all the images in all seven manuscripts with historiated initials, as well as listing all the other manuscripts, including information on whether they are digitised. A reader seeking an image, for example, of rice or vomiting, will find the appendices very helpful for their own work.

The third and fourth chapters on the medical context, and the light that the manuscripts shed on elite female households, respectively, are interesting but sometimes frustratingly vague. The sections on how women and medical practitioners are depicted in the manuscripts are very interesting. However, the more precise medical context of the Régime, and especially its immediate textual precursors,could have been examined more deeply. There is a tendency to broaden out the discussion too much, including lower-status contexts. The manuscripts of the Régime get a bit lost here. Similarly, the chapter on household management is broad and diffuse, drawing on multiple late medieval sources for households including conduct literature and recipe books. Where the analysis focuses on the images in the manuscripts, it is strong, but avoids some topics for no reason: for example, the depictions of furniture, including portable toilets/commodes, is not discussed at all.

One of the problems Borland faced was that it is impossible to pin down which households should be the topic of discussion. The prologue to Aldobrandino’s text explaining the association to Beatrice of Provence and her four daughters is not in all manuscripts, so has been disputed. Borland therefore seems to swing between wanting to connect the manuscripts to these royal households and trying to prove their relevance to households in general. Staying with the royal households would have made a lot more sense. It is clear that a deeper foray into Queenship Studies would have strengthened this volume. The four Provençal sisters led peripatetic lives, often in difficult political circumstances, while having young children. Borland seems to be unaware that two of these queens went to the Holy Land, one of them is said to have defended a city while giving birth, another was caught up in a civil war, and all of them have documented named household staff. Surely this information is relevant, for example, to the discussion of wet nurses. More precise knowledge of the royal families would have avoided the unfortunate confusion at one point of Eleanor of Provence with Eleanor of Castile.

The first chapter, on the visual language of the images, is the most original and interesting chapter. It discusses the relationship between the text and the images and makes comparisons with other often illustrated texts such as bestiaries, surgeries, herbals, and the later fourteenth-century health guide, theTacuinum sanitatis. As the seven manuscripts of the Régime all mostly include initials for the same chapters, it is revealing to compare the range of artistic choices for representing the same thing. Borland focuses on pregnancy, childcare, and wet nursing, but the depictions of the plants, animals, and techniques (like those for bloodletting, especially cupping) can also be studied comparatively. The section of this chapter on touch and intimacy is really fascinating, including the details of who in the images wears or holds gloves. This chapter could easily go on module reading lists in relation to daily life and healthcare. In the book as a whole, there are some weaknesses, but also a lot of strengths, and it is a beautiful-looking book.