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23.10.12 Leja, Embodying the Soul

23.10.12 Leja, Embodying the Soul

In Embodying the Soul: Medicine and Religion in Carolingian Europe, Meg Leja aims to subtly reconfigure assumptions surrounding early medieval medicine. From its opening pages, Leja positions herself against earlier studies and in particular the group of ideas associated with the nineteenth-century termMönchsmedizin, a label frequently used to imply that medicine in the early medieval period was practiced only within cloisters and was almost solely derivative of an earlier golden age.Rather than focusing on texts known to have been written in the period, Leja also studies recopied works, arguing that “in excerpting, rearranging, editing, organizing, and ‘clarifying,’ scribes and compilers were authors” (16). She suggests that scholars can discern the overriding concerns and preoccupations of the age by considering not just new texts but also questions such as which texts were recopied and how they were edited and rearranged.

While touching throughout on the practicalities of medical practice, the main focus of this work is on the way medicine was understood and integrated within broader spiritual and theological worldviews held in the ninth century. This emphasis is reflected in the subtitling of its three main parts: “An Ever Closer Union”; “Medicine for the Body and Soul”; and “Medical Order and Disorder for Self and Society.” The rich variety of material explored in this monograph and its nuanced approach to its sources will make it attractive to scholars at a variety of levels interested in the ninth century, the history of medicine, body and soul literature, or early medieval thought more generally.

The work begins with a general introduction, acquainting readers with the wide variety of medical material extant in manuscripts from the ninth century and demonstrating Leja’s command of a diverse and understudied body of material. Taken on its own, this chapter could provide a useful introduction to the study of medicine in early medieval Europe to interested students of the period at both undergraduate and graduate levels of study.

The first part of the body of the book is further subdivided into three chapters which focus on debates surrounding the soul, the self, and the body. The chapter on the soul illuminates ongoing debates in ninth century related to the corporeality of the soul and the nature of its relationship to the body. The chapter on the self takes as its focus spiritual handbooks written in the period for lay nobility, arguing that these works encourage lay introspection and emphasize individuals' responsibility to care for their own soul. This chapter also argues that an essential role was generally assigned to the body in the task of caring for the soul. The final and most complex chapter in this group explores the opaque nature of illness and its role as an “unstable sign” (88) that frequently shifts its meaning in texts from the period. The chapter examines how a disordered body can be purified and restored to health through virtus, a term used to signify both spiritual virtue of individuals, the divine virtus of the saints, and the healing properties of particular plants.

The book’s second part deals more directly with medicine and how medical texts and practitioners were viewed in the period. The first of two chapters in this part, “Christianizing Bodily Cures,” considers ninth-century debates over the usefulness and theological acceptability of human medicine; while capitularies and treatises such as Hrabanus’s On the Magical Arts forbid a variety of illicit activities, this chapter argues that medical authors and compilers had to shoulder the work of defining licit forms of medicine and that the extant sources reveal the different ways that scribes thought that “pagan aspects of the medical tradition could be neutralized” (120). The second chapter in this part, “A Ministry for the Medicus,” acts as a complement to the first, exploring the depiction of the medicus in ninth-century texts and suggesting the importance placed on the medicus as someone responsible for protecting the well-being of the body and preserving God’s creation.

The third part is made up of two chapters: “A Necessary and Timely Intervention” and “Habits for Health.” Together, these chapters work to explore the place of medicine within the broader theological landscape of the ninth century. The first chapter takes as its focus two popular medical treatises, The Letter to King Antiochus and the Letter to Pentadius, examining what these texts reveal about popular theories related to healing and highlighting the attention they appear to pay to invisible patterns (revealing the world’s divine schema) and the focus placed on necessary use and moderation. The theme of moderation is further developed in the final chapter, which deals in particular with food and drink and the moral and physical evils of excess; pushing against the assumptions associated with Mönchsmedizin, Leja further suggests in this chapter that prescriptions about dietary medicine were also relevant to lay audiences.

In her conclusion, Leja reflects on Pardulus of Laon’s instructions that “the physical needs of the flesh are to be discreetly regulated [...] Whatever is done with moderation fosters the health of body and soul” (228). This section works to brings together earlier arguments on the importance of moderation and individual self-reflection in care for the body and soul.

The book’s scope is impressive, especially for a first monograph, and adds significantly to the recent trend in scholarship towards reading medical texts for their literary value and alongside other types of literary, theological, and hagiographical traditions. While the area covered is very broad, encompassing a wide variety of manuscripts, texts, and genres, the work’s focus on the ninth century, and in particular to the Carolingian correctio, gives shape and focus to its discussion. While the discussion is very rich, one would like to have seen more space devoted to considering the reform project itself, and how it may have affected geographical or scribal centres differently. One sometimes wonders throughout the book if the centralized programme of the correctio is presented as too closely equivalent to the entire manuscript production of the period; little attention is paid, for instance, to the possibility of opposition to elements of the reform. In her conclusion, Leja observes: “as elites pondered the relationship between the temporal empire and the eternal city of God, the body served as a productive focal point for exploring notions of political incorporation and social cohesion” (233). This statement is intriguing but could be further elucidated; questions such as the nature of the relationship between these “elites” and the often-anonymous authors or scribes copying medical texts are left unexplored.

The book’s approach tends to rely on exemplary examples, which is a partially a result of its broad scope and is fitting for its accessible style. However, the weakness of this method is that the reader is sometimes left uncertain how representative individual works may be. To take an example, Chapter 2 posits a chronological shift in viewpoint between Bishop Paulinus of Aquileia’s Book of Admonition and the three other works treated in this chapter, one of which, Alcuin’s On the Virtues and Vices,was written only a few years later. It is difficult for the reader to decide whether a true chronological shift has occurred or whether Paulinus’s view is simply an outlier of the sources considered. While likely reflecting the choice of the publisher, one wonders if more elaborate comparative footnotes would have helped to further bolster some of the arguments presented throughout. Along this same line, while quotations can be individually checked in printed editions, providing the original Latin text used in quotations within the footnotes would have been useful to future scholars hoping to engage seriously with the arguments presented.

While smaller points would reward further debate, the Leja’s main assertion--that “medicine was rarely simply about healing physical ailments; it was consistently implicated in strategies for managing the relationship between body and soul” (196)--is highly convincing. It seems likely that this fascinating and learned study will be directing the study of Carolingian medicine for years to come.