Blood Matters: Studies in European Literature and Thought, 1400-1700
edited by: Bonnie Lander Johnson, Eleanor Decamp
Philadephia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018, ISBN: 9780812250213; Price: £368.00
University of Northampton
Date accessed: 1 June, 2023
This interdisciplinary collection of essays, emerging from a conference held at Oxford University and edited by scholars with interests in literature and medicine in early modern England, seeks to establish how the inhabitants of late medieval and early modern Western Europe defined blood, and to uncover how references to blood were deployed in descriptions of the human condition across various literary forms. The volume is divided into five thematic sections. As will be discussed later in this review, though, there are connections between essays in different parts of the volume, and around two-thirds of the contributors (11) hold positions in departments of English or Literary Studies, while a smaller number define themselves as cross-disciplinary scholars or reject disciplinary labels completely. Many authors focus on English-language texts produced in England, but several essays draw on evidence from other parts of Western Europe, or incorporate material from texts translated into English from other languages, particularly French, German, and Italian.
Section one, on circulation, begins with Margaret Healy critiquing the work of Christopher Hill, who argued that William Harvey ‘dethroned’ the heart in his writings after 1649 and afforded primacy to ‘democratic’ blood. Healy demonstrates that Harvey in fact emphasised the importance of both heart and blood throughout his career; that ideas about circulation as a beneficial phenomenon dated back to ancient Egypt and were promoted in the Renaissance by Hermetic and Platonic philosophers; and that circulation as a political concept featured in the writings of diverse philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes, James Harrington, Gerrard Winstanley, and Daniel Defoe. Jumping back in time to Renaissance Italy, Heather Webb explores how the movement of blood and blood-based spirit through and out of the bodies of late medieval Christians was imagined in the writings of Dante and Catherine of Siena as a means of binding individuals into spiritual and social communities, while Katherine Craik uses evidence from 2 Henry IV and Henry V to demonstrate how characters in these plays reinforce and undermine differences of class, with notions that noble blood was more refined and precious being challenged by the ways in which the blood shed by different sorts of men was depicted intermingling on imagined battlefields.
Craik’s essay on the bodies of soldiers flows nicely into section two, on wounds, which opens with Hester Lees-Jeffries unpacking what bloodstained garments can reveal about attitudes to bodies, blood, and textiles in early modern England. Bloodied garments often stood in for wounds and bodies themselves, blurring boundaries between skin and fabric, both of which were cut and slashed to reveal what lay beneath, while blood-red garments might signify martyrdom, political authority, or vulnerability. Gabriella Zuccolin and Helen King contribute to ongoing debates about menstruation, emissions of blood, and the one-sex model by arguing that nosebleeds were imagined as both positive and negative in women and men, deemed to result from knocks or falls, but also from exposure to hot or moist air, baths, or foods, and imagined as unnatural but not necessarily unbeneficial forms of bleeding. Joe Moshenska concludes the second section by analysing descriptions of bleeding trees in Renaissance literature, arguing that authors such as Edmund Spencer in The Faerie Queen deployed a topos dating back to Virgil’s Aeneid which ruptured their texts, requiring readers to consider where boundaries lay between humans and non-humans, vegetables and animals, the living and dead.
The third section, on corruption, starts with Tara Nummedal investigating how alchemists influenced by Paraclesus, such as Anna Zieglerin, sought to manufacture prepared blood which would retain the generative power but lack the corrupting properties they believed were inherent in menstrual blood. Ben Parsons draws on evidence from English, French, and Italian medieval pedagogical texts to demonstrate how ideas about blood were central to discussions of how boys should be educated. Sanguine students were regarded as having the kinds of negative attributes associated with adolescent males across time and space, including lethargy and unruliness, but blood also made such individuals flexible both mentally and physically, which in turn enabled them to be receptive and effective learners. Bonnie Lander Johnson concludes this section with an ecocritical reading of Romeo and Juliet, in which she uses the concept of ‘green’ to discuss representations of greensickness and parent-child relationships in the play, drawing attention to how Shakespeare used ‘earth’ as a sign for the human body and deployed human-plant analogies to explore themes of nurture and corruption.
In the first essay of section four, on proof, Lesel Dawson surveys representations of cruentation (the bleeding of the corpse of a murder victim in the presence of the murderer) in stage tragedies and murder pamphlets, reading such evidence alongside medical tracts to investigate the emotional and psychological impact on killers who were forced to grapple with feelings of guilt and remorse by being unmasked in this way. Eleanor Decamp uses medical texts, broadside ballads and plays, as well as records of the Barbers’ Company of London, to explain the significance of the tools – a knife and a basin – used by the protagonist in Titus Andronicus to butcher those who rape and mutilate his daughter, Lavinia. Elizabeth Dutton investigates the challenges of staging bloody scenes in historical and contemporary productions of late medieval and early modern drama, focusing on Macbeth and the Play of the Sacrament but referring to other English and French works. Patricia Parker concludes the section by using references to a blood-stained textile in Cymbeline as a starting point to explore meanings of hymenal and sacrificial bleeding in various Shakespearian plays.
The final section on signs and substance commences with Frances Dolan discussing the relationships between blood and wine in early modern England, noting that both were regarded as capable of nourishing humans and plants, but that vines and the juice of the grapes they produced were regarded as exotic products, so both needed to be acclimatised and adapted before they were suitable for the English environment and palate respectively. Dolly Jørgenson explains why images of the slaughtering of pigs in late medieval illustrated calendar cycles began to depict the draining of blood from the carcass during the course of the 15th century, a development which coincided with the proliferation of regulations relating to the disposal of animal waste in urban communities, but which is explained by the increasing identification of the slaughtering of the animal (always depicted as occurring in December) with the crucifixion of Christ, one dying for the stomachs, the other for the souls of the Christian community. The volume concludes with Helen Barr offering a queer reading of The Canterbury Interlude, a little-known response to the more famous work of Geoffrey Chaucer, which focuses on the violence inflicted on the Pardoner in a Canterbury inn, and the significance of the bloody wounds he acquires due to the beating.
The breadth of historiographical fields engaged with across these essays is impressive, and scholars researching early modern science, medicine, gender, and sexuality will find much of interest in this collection, as will those in search of novel readings of the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer. The discussions of the meanings of menstruation and properties of menstrual blood offered by Zuccolin, King, Nunnedal, and Parker engage with a complex historiography and speak to ongoing debates among feminists and in 21st-century society more broadly about transgender rights and how to define womanhood, while the essay by Barr makes an important contribution to the historiography on the queer middle ages. The desire to offer queer readings of texts is in part about questioning rigid boundaries, and those relating to humans, animals, and the natural world are focused on in the essays by Moshenska, Lander Johnson, Dolan, and Jørgenson, all of which invite readers to reflect on how Europeans related to the plants, soil, and animals they had daily intimate contact with during the late middle ages and early modernity.
Natural resources were important because they could be refashioned into everyday objects, which mattered greatly to the people of late medieval and early modern Europe. Analysis of goods is central to the readings offered by Lees-Jeffries, Decamp, Dutton, and Parker, who draw on the insights offered by theatre and material culture studies to analyse textiles and tools. In the digital age it is easy to forget that images were objects too, but while Lees-Jeffries includes some in her chapter, only Jørgenson bases her arguments primarily on visual evidence and the volume would have been strengthened by contributions from art historians. Nonetheless, as the essays demonstrate, medieval and early modern folk developed strong feelings about the natural and material worlds they inhabited, with Parsons, Lander Johnson, and Dawson demonstrating how emotions shaped and were shaped by understandings of age, gender, and family relationships.
As well as thematic scope, the collection is ambitious in chronological and geographical breadth, and the desire to reach across the late medieval-early modern divide is commendable. Doing this allows narratives of continuity and change to be constructed, as well as comparisons and contrasts to be drawn between cultures, societies, and polities. Here the collection is less effective, largely because religion is not engaged with in much depth, and it is noteworthy that it is in the essays by Webb and Jørgenson, both of whom focus on the middle ages, that belief is most prominent. Here themes of community and alterity are developed, with attention paid to connections between the living and the dead, as well as divisions between Christians and Jews, and it would have been beneficial for more space to be devoted to how Protestants and Catholics were united and divided by how they thought about blood.(1) This was an era when thousands died during what have been defined as wars of religion, but military violence is largely absent from the analyses too, with the essay by Craik being a notable exception, and more attention to debates within the historiography of the Reformation(s), as well as to how bloodshed might serve political ends, would have added nuance to the collection.
Violent conflicts between faith groups were not a new phenomenon in the 16th century, and at the end of the middle ages the Reconquista of Spain was nearing completion, enabling the Catholic monarchs to focus on imperial projects in the Atlantic World. Yet, even after 1492, Spaniards lived in multicultural societies in which great importance was placed on purity of blood when defining lineage and rank, not least because of the ongoing presence of Moriscos and Conversos (converted Muslims and Jews) in Iberia, both of whom were viewed with suspicion by many of their Christian neighbours.(2) None of the essays engage with Spanish literature, which was a missed opportunity given the centrality of blood to Iberian culture. Including one or more essays focusing on Spanish texts would have made the collection more diverse by enabling the inclusion of material on Muslim concepts of blood (or Christian concepts of Muslim blood), which in turn might have facilitated reflection on what precisely European concepts of blood were.
As these comments make clear, the forms of evidence scholars use to construct narratives about the past do much to determine the analyses they offer, and the literatures drawn upon by the essayists in this collection are diverse. While male authors from within the Western canon feature prominently, their writings are subjected to feminist, queer, and eco-critical readings, and such materials are read alongside medical texts and what scholars working on the early modern period have come to describe as cheap print. Dawson and Decamp in particular draw heavily on evidence from murder pamphlets and broadside ballads, but their engagement with the wider historiography on these works might have been greater: it was surprising to see the pioneering work on the former by Frances Dolan omitted from the bibliography, as well as the neglect of recent publications by Patricia Fumerton on broadside ballads (both single authored and edited collection), not to mention the lack of engagement with important studies by Peter Lake, Michael Questier, and Alexandra Walsham, who long ago drew attention to the polemical purposes to which bloody tales of murder and martyrdom could be put.(3) No doubt word counts, disciplinary boundaries, and the fact that some of these works were published as long ago as the 1990s may have led to them being excluded from the analyses, but all are important pieces of scholarship and deserved to be engaged with.
Overall, this is a wide-ranging collection with clear strengths and limitations. The willingness of contributors to draw on multiple forms of evidence to construct analyses informed by theoretical debates within feminist, queer, and eco-critical studies is to be commended, and scholars of the body will need to engage closely with many essays in this collection. Yet the volume does not offer as much to scholars of religion and affairs of state while, given the bold claims about geographical and chronological reach made by the editors in the introduction, more might have been done to assess the impact of the Reformations and to reflect on what the contributions reveal about the (dis)unity of attitudes to blood in Western Europe across approximately 300 years. As such, what readers of this review, and the volume itself, ought to be left with is an increased understanding of how wide-ranging the study of blood in late medieval and early modern Europe is and might be, as well as why cross-disciplinary approaches, incorporating methodologies from art history and material culture studies alongside scholarship on religion and politics, will enable more nuanced understandings of blood (and other bodily fluids) to develop.
- For an introduction to the Reformation, see Peter Marshall (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).Back to (1)
- For an introduction to these issues, see Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, 4th edition (London: Yale University Press, 2014).Back to (2)
- Frances E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994); Patricia Fumerton and Anita Guerrini (eds.), Ballads and Broadsides in Britain, 1500-1800 (London: Routledge, 2010); Peter Lake with Michael Questier, The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists and Players in Post-Reformation England (London: Yale University Press, 2002); Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).Back to (3)
Contributors to Blood Matters: Helen Barr, Katharine Craik, Lesel Dawson, Eleanor Decamp, Frances E. Dolan, Elisabeth Dutton, Margaret Healy, Dolly Jørgensen, Helen King, Bonnie Lander Johnson, Hester Lees-Jeffries, Joe Moshenska, Tara Nummedal, Patricia Parker, Ben Parsons, Heather Webb, Gabriella Zuccolin.
Additional image: Clysmatica nova: sive ratio, qua in venam sectam medicamenta immitti possint, ut eodem modo, ac si per os assumta fuissent, operentur: addita etiam omnibus seculis inaudita sanguinis transfusione / [Johann Sigismund Elsholtz]. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark