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  • Words, Stones, & Herbs: The Healing Word in Medieval and Early Modern England
  • Lea T. Olsan

medieval healing, power of words, reading, materiality, vernacular translation

Louise M. Bishop . Words, Stones, & Herbs: The Healing Word in Medieval and Early Modern England. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2007. Pp. xiv + 276.

The phrase "words, stones, and herbs" in the title of Bishop's book derives from lines added to a Middle English translation of Gilbert the Englishman's [End Page 118] compendium of medicine, where it is said that God gives power to words, to herbs, and to stones. The tri-fold axiom was a commonplace that circulated mostly in Latin and usually carried the qualification that, of the three, words had the most power. Although the Gilbert quotation points straightforwardly to God as the source of the power in these elements, questions about exactly how these powers (virtus) operated led to sophisticated debates among high-profile medieval thinkers in the thirteenth century and generated doctrinal pronouncements that exacerbated fears of demonic involvement. Historians have subsequently examined medieval beliefs in the powers in stones, plants, and animals by studying conceptions of the properties of things, both ordinary and special, the influence of the stars, the capacities of demons, and reports of miracles. The power of words, especially the utilization of words and signs as a medical therapy, was a form of benevolent magic and marginal religious practice that was well known and widely practiced in the Middle Ages. Louise Bishop's book directs our attention away from medieval conceptions of the power of words employed in healing to the larger considerations of the "materiality" of medieval medicine, the healing powers of reading, the social construct of reading audiences, the significance of vernacular translations, and the political implications of self-help medical publications in the reign of Henry VIII.

In Bishop's methodology, selected abstractions and metaphors are used to construct a historical social narrative. The "work joins medicine, materiality, vernacularity, and piety by reading medical texts literarily and literary texts medically." At the outset, she says, "[the book's] methodology is suggestive rather than exhaustive, cumulative rather than absolute." Bishop's project breaks ground because it brings together and cuts across disciplines and discourses in ways that more discipline-bound scholars rarely do. There are some positive results, as when in her Introduction (pp. 3-6), she explores the medical metaphors in Piers Plowman. Elsewhere the experiment does not work, either because a phrase under interpretation has been overloaded with irrelevant semantic content, as in the interpretation of the name of the remedy for the malady Noli me tangere, or because key interpretive terms such as "Galenic medicine" or "the feminine vernacular" are insufficiently or inaccurately explained. Bishop displays an admirably wide range of secondary reading and no lack of confidence in utilizing secondary sources to construct an argument. The risk here is that a seductive paradigm can highjack the argument, as does Harris Coulter's oversimplified idea that there existed from antiquity a divide between rationalist and empiricist medicine based on professional jealousy that led to a bias against non-university medicine in the Middle Ages and beyond. Unfortunately, this conception establishes a platform [End Page 119] for a social construction of medieval medicine that inaccurately sets the vernacular compilations and translations in opposition to learned Latin medicine.

Bishop's first three chapters establish key interpretive terms: "Galenic medicine," "materiality," "healing word," "medical metaphors," "healing reading," and "vernacularity."

Chapter 4 posits that the dangers of alchemical transmutation explicit in Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman's Prologue and Tale are analogous to the dangers of translation from Latin into the vernacular, with implied threats to the orthodox soul. The close readings of the tale lead to an excursus on the relation of alchemical transmutation and language translation. Chapter 5 treats the presence of women healers, however difficult they are to document, and Middle English translations of medical texts as interrelated phenomena. Then it examines Henry of Lancaster's Livre de seyntz medicine, which, like Piers Plowman, integrates medical metaphors into pious literature. Chapter 6 seeks to unpack the ways that one recipe—"For Noli me tangere," drawn from a...


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