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  • Medicine, Religion and Gender in Medieval Culture ed. by Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa
  • Alexandra Barratt
Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa, ed. Medicine, Religion and Gender in Medieval Culture. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2015. xv + 293 pp. $99.00 (978-1-84384-401-3).

This volume of eleven essays sets out to investigate “the interaction of medieval medicine and religion in the Middle Ages” (p. 2), a milieu in which sin and sickness were closely related. The editor’s introduction includes a useful literature review as well as introducing the subsequent material. Then follow two essays on Mary the Physician. Diane Watt argues that in medieval England the idea of Maria medica helped validate women’s healing role. Unfortunately, the textual evidence adduced for the figure of Mary as a medical doctor is debatable (“matronam” [p. 34] is an unusual term for the Virgin), while the presence of women as nurses and herbalists in the Paston letters is unsurprising. Roberta Magnani turns to Chaucer, arguing that his Marian theology is unorthodox as he gives the Virgin an [End Page 547] authoritative and more than “assistive” role in redemption. In The Physician’s Tale she is aligned with the goddess Natura, although, as the author admits, evidence of their identification is “hard to come by” (p. 57). Undeterred by the explicitly pagan context of this tale, Magnani associates its heroine Virginia with the Virgin and sees its narrator, the physician, as exploring ideas of authority.

Part II, on women’s mysticism and metaphors of sickness, contains three essays. Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa usefully discusses medical imagery in The Book of Ghostly Grace, the Middle English translation of Mechtild of Hackeborn’s Latin text. She argues that Mechtild had medical knowledge and believed in the therapeutic value of sensory experiences, especially music, delightful scents, and sweet ointments. Liz Herbert McAvoy writes on confession as spiritual medicine and female blood-sheddings in anchoritic and other texts that she sees as united by “a maternally-focused ideology of blood-based rebirth and salvation” (p. 100). With splendid clarity and a refreshing lack of jargon Juliette Vuille argues that mental illness is a social construct and it is therefore unwise to diagnose it retrospectively in medieval women mystics such as Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, especially as their behavior was considered “sane” by contemporaries.

Part III contains two essays on fifteenth-century poetry and theological prose. Takami Matsuda writes on the blind poet John Audelay. Possibly influenced by Saint Bridget of Sweden, he saw bodily illness as an infallible means of healing spiritual sickness that could extend into purgatory, or alternatively mitigate its pains. Louise Bishop writes on the medieval understanding of the physiological nature and function of the heart, which is very different from our own, and its relevance to Reginald Pecock, an unorthodox fifteenth-century English bishop.

Parts I to III are predominantly contributed by specialists in literary texts, especially those written in English. Part IV, on disfigurement and disability, is more the preserve of historians of medicine. Irina Metzler writes on medieval attempts to explain the etiology of birth defects: blame was usually laid on the parents, particularly some moral or physical failing of the mother, and deformity was commonly seen as stemming from aberrant sexual practices. Patricia Skinner writes on actual or threatened self-mutilation of the face in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century lives of Margaret of Hungary, Margaret of Cortona, and Oda of Brabant, and possible connections with judicial punishment. Joy Hawkins writes on medieval attitudes toward blindness, which was sometimes seen both as a spiritual privilege and as an opportunity for others to exercise compassion. Elma Brenner examines the often long-term pastoral and palliative care offered people with leprosy (especially women) in French and English leprosaria: these were essentially religious communities, as the cause of the disease was considered to be sexual overindulgence. Denis Renevey provides a sane afterword that largely summarizes the preceding contributions. He also highlights the “gender” aspect of this collection, otherwise only intermittently present in spite of the title, and draws out other connections between the individual essays.

The volume might have benefited from more attention to medieval attitudes toward suffering in general (as found...


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pp. 547-549
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