- Blood Matters: Studies in European Literature and Thought, 1400–1700 ed. by Bonnie Lander Johnson and Eleanor Decamp
bonnie lander johnson and eleanor Decamp's impressive new edited volume addresses the matter of blood in early modern literature and culture emphasizing, in particular, the (occasionally) overlapping discourses of medical and material encounters with "the red stuff that runs in human veins" (1). At the same time, this volume makes an assertion: blood matters to medieval early modern literature and culture, although it matters in different ways and with varied consequences within the legal, literary, medical, and religious fields, in addition to serving as a flexible index of health, class, and gender. Scholars invested in medieval and early modern blood will find a great deal of value in this collection, which brings together Shakespeare's use of blood to sort nobles from "popular" soldiers in the Henry plays, the civic regulation of barbers and surgeons, and the "lion's blood" and other concoctions of early modern alchemy.
Usefully arranged into five conceptual sections—"Circulation," "Wounds," "Corruption," "Proof," and "Signs and Substance"—the essays in Blood Matters recognize that the study of blood in medieval and early modern thought is necessarily "interdisciplinary and interperiod" (3). Section 1 begins with Margaret Healy's deep reading of the discovery that blood circulates through the body by the English physician William Harvey (1578–1657). Healy departs from many scholars of Harvey's political aims to challenge the notion that he "dethroned" the heart in favor of "democratic" blood after the execution of Charles I (17). Although Harvey's mid-seventeenth century works represent some of the latest materials under consideration here, Healy's essay also thoroughly examines the "traditional beliefs about the heart and blood" (18) disrupted by the controversial discovery of blood's circulation. Motifs of circulation within and between bodies (and the world) similarly animate the other essays in this section. Heather Webb examines Dante and Catherine of Siena's writing to identify "the porous boundaries of the human [End Page 303] person, as constitutive of the human person" (31). The character Pistol, from Shakespeare's Henry plays, illustrates the disruption of class-based social hierarchies articulated through blood in Katharine A. Craik's contribution. Together, the essays in this section prompt a richer understanding of the dynamics of circulation and rotation in the cultural imagination of early modern Europe before and after Harvey's discoveries.
The essays in section 2, "Wounds," theorize the moment of blood's exit from the body in material and aesthetic terms. It is through the bloodstains on early modern garments (whether used as stage props or within the context of the domestic labor of laundry) that Hester Lees-Jeffries locates Shakespeare's apprehension of wounding as a source of identification and power. The other essays in this section take very different approaches to bleeding. Joe Moshenska's contribution examines the pouring forth of blood and words from animate trees in classical and early modern epics. Gabriella Zuccolin and Helen King, notably, use their analysis of nosebleeds in early modern medical treatises to argue against the "one-sex" model of the premodern body. The essays in section 3 attend to the potential for corrupted blood in some surprising places: alchemical recipes, Romeo and Juliet's appetite for food (and each other), and the sanguine bodies of medieval students. Within this section, Tara Nummedal's contribution on sixteenth-century alchemist Anna Zieglerin illuminates and complicates—through the evocative language of "lion's blood" and other alchemical formulations—the fundamental contradictions of blood's role in generation. Zieglerin, Nummedal argues, presented her own non-menstruating body as the ideal, uncorrupted home for fetuses that could be nourished by her lion's blood concoction both before and after birth. This vision of early modern assisted reproduction replaces corrupt, gendered blood with an alchemical preparation to produce "extraordinary bodies" (120).
On the medieval and early modern stage, blood and bloodstains served as vivid evidence that a crucial boundary had been crossed: a...