Book Review: Blood Matters

36899154Review by Sarah E. Parker (Associate Professor, Jacksonville University).

This collection of essays, Blood Matters: Studies in European Literature and Thought, 1400-1700 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018),  explores the material understanding and figurative use of blood in the late medieval and early modern world. Bringing together the work of scholars in history and literature, this interdisciplinary collection introduces a conversation about the important and multiple roles that blood played in the early modern worldview. That said, the book’s editors, Bonnie Lander Johnson and Eleanor Decamp, are both scholars who focus on early modern theater, and that area of specialization informs much of the collection. The chapters explore in particular the liminal quality of blood; because blood typically hides within the workings of the body, the moments when it appears are laden with meaning.

The chapters are relatively short and grouped thematically. The first group of chapters deals with the blood’s literal and metaphorical circulation. The opening essay, by Margaret Healy, addresses the work of William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood. Healy takes issue with Christopher Hill and John Rogers’ argument that Harvey’s late work on circulation signals a revolutionary and “vitalist” turn in his philosophy and politics. Instead, she argues, Harvey’s vitalism remains consistently Aristotelian throughout his lifetime. The next chapter, by Heather Webb, predates the discovery of circulation as we think of it, but she argues that medieval authors Dante Alighieri and Catherine of Siena nevertheless view blood as a dynamic entity in a constant state of circulation that connects the individual physical body to the body of the church more broadly. One of Catherine’s letters uses her own blood as a metaphor for the warmth and life that she believes her spiritual vigor could bring to a sickly church. Katharine A. Craik’s essay on Shakespeare’s Henriad is one of many essays that deal with Shakespeare and early modern drama in this collection. By examining the character Pistol, Craik draws attention to the class tensions in Henry’s famous lines in the St. Crispin’s Day speech that “he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition” (4.3.60-63). While Henry’s speech suggests that war can overcome class divides, Craik shows that Pistol and other characters belie that claim.

The second section groups essays that discuss wounds and wounding. Continuing the volume’s focus on Shakespeare, Hester Lees-Jeffries’ chapter considers the representation of wounds on the Shakespearean stage. Coriolanus is described as “mantled” in his wounds, a metaphor that Lees-Jeffries explores in terms of the material world of the theater where a blood soaked garment would have played the role of both costume and prop to communicate the various wounds in Shakespeare (Macbeth, Julius Caesar, etc.). Gabriella Zuccolin and Helen King shift the focus to the history of medicine and consider the ways that nosebleeds were specifically gendered in the early modern period. In contrast with Laqueur’s theory of the one-sex body, they focus on cases where women were believed to get nosebleeds because of the suppression of their menses, and explore this topic in relation to contemporary beliefs about the humoral system and the benefits of regular bleeding. Joe Moshenska’s final chapter for this section investigates the boundary between animal and vegetable by considering an odd trope in the epic tradition: the hero’s encounter with a bleeding tree. Medieval and Renaissance authors, including Dante, Ariosto, and Spenser, take up the story of a man trapped in a tree from Virgil’s Aeneid, and Moshenska connects the moment of violence in these stories (when the hero breaks the tree’s branch and prompts it to speak) to the violence of poetry more broadly.

The third group of chapters deals with the theme of corruption in the blood. Tara Nummedal offers a fascinating analysis of the relationship between blood and alchemy’s concern with the role that menstrual blood played in generation and corruption. This chapter considers the work of Anna Zieglerin, a German alchemist who claimed that her own body had been purified by alchemy, causing her not to menstruate. Ben Parsons discuses another corrupted demographic, adolescent boys. According to medieval pedagogical treatises, he argues, boys had an excess of blood, a fact that made them both receptive to learning, but also unruly and in need of discipline. In one of the best contributions to this volume, Bonnie Lander Johnson focuses on a specific kind of corruption in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, namely greensickness, which was believed to affect young people as they reached sexual maturity. She argues that the Nurse’s parallel references to Juliet’s weaning and her maturation “functions as a greensickness narrative” in the play (144).

The fourth section of the book takes up the important role that blood played as a source of proof in legal contexts. Lesel Dawson discusses the bizarre medieval and early modern belief known as “cruentation,” according to which the body of a murder victim would bleed when its murderer approached. Dawson discusses myriad references to this belief in early modern drama. Eleanor Decamp’s important research into the distinctions between barbers, surgeons, and barber-surgeons in the early modern period informs her chapter on the appearance of a basin in the final bloody scene of Titus Andronicus. By showing the association between blood basins and barbery, Decamp unpacks the puns on, references to, and associations with barbery in the climax to Shakespeare’s most gruesome play. Elizabeth Dutton also wonders about blood on the medieval and early modern stage, considering in particular the material fact that it would have been difficult for the actors to get blood off of their hands. Her reflections on this problem cover the anti-Semitic miracle play known as the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, which features a dramatic bleeding host scene, alongside scenes from Macbeth. Patricia Parker’s essay comes back to the importance of blood as proof in an overview of the meanings of the bloody cloth in Cymbeline, which she connects to Sujata Iyengar’s scholarship on the influence of the Passion in Shakespeare’s plays.

The book’s final section, called “Signs and Substance,” is the most loosely connected group of chapters. Frances E. Dolan writes about the association between blood and wine in early modern arguments that England should embrace a domestic viniculture to avoid taking in foreign “blood.” Dolly Jørgensen’s chapter looks at changes in the medieval calendars, specifically the December representation of pig slaughter, which became more graphic in the late medieval period. Helen Barr’s final chapter offers a surprising reading of The Canterbury Interlude (a contemporary response to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) where she imagines a Pardoner who is beaten by a phallic pilgrim’s staff as a precursor to the appalling scapegoating that accompanied the AIDS epidemic.

Since many of these chapters focus on drama, the collection will be most useful to Shakespeare enthusiasts and students of early modern drama. The fact that the chapters are fairly short (between 10-15 pages) also makes them good candidates for anyone teaching early modern literature or history with an eye to the history of medicine and the important role of blood as metaphor and substance in the early modern world.

The book is part of a larger “Blood Project,” based at Oxford University. Though it is a bit dated, the website for the project has useful resources for anyone interested in learning more about the role of blood in the history of late medieval and early modern medicine. Readers of this journal might be especially interested in the recorded performance of the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, which is available on that website.

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