“A powerful and coherent collection of essays that illuminates the various facets of a fascinating subject. It greatly enriches our sense of the meanings of blood and will have a major impact in medieval and Renaissance studies.”—Michael Schoenfeldt, University of Michigan
A new book edited by Bonnie Lander Johnson asks, what is blood?
In late medieval and early modern Europe, definitions of blood in medical writing were almost too numerous to locate: blood was at once the red fluid in human veins, a humor, a substance governing crucial Galenic models of bodily change, a waste product, a cause of corruption, a source of life, a medical cure, a serum appearing under the guise of all other bodily secretions, and—after William Harvey’s discovery of its circulation—the cause of one of the greatest medical controversies of the premodern period. Figurative uses of “blood” are even more difficult to pin down. The term appeared in almost every sphere of life and thought, running through political, theological, and familial discourses.
Blood Matters includes chapters that revisit some important historical moments, such as William Harvey’s discovery of blood’s circulation. But it also breaks new ground with chapters covering the practical uses of blood, from medieval butchery practices, alchemy, phlebotomy, and birth and more metaphoric thinking about blood in wine production, fashion, social class and dramatic character.
Contributors include several Cambridge academics. Hester Lees-Jeffries (English Faculty) writes about bloodstains in Shakespeare (most notable, of course, in Macbeth) and early modern textile culture. Heather Webb (Modern and Medieval Languages) looks at medieval understandings of blood as a spirit that existed outside the body, binding people and communities together. Joe Moshenska (English Faculty) examines the classical literary trope of trees that bleed when their branches are broken.
The collection is grouped around five common functions of blood; corruption, wounds, proof, signs and substance, and circulation. The groupings enable scholars from different disciplines to address practices and beliefs, both elite and popular, from a range of perspectives. It is the result of a Wellcome Trust-funded project that began at Oxford in 2014 with an international conference, a professional staging of the Croxton play of the Sacrament and an exhibition of paintings.