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Wound man Part 1: origins

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12/08/2016

By | Early Medicine, From the Collections

The ‘wound man’ is an enigmatic and troubling figure from the world of medieval and early modern medical manuscripts.

 

 

Staring impassively out of the page, he bears a multitude of graphic wounds. His skin is covered in bleeding cuts and lesions, stabbed and sliced by knives, spears and swords of varying sizes, many of which remain in the skin, protruding porcupine-like from his body. Another dagger pierces his side, and through his strangely transparent chest we see its tip puncture his heart. His thighs are pierced with arrows, some intact, some snapped down to just their heads or shafts. A club slams into his shoulder, another into the side of his face.

His neck, armpits and groin sport rounded blue buboes, swollen glands suggesting that the figure has contracted plague. His shins and feet are pockmarked with clustered lacerations and thorn scratches, and he is beset by rabid animals. A dog, snake and scorpion bite at his ankles, a bee stings his elbow, and even inside the cavity of his stomach a toad aggravates his innards.

Despite this horrendous cumulative barrage of injuries, however, the wound man is very much alive. For the purpose of this image was not to threaten or inspire fear, but to herald potential cures for all of the depicted maladies.

The earliest known versions of the image appeared at the turn of the 15th century in books on the surgical craft, particularly works from southern Germany associated with the renowned Würzburg surgeon Ortolf von Baierland (d. before 1339). Accompanying a text known as the ‘Wundarznei’ (‘Surgery’), these first wound men effectively functioned as a human table of contents for the cures contained within the relevant treatise. Look closely at the remarkable wound man shown above from the Wellcome Library’s MS. 49 – a miscellany including medical material that was produced in Germany in about 1420 – and you see that the figure is penetrated not only by weapons but also by text.

Scattered around him are numbers and phrases, indicating where in the text a particular cure might be found. Next to the spider, crawling up the wound man’s thigh, a phrase directs the reader to the appropriate paragraph for a cure: ‘Wo eine spynne gesticht, 20’ (‘When a spider bites, 20’). By the figure’s right hand: ‘10, Boss negeli’ (‘10, Bad nails’). Inside his left thigh: ‘38. Ein phil do der schaft notch ynne stecket’ (‘38. An arrow whose shaft is still in place’).

The wound man image was a convenient way for medieval surgeons to navigate their texts, but it was also an arresting reminder for both practitioners and patients of the vital knowledge contained within such manuscripts. It was living proof of the efficacy of the surgical enterprise, and a popular inclusion in medical works alongside a wide variety of related images that plotted diseases, the zodiac signs (see image below), bloodletting points, and anatomical schemes onto a similarly arranged human body. See, for example, a previous post on the ‘disease woman’ image.

 

 

Living on today in libraries from Copenhagen to Munich, this strange figure gives modern viewers a glimpse of the worrying injuries that the medieval body could receive through war, accident and epidemic. But at the same time, it shows that medieval people did not think of themselves as helpless victims in the face of these assaults. Far from reinforcing the common perception of the European Middle Ages as a backwards and bloody period of human history, the wound man reminds us that it was in fact a period busy with innovative medical treatments, a vital link between the long-standing cures of the classical world and developments that were to follow in early Renaissance medicine.

Further reading:
Karl Sudhoff, ‘Der “Wundenmann” in Frühdruck und Handschrift und sein erklärender Text’, Sudhoffs Archiv, 1 (1908), 351–61.

Boyd H. Hill Jr., ‘A medieval German wound man: Wellcome MS 49’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 20 (1965), 334–57.

Erltraud Auer and Bernhard Schnell, ‘“Der Wundenmann”. Ein traumatologisches Schema in der Tradition der “Wundarznei” des Ortolf von Baierland’, in Ein teutsch puech machen: Untersuchungen zur landessprachlichen Vermittlung medizinischen Wissens, ed. Gundolf Keil (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1993), pp. 349–401.

Author

Dr Jack Hartnell is Mellon Lecturer and Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University, New York. He is preparing a book on the wound man, as well as another to be published by the Wellcome Trust and Profile Books entitled ‘Medieval bodies’ (forthcoming 2017).

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