The remarkable manuscript image of the wound man did not die with the medieval medical world that created it, finding a rich afterlife in the Renaissance and beyond.
With the adoption of new print technologies in the second half of the 15th century, European book production underwent a major shift from handwritten manuscripts to the printed page. One book in particular, a Latin treatise first published in Venice in 1491 known as the ‘Fasciculus medicinae’ (‘Little bundle of medicine’), was the first to translate the wound man into printed form.
The wound man still stands revealing his aggressive injuries, although certain elements have been refigured from their medieval German origins for the Italian Renaissance reader. The club hitting the side of his face has been transformed from a simple instrument into an elaborate mace. And rather than being a flat body floating in space, the figure stands firmly on the ground posed in an elegant, ‘s’-shaped stance, reminiscent of Italian painting and sculpture at the time.
The text of the surgical treatise which the wound man always accompanied in its initial manuscript iterations (see ‘Wound man Part 1’ ) also made the transition into print. It is included in all of the 25 or so editions of the ‘Fasciculus’, as are a series of floating text boxes around the figure which draw the reader’s attention to particular maladies and cures. The book as a whole was exceptionally popular, reprinted from Antwerp to Zaragoza, and translated into Italian, Spanish and Dutch. Several deluxe, hand-drawn versions of the printed treatise’s woodblock images were even added to manuscripts.
One such luxurious wound man copied from print into manuscript could perhaps be that found in a group of images bound into the back of a late medieval anatomical manuscript now in the Wellcome Library, MS. 290. This particularly artful figure is either drawn from the same model as the ‘Fasciculus’, or possibly stands as an interesting example in which technological progress was reversed: line drawings from the new technology of print could here have been converted and aesthetically amplified through colour and shading back into the old technology of hand-drawn manuscripts. If so, the process does not seem to have been without error. The wound man has lost many of his explanatory labels and his accompanying surgical text. Visual details, too, appear to have been lost in translation: a stone, which in the printed version strikes the top of the figure’s head, has been strangely refashioned into a miniature helmet.
Around the same time, the wound man was also appearing in German printed books, and his form was again being transfigured. In Strasbourg in 1497, he featured as a frontispiece to a book by the surgeon Hieronymus Brunschwig (d. c. 1512) entitled ‘Das buch der cirurgia’ (‘The book of surgery’). Although he still presents his graphic wounds, he is thinner and with longer hair, but most importantly he is not accompanied by any text at all. Instead of acting as a specific index to a surgical treatise, as he did in medieval manuscripts, here the wound man represents something much grander: he stands as an embodiment of the very craft of surgery, proudly displaying the grievous injuries that the owner of such a surgical book was qualified to treat.This visual strategy continued to be employed by a number of surgical writers in the 16th century, and the image of the wound man was adapted to fit the shifting needs of the profession. In 1517, for example, the German military surgeon Hans von Gersdorff (d. 1529) included the wound man in his ‘Feldbuch der Wundarznei’ (‘Fieldbook of surgery’), the first such image to incorporate a pair of cannonballs striking the figure’s wrist and shin. Even as late as 1678, the London surgeon John Browne’s ‘Compleat discourse of wounds’ included another new wound man, this time reworked into a dramatically vaulting neoclassical nude.
The constant invocation of the wound man in surgical treatises for over 300 years shows the capacity of this image instantly to bring the reader into the gruesome yet serious space of the surgical professional. But it also speaks to the ability of the wound man to capture the attention of any reader who stumbled across him. As his recent reappearance in the NBC TV series ‘Hannibal’ suggests, the morbid wonder he encapsulates still holds true for viewers today.
Chiara Benati, ‘Physical impairment in the first surgical handbooks printed in Germany’, Fifteenth-Century Studies, 35 (2010), 12–22.