Wound man Part 2: afterlives

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By | Early Medicine, From the Collections

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.

Wound man in 1495 printed book.

EPB Incunabula 3.e.13: Fasciculus medicine (Venice: Joannes et Gregorius de Gregoriis, 1495), leaf C2 recto. Wellcome Images L0043654.

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.

Wound man in 1497 book.

Frontispiece of Hieronymus Brunschwig, Das ist das buch der Cirurgia (Strasbourg: Johann [Reinhard] Grüninger, 1497), reproduced in Gustav Klein, Das Buch der Cirurgia des Hieronymus Brunschwig (Munich: Druck und Verlag Carl Kuhn, 1911), p. 1. Image credit: Elma Brenner.

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.

1678 image of wound man.

EPB/15691/B/1: John Browne, A compleat discourse of wounds (London: Printed by E. Flesher, for William Jacob, 1678), engraving facing page 37. Wellcome Images L0009988.

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.

Further reading:
Chiara Benati, ‘Physical impairment in the first surgical handbooks printed in Germany’, Fifteenth-Century Studies, 35 (2010), 12–22.

Chris Coppens, De vele levans van een boek: de Fasciculus medicinae opniew bekeken (Brussels: Koninklijke Academie voor Geneeskunde van België, 2009).

Tizania Pesenti, Il ‘Fasciculus medicinae’ ovvero le metamorfosi del libro umanistico (Treviso: Antilia, 2001).


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).

3 comments on Wound man Part 2: afterlives
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  • Arlynda Boyer


    I made the following comment on the Public Domain Review article created from this two-part post, and I’m still deeply curious about it! 🙂

    “This may seem stupid, but what fascinates me most (I’m an early modernist, but in literature) is the underwear that Wound Man appears to be wearing. Not only was I under the impression that underwear as such was a rather later invention than the late medieval/early modern era, but I’m surprised that it’s so current-looking and even *elastic*-looking, as opposed to–more or less–a knotted section of plain fabric. I’m also surprised that there is such censorship or daintiness in not depicting genitals, since the early modern illustrations I’ve seen are usually pretty matter-of-fact about it, especially in medical journals.

    Can you tell me more about Medieval Thong Man???”

    Thanks for any, er, light you can shine on his civvies.

    • Elma Brenner

      Elma Brenner


      Thank you for your comment! Jack Hartnell responds:

      ‘In manuscripts all of the Wound Men and also the Disease Men images always wear underwear – they are very rarely naked until the printed, more classicising versions. I do think that, unlike the early modern illustrations that you mention, nudity and appropriateness was a factor for the audiences of these figures. Indeed, we find some naked medical illustrations over which garments have been added, or the genitals defaced by later readers.

      Certainly the underwear would not have been elasticated, and in some Wound Men it has ties at the hips.

      You may be interested to know about Undressed, the exhibition about underwear currently on show at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.’

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