Book Review: Medieval Medicine, Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount

I’m fascinated by the history of medicine so I was excited to have the chance to read Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount. Needless to say, the book is about medieval medicine and the science behind it (as well as the not-so-scientific parts). The text starts off with a quick introduction explaining how forms of treatment can be found in animal behavior as well as evidence of prehistoric medicine. Each chapter after that covers a specific aspect of medical practices in the Middle Ages. Some such aspects include (but are not limited to!) miasmas, astrology, the Church, and malpractice. The book includes pictures as well, which I found quite nice. (This is a personal preference, but I liked how the photos were printed on the same type of paper as the rest of the book. I’m not a fan of the glossy paper other books use for their illustrations. I’m not a fan of the texture of the glossy paper.)

I appreciated how easy to read the prose was. In my personal opinion, too many academic texts are non-accessible for the average reader. When you have accessible prose, your work reaches a wider audience, thus allowing more people to learn things they would not have otherwise. Thanks to Mount’s writing style, it was much easier for me to remember what was explained. When I’m reading non-fiction that is exactly what I want.

Another thing I liked was that a good chunk of Mount’s sources came from the web. This makes it easier for readers to do further research without having to buy a bunch of $100 books if their local library does not own a copy. That being said, I was not a fan of how often Mount cites Wikipedia. While Wikipedia is a good source for getting the gist of something as well as finding primary sources in the references, it’s not a reliably accurate enough place to use in your book. Luckily, she usually only uses Wikipedia for basic explanations of things such as gemstones, but she is still using it. I would recommend doing further research into anything she has cited from Wikipedia.

Overall, Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount is a good jumping-off point for readers who want to know more about medieval medicine but aren’t quite sure where to start.

All About Fabliaux: A Genre of Medieval French Poetry

Content Note: Discussions of Sexual Assault, Violence, Racism, and Anti-Semitism

What do you think about when you hear the words “medieval literature”? Do you think of chivalric romances filled with brave knights rescuing fair maidens from fire-breathing dragons? Or do you think about Icelandic sagas, starring wild Vikings conquering far-off lands and murdering anyone who enrages them? Perhaps you think of stories of holy men and women performing saintly miracles? Or maybe, just maybe, you think about comedic poems filled with references to the obscene.

If you thought about the last option, you certainly would not be wrong! Medieval literature wasn’t just about knights, Vikings, or saints. One genre, in particular, was all about the common man. And the common man was always up to some sort of mischief.

As you can probably guess from the title, this genre is called the fabliau, or fabliaux if plural. Fabliaux are Old French poems that are made up of eight-syllable lines paired into couplets. The poems vary in length but it’s common for a fabliau to consist of about 200 to 400 lines. This genre of poetry was most popular during the late twelfth to early fourteenth centuries. In total, about 150 fabliaux exist in their entirety. However, that doesn’t mean only 150 fabliaux ever existed! Who knows how many other of these poems have been lost to time.

Fabliaux were mostly written by anonymous jongleurs, who were the French equivalent of the minstrel. However, the keyword there is “mostly.” A good portion of surviving fabliaux do have known creators. The social status of the authors varies. Some were amateur writers while others were professionals. Here is a list of some known authors who wrote fabliaux:

  1. Guillaume le Normand
  2. Rutebeuf
  3. Jean de Condé
  4. Gautier le Leu
  5. Garin
  6. Guérin
  7. Jehan
  8. Hues Piaucele
  9. Jean Bodel
  10. Eustache d’Amiens
  11. Marie de France

These are most certainly not all the named authors out there, but this list should give you a sense of how many people were known to have written fabliaux. A good chunk of the people named wrote several fabliaux as well.

What exactly were fabliaux about? While they did have different topics, their overarching theme was to satirize medieval society. If other forms of medieval literature were designed to glorify knights and the Church, fabliaux did the exact opposite. I will note that some fabliaux feature knights, but these men are certainly not brave or noble. In fact, they are extremely far from it! The satirical nature of fabliaux was executed in extremely crude ways. No topic was off-limits. Fabliaux are filled with sex, crime, violence, adultery, and excrement. So much excrement. Like, it’s kind of insane how many fabliaux include excrement in some way or another. Upper-class characters were usually portrayed as antagonists to the lower class/marginalized heroes. Or if they aren’t outright villains, then they are often on the receiving end of pranks pulled by the lower status characters. Some stock characters include cuckolded husbands, adulterous wives, lecherous priests/monks (who when they aren’t sleeping with the wives are going after innocent virgins), lecherous knights, and excrement obsessed peasants.

Fabliaux were written specifically to entertain and to make people laugh. However, they also demonstrate just how awful society and people in that society could be. While the marginalized heroes rarely succeed in climbing the social ladder, they still succeed in preventing the privileged characters from taking advantage of them. As long as they are clever, witty, and quick thinking, the heroes may even get their revenge and teach the antagonists a lesson or two about attempting to screw over the vulnerable. That being said, a good amount of these “tricks” are simply flat-out violence or even rape.

Women in fabliaux are rarely treated well. The genre as a whole is extremely misogynistic. Women are punished for a variety of “offenses” which often just boils down to being a virgin and not wanting to have sex with a man, talking too much, trying to take control of things her husband feels like isn’t her business, among other things. Fabliaux show just how badly medieval society thought of women. However, you do get the occasional fabliau where the woman is the hero and manages to outsmart men in power who are trying to wrong her.

For a good chunk of time after the Middle Ages, fabliaux were pretty unknown. Of course, some scholars read them, but they weren’t really known until the nineteenth century. During this time, Europeans were rediscovering a lot of medieval literature to elevate their history (in historically inaccurate ways I will note). And as you can see from the rise of white supremacy, it unfortunately worked.

Due to the obscenity of the genre, there were quite a bit of mixed feelings about fabliaux. While other countries had big sprawling epics, France had poems about peasants and excrement. That’s not exactly what you want when you are trying to glorify your past. In the minds of French scholars, something had to be done. So instead of admitting that medieval French wrote obscene things and had very dirty minds, nineteenth-century academics went into full-on denial mode. Their denial mode was just flat-out racism and anti-Semitism.

Scholars tried to claim that it wasn’t the French who wrote all those dirty poems. Oh no, they came from somewhere else. That somewhere else being Indian, Persian, and Jewish cultures. The (false!) argument was that there were some similarities between some of the fabliau and folklore from those cultures. And while there were some similarities, only eleven fabliaux out of the one hundred and sixty-ish poems sort of kind of resembled an Eastern source. That’s 6.88%. That is a minuscule amount. Thanks to human nature, there will always be some overlap between different cultures’ stories. Think of all the different versions there are of Cinderella! (I will also note that one of the people spouting off this nonsense, Anatole de Courde de Montaiglon, did not actually know any Hebrew what so ever so all of his “arguments” about linguistics came from a place of extreme ignorance.)

Overall, the fabliau is a fascinating genre. It allows modern people to look into the past and observe how attitudes towards society, social status, and humor change (or don’t). It also makes you realize that humanity as a whole still finds poop jokes funny centuries later. Even if people are in extreme and dangerous denial about that fact.

Sources:

Anderson, Natalie. “The Romance of the Past? Nineteenth-Century Medievalism and the Tournament.” Medievalists.net, 27 Mar. 2019, www.medievalists.net/2018/03/romance-past-nineteenth-century-medievalism-tournament/

Benson, L. D. “The Fabliaux.” The Fabliaux (General Note), The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 26 Apr. 2001, sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/litsubs/fabliaux/. 

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Fabliau”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Dec. 2011, https://www.britannica.com/art/fabliau. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Jongleur”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 18 Nov. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/art/jongleur. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Dubin, N. E., & Bloch, R. H. (2013). The Fabliaux: A new verse translation. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, A Division of W.W. Norton & Company.

Fabliaux, user.phil.hhu.de/~holteir/companion/Navigation/Text_Groups/Fabliaux/fabliaux.html. 

projects, Contributors to Wikimedia. “1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fabliau.” Wikisource, the Free Online Library, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 21 Oct. 2016, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclopædia_Britannica/Fabliau

Finding Primary Sources of Medieval Texts Online

If you’re anything like me, when doing historical research you want to be able to read primary sources. Primary sources allow you to access what the author is thinking without the information being muddled in a centuries-long game of telephone. Of course, an author of a text may not write exactly what they are thinking, but through primary sources, we get a glimpse of what life was like through the eyes of a person who was actually there. We must always take into account context and bias when analyzing a source. (For example, if Lord A is trying to sabotage Lord B’s reputation, Lord A won’t tell the king how Lord B rescued all those orphans from a bear. Instead, Lord A will mention that Lord B has a tendency to poach bears in the king’s forest.)

When I write articles for the Mediaeval Monk I try to find as many primary sources as I can. However, I’m no longer a college student so accessing academic sources can be extremely difficult without buying full books. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t available texts out there! Because I study the medieval period most texts are in the public domain. The key is knowing where to look.

One good place to start is Wikipedia. (When I was in school we were always told that the site was unreliable. Luckily for us living in 2020, the editors are much more vigilant!) It’s a good jumping-off point. At the bottom of whatever article you read, there is an entire section dedicated to the references used. This will give you all the sources used for the article and often times it will include links to the sources. I will note that sometimes the only sources are secondary ones, but occasionally you can get lucky.

Another great place to look is Google Books. Depending on the book, you may not have access to the entire text. But it’s still a good place for free ebooks.

I will also use archive.org/the Wayback Machine/the Internet Archive. (It’s the same website just with different names.) Here you can find free ebooks (and download them too!) as well as old websites that are no longer on the web. Some books aren’t available for free downloads but you can borrow them for a certain number of days. (I don’t know too much about this feature as I haven’t used it before.) I’ve found a lot of interesting primary sources here.

What if you want to start learning but you aren’t quite sure what you want to learn about? There are two websites that I know of that allow for a little bit of exploration! (There are definitely others out there, but these are the ones I know about and use.)

The first one is Internet History Sourcebooks provided by Fordham University. (And here is a link to the same website but on archive.org.) This website either has actual medieval texts or links to texts on it. The texts available are organized according to culture and topic. Overall, it’s a great place to explore.

The second website is Medieval Death Trip. This website is for the podcast of the same name. (It’s a fantastic podcast by the way. I recommend listening to it!) The creator, Patrick Lane, provides the sources he used for each episode. Often times these sources can be found on Google Books or archive.org, but Medieval Death Trip is a great place to find and access topics that interest you without having to spend hours on Google Books and archive.org trying to find a very specific text.