• 31 October 2014
  • 4:00 – 4:30 pm
  • British Museum

From the pages of a fifteenth-century English medical miscellany a figure stares out bearing a multitude of graphic wounds. His skin is bleeding, stabbed and sliced by knives, spears, and swords. His head and thighs are pierced with arrows.His shins are pockmarked with lacerations, animal bites, and thorn scratches. A club slams into the side of his face. A dagger pierces his side, and through his strangely transparent chest we see its tip puncture his heart.

Little is known about the so-called 'Wound Man' of Wellcome MS 290, or indeed any of the handful of Wound Men created in Europe in the 1400s. Linked in the history of science to various other depictions of 'medical men' - the Zodiac Man, Blood-Letting Man, Vein Man, Bone Man - the image is discussed briefly as part of a typology of instructive schemes map pedonto a generic male figure. In this case,the presumption follows, the Wound Man was intended as a prompt for surgical instruction: a catalogue of potential wounds a medical professional might at some point encounter, although hopefully not all at once.

However, the visual and contextual evidence from this particular English example suggests something much more complex and distinctive might be at work. Placed towards the back of a decorated and almost untouched medical manuscript, the presumed practicality of this image as as urgical index must be brought into question. Indeed, given that the cursory descriptions of the wounds scattered about the image do not even offer (as some other Wound Men do) any hint at their treatment or cure, we might suggest that this image is not in fact a utilitarian inventory but an artistic fantasy.

The aim of this paper, therefore, is to ask: who is the Wound Man? It shifts discussions of the Wellcome example from one of a multitude of schematic and 'typical' images, towards more inventive terrain. Linked to a plethora of comparative depictions and accounts of endured pain, suffering, and violence, especially contemporary English images of the Arma Christi, the Wound Man's initially graphic depictions can be refigured into a far more creative mode of depiction.Contemporaneous too with the importation of continental-style anatomical dissections into England in the early 1400s, the image accompanies a new mode of thinking about the opened body. Combined, these ideas serve to reconsider the Wound Man as a complex site of contact for medical and religious imagery, an innovative and gory creation indicative of the furthest limits of the English medical imagination.

About the speaker

  • A black and white photograph of a man with black hair

    Jack Hartnell is Lecturer in Art History at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, where his research and teaching focus on the visual culture of medieval medicine, mathematics, and cartography.