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Abstract

Medicine in England came into its own in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, melding the rich tradition of scholastic medical thought developed at continental universities in the preceding 200 years with the realities of decentralized medical practices and religious approaches to healing. Images in manuscripts related to medicine and healing made in England in the century-and-a-half between the first outbreaks of plague (in 1348) and the end of the fifteenth century bear witness to this changing medical sphere. They also indicate their own centrality as tools for picturing, understanding, and communicating about the human body. In “The Visual Culture of English Medicine, 1348 – 1500,” I argue that these images could guide reader-viewers in understanding the connection between the image itself and the body it pictured. Medical images conditioned reader-viewers in the way images, bodies, and images of bodies ought to look and ought to be looked at. Visual skill could take many forms in late medieval England: the negotiation of comparison and difference in abstract diagnostic diagrams; taking up the position of the surgeon by making or viewing carefully detailed depictions of patients; repeatedly looking at Christ’s wounds, or making oneself look like Christ by applying images to the body. By considering the programs of illumination of surgical texts, diagrams in diagnostic and prognostic settings, efficacious and amuletic images, and images of bodies after death, this dissertation asks how the visual culture of medicine contributed to a broader medieval discourse around vision and visuality. Looking with care could yield health, protection, or knowledge; but looking, like medical theory and practice, had to be learned. This dissertation examines the ways in which medicine and ideas about the body depended on visuality in late medieval England in order to argue that images in medical manuscripts trained their reader-viewers in the skills necessarily to look carefully. The repeated looking, visual differentiation and comparison, and oscillation between universal and particular at hand in late medieval medical images confront epistemological problems central to late medieval pictorial representation. By conditioning their reader-viewers’ ability to observe and interpret the human body and its pictorial representation, late medieval English medical images served as hermeneutic tools for understanding the visible world.

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