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This work examines the imagery and symbolism which surrounded the body in the Middle Ages. The author focuses on the King's surgeon in 14th century France, Henri de Mondeville, one of the first doctors to defy openly the authority of the Church by performing dissection on the human body. At a time when surgery was still associated both with manual labour and the mysteries of ritual, Mondeville sought to liberate the body from its metaphysical associations and place its study firmly in the realm of science. Through a close and scholarly examination of Mondeville's language, Pouchelle traces the complex imagery which depicted the body and its functions, including digestions, pregnancy and illness. Pouchelle describes the ambivalent attitudes towards surgeons, as men who were both mystical and holy but also unclean because of their contact with blood. The author focuses on dissection, a process which had to be veiled in ritual in order to circumvent the taboo of opening a corpse. She shows how the 14th century world view, which saw the body as a microcosm of its surroundings, still has resonances in the language of the 20th century. This is a study of the workings of language and the imagination in relation to the history of the body. It will be of interest to medievalists and historians of medicine, to anthropologists and social historians and also to anyone interested in the history of symbolism and the human body.
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"Dr Pouchelle′s treatment of the presuppositions governing the surgeon′s craft in medieval times, and of the relationships between surgery and physic, is valuable and highly welcome. But there is far more to this book than a straightforward discussion of surgical approaches and the basic techniques of the art. For, using ethnographical methods to generate and underwrite a close reading of Mondeville′s classic text, Dr Pouchelle has succeeded in developing a stimulating and suggestive exploration of wider medieval attitudes towards the body itself, as a symbolic system of signs and a bearer of social, religious and personal meanings. By virtue of this subtle discussion, the body serves as a window on to a thought world alien to ours, and yet, at the same time, one whose deeper values are obliquely familiar through the work of modern anthropologists and psychoanalysts. Pouchelle′s account of the meanings of the human form and flesh in the Middle Ages is bound to be of widespread interst, and will surely define discussion of the topic in the coming years." Roy Porter
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