Two poems by Wythe Marschall.

To get under the skin of the history of medieval European medicine—to understand this history through a different perspective to rational narrations of events—I’ve been writing sonnets about diseases, sufferers, and practitioners.

Each of the two poems here examines a different dimension of “skin.” In fourteen lines, I try to animate historical understandings of health and illness, giving voice to concerns over the fragility of the body and, moreover, the soul that seems far removed at first from the world of modern hospitals and pharmaceuticals.

The logic of the medieval world still strikes me as alien. Morality often influences physics, and the goal of the game is not really to live at all, but to die with conviction before the eyes of God. But by focusing on affect instead of fact, I hope to create a different sort of roadmap for a visitor to this world than the one offered in a history book.


Codicology (Parchment)

The skin of uncertainty under which reality lies dormant

sloughs away after consulting very long tomes writ

by great-bearded men of learning. But can we be confident

that the slow-simmered juices of Damask muscats

alone dispelled the hollow twinges of colic? Because

Galen tells us so, it’s so? Or because our own eyes

have seen the sick soul remove his linen cap and arise

to resume his work carding wool? Perhaps colic flies

on its own, by the work of that medicine we call time,

or perhaps by the work of “elves”… We suspect our system

approaches the real as other systems do not—but rhyme

alone is not song. So we stitch notes into the vital tomes,

lengthening them, as certain snails must roll in wet dirt

to buttress their shells for generations yet unbirthed.


Lepra (Hansen’s Disease)

The plague of lepers across medieval England

was twinned by a worse plague of leper houses,

priests, penitent Norman baron in fine blouses,

and false hope. Their skin did not need the bland

succor of physical healing, the lucky sick learned;

their souls alone should be cleansed and straightened.

There was no shame in submission to the medicine

that was God’s love—a regimen that burned

like shame and left skin deadened, faces leonine.

In this way, the problem was split from the disease:

Even if the latter could have been cured with the ease

of opening a shutter, would the light outside shine in?

The sinning soul that had called down the stain

of lepra from God’s armory of lessons still remained.


Follow Wythe on Twitter. Two further skinnets will be posted soon.

Image: Bartholin, Thomas. “Human skin hanging in frame.” Frontispiece from Anatomia, 1651. Wellcome Library, London. #L0001186 (Slide number 666).


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