S K I N N E T S ii

Two more 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.

The two poems here examine 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.


Pestis (The Black Death)

In 1348, the fathers mumbled last rites hastily

through vinegar-soaked sponges as censers

washed the air with fire, rendering breath denser

to mourn the dead by distancing them chastely

behind a shroud of gray smoke. Beyond this haze,

the dead were layered like lasagna into potters’ fields.

Repurposing their corrupted bodies, nature yielded

them back over to the hard rhythm of life: Grazed

on by wild beasts, whose fleas communed with the rats

inside the walls, the bubonic dead returned, still bound

to work the scythe back and forth, no suffrage found

in slipping the shackles of the flesh. Few aristocrats,

however, lived long enough to see their streets recast

as potters’ fields, their spires as sinking vessel’s masts.


Morbo Gallico (Syphilis)

In 1484, a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn—son and fatherly castrato,

locked in a great Freudian showdown in the sky—occurs in Scorpio’s manor,

ruler of the genitals. Ten years later, the plunderers under the banner

of Charles VIII catch the seeds of a novel corruption scourging the grotto

of amour. What an inventive God we have! the pox-riddled men-at-arms

and meretrices ejaculate. Not only a new punishment, but a new world

is ours to study and thereby make tame: Above, lightning’s hurled,

and the Real expands to make room for never-before-felt harm.

Whose fault is this new world? The justice-keeper is hard put

to make an arrest: The Italians blame the French, the French

the Neapolitans, the Germans the Spanish, whom all think wrenched

the pox from the Hispaniolans and gave it to the Jews, whom they cut

off from royal shelter and sent to Italy… And so spite rises thither and yon

on the body of Europe as boils like acorns rise on us, a strange new dawn.


Image: Franz Mracek, Illustrative plate showing skin around the navel and abdomen diseased with Syphilis. 1898. Atlas of Syphilis and the Venereal Diseases. L0035323: Wellcome Library, London.

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