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The Medieval Heart

The Medieval Heart

by Heather Webb

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Drawing from the works of Dante, Catherine of Siena, Boccaccio, Aquinas, and Cavalcanti and other literary, philosophic, and scientific texts, Heather Webb studies medieval notions of the heart to explore the “lost circulations” of an era when individual lives and bodies were defined by their extensions into the world rather than as self-perpetuating,


Drawing from the works of Dante, Catherine of Siena, Boccaccio, Aquinas, and Cavalcanti and other literary, philosophic, and scientific texts, Heather Webb studies medieval notions of the heart to explore the “lost circulations” of an era when individual lives and bodies were defined by their extensions into the world rather than as self-perpetuating, self-limited entities.

Editorial Reviews

Throughout, Webb's readings are astute and sensitive; she manages to say something new about well-known texts and to convince the reader that many noncanonical but fascinating writings deserve close attention. Erudite, lucid, and profoundly original, this admirable interdisciplinary study will be invaluable to those interested in medieval studies.—S. Botterill, CHOICE

— S. Botterill

Giuseppe Mazzotta
"This elegant and erudite book gets to the heart of medieval conceptions of everything from poetry to science, theology, and politics. The originality of the argument, the brilliance of its conception, and its almost unique status will make this a must-read in Dante studies."—Giuseppe Mazzotta, Yale University

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski
“By illuminating medieval conceptions of the relationship between body and soul, Webb shows us how medieval thinkers understood life. Her approach is original, her execution both innovative and exciting.”—Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, University of Pittsburgh
CHOICE - S. Botterill
"Throughout, Webb's readings are astute and sensitive; she manages to say something new about well-known texts and to convince the reader that many noncanonical but fascinating writings deserve close attention. Erudite, lucid, and profoundly original, this admirable interdisciplinary study will be invaluable to those interested in medieval studies."—S. Botterill, CHOICE

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The Medieval Heart



Copyright © 2010 Yale University
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ISBN: 978-0-300-15394-1



The Sovereign Heart

What Rules the Body?

The heart of creatures is the foundation of life, the Prince of all, the Sun of their Microcosm, on which all vegetation does depend, from whence all vigor and strength does flow. Likewise the King is the foundation of his Kingdoms, and the Sun of his Microcosm, the Heart of his Commonwealth, from whence all power and mercy proceeds.

William Harvey begins the dedication of his De motu cordis of 1628 with a bit of flattery for King Charles I. The heart, he explains, is the natural analogue of a sovereign, radiating power within the body just as the king confers grace upon his kingdom. He adheres to a very old story, describing the heart as a fountain or foundation. We will begin, then, where Harvey begins, when it seems that his treatise will reinforce Aristotelian ideas of the heart as source of all things, ideas that dominated the medieval imaginary. Before Harvey can turn to the task of putting new boundaries on the heart's function, he must pay tribute to its perceived powers. In order to do so, he revives a medieval notion of cardiac sovereignty.

As Thomas Fuchs has pointed out, our sense of Harvey's vision of the heart has been significantly colored by Descartes' use of Harvey shortly after the De motu cordis was published. The Passions of the Soul of 1649 recast the heart as an automated machine, no longer a flattering model for a prince, and designated the brain as the sole active force in the body. The contradiction between these two texts was not based on facts of physical function as might be demonstrated by experiment; the disagreement was one of interpretation. Harvey and Descartes presented two alternative models of the human body and, simultaneously, contrasting models of political power.

The brain, as Descartes imagines it, is an autocratic ruler that sends down commands from on high. He explains that in a moment of intense emotion, when one may feel a particular sensation in the chest, logic can inform us that the actual location of this emotion is elsewhere: "It is easy to see that the only reason why this change [due to the passions] is felt as occurring in the heart is that there is a small nerve which descends to it from the brain—just as pain is felt as in the foot by means of the nerves in the foot." For Descartes, the brain is entirely other to the rest of the body. Rather than a source of some essence or substance shared with the whole, it remains separate, sending out commands, not its own qualities. As it does not occupy the physical center of the body, the brain stands superior, remaining at a remove from the body that it governs. The nerves that descend from the controlling brain create a vertical structure, a simple two-part hierarchy of sovereign and subject.

In Harvey's analogy, on the other hand, the heart-as-sun is the source of shared heat, distributing its warmth to all parts of the organism. Rooted in the physical center of the body, the heart, by the virtue of circulation, is connected to, and in communication with, every part of the body. The entire body is thus naturally dependent on this fountain of its most primary, common need.

The alternatives offered in these two seventeenth-century maps of bodily power are not so different from those that were available centuries earlier. Why would the body be ruled by the heart rather than the head, or vice versa? From Aristotle on, scholars took sides in the debate not only by weighing current ideas of physiology but also, and perhaps primarily, by pondering what it meant, or should mean, to rule a body or a body politic. In the late medieval period, the available treatises on physiology authored by accepted authorities were divided between those that championed the heart as the governing organ in the body, those that championed the brain, and those that found a solution somewhere between the two. Consider the effects of such hierarchical instability on political metaphor: if one wished to use the body as a metaphor for the state, as was common practice in medieval Europe, one had to first describe and distribute authority within the body. Such political writings were also necessarily treatises of physiology; the nature of relations between organs had to be defined in order for meaning to be fixed. Figurative language in this category could not rely on standard referents, but engaged instead in fresh interpretations of bodily function and in so doing took on a theoretical, rather than descriptive, function.

If we contemplate the history of corporeal hierarchies, we may discern two sources of tension that delineate a recurrent alternation between two sets of configurations of the human. The first is an alternation between a sovereign brain and a sovereign heart and the corresponding visions of rule paired with each. The second is an alternation between the idea of a unitary source of power within the body and the concept of a multipolar body with a plurality of control centers. This chapter looks at convergences between physiologies and political metaphors in terms of these two tensions. For most of Western history, the brain or the head was the most common metaphor for the ruler of the body politic. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, however, the heart momentarily took over the role as sovereign in political metaphor and in physiology in a significant number of accounts. This required a deft negotiation of the problem of unity versus multipolarity. While the brain's importance had to be acknowledged, the heart was nonetheless singled out as the organ that unified and originated all life processes. What is at stake in this alternate vision of the body and the body politic? What changes when the heart is sovereign, rather than the head?

In order to address these questions, the chapter begins by sketching out some useful terms and concepts that derive from a perhaps unexpected source, the psychologist philosopher William James (1842–1910). James' definitions of three kinds of function are singularly useful in mapping the complex relations between organs in a multipolar body. Our contemporary style of thinking bodily function and bodily control is still decidedly encephalocentric, and therefore a more nuanced idea of function is essential in order to begin thinking a body that is governed by multiple sources of power. From here, we may delve directly into medieval mappings of the body. The starting point for any such mapping is the origin of life, the infusion of the soul into the embryo. The location of this infusion indicates the locus of primal force in the body. From the theological writings of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas to the vernacular poetry of Dante Alighieri, we may trace reflection on the problem of a possible plurality of the soul and of its location and modes of action within the body. Spirits, hybrid entities that bridge the gap between the corporeal and incorporeal, allow for a compromise between a unitary soul and the multiple diverse actions of the soul in the body. With these maps established, the chapter turns to metaphors of the body of the church and the body politic.

Here I am indebted to Jacques Le Goff's succinct catalogue of a great number of these metaphors in the writings of the late medieval period. I respond to his invitation to further inquiry into these issues by pairing some of the texts he cites with vernacular rewritings of these metaphoric bodies. I suggest that there are particular reasons why authors of the late medieval period might choose to emphasize the sovereignty of the heart, in both religious and secular contexts. In short, whether the body under discussion was understood to be a literal body or the metaphoric body of the church or state, late medieval scholars had a choice in defining the source and nature of control within that body. Choosing the heart meant choosing centrality over hierarchy and, further, emphasized a certain plurality within a unity. Now that our notions of physiology do not support such a vision of the body, we have been deprived of a particular metaphorics of power. It is, ironically, within Harvey's embrace of the medieval notion of cardiac sovereignty that he provides the foundation for a permanent shift away from such concepts. He redefines the terms for designating a central power as sovereign and, in so doing, supplies the means by which the heart as center loses its nobility altogether.

Rethinking Function

How was it ever possible, one might ask, to imagine that the heart governed the principal functions of the body, in itself and in its relations with the external world? One would imagine that the example of individuals who had sustained a brain or spinal cord injury might have offered ample visible proof to permanently refute Aristotle's notion that the heart ruled motion and sensation, for instance. But many late medieval philosophers, theologians, and physicians found ways to insist that the heart ruled the brain, even if they accepted the idea that the brain governed the nervous system. Scholars have often sought to reconcile this tenacious "inconsistency" by suggesting that notions of the heart's dominion were limited to the metaphorical realms while medicine held to a more strictly delimited sense of the heart's physical powers. This is, however, an overly simplistic distinction for a time when natural philosophy, theology, poetry, and medicine worked within the same frames of terminology and asked many of the same questions. If, at times, we find a debate on physiology that divides along the lines of the physicians' adherence to Galen and the philosophers' adherence to Aristotle, it does not mean that the philosophers meant to speak metaphorically. They simply had different authorities and different procedures for arriving at what was understood to be a literal, physical truth of bodily function.

Another frequent explanation of such inconsistencies, until much too recently, went something like this: "During the Middle Ages beliefs about physiology were always based on Galen. They were frequently confused and often the result of a misunderstanding of his work." These are the first lines of Singer's chapter in his Short History of Medicine entitled "The Rebirth of Science (From about 1500 to about 1700): The Anatomical Awakening," and such sentiments were, and in some sense still are, pervasive. Even for those of us imbued with a hypersensitivity to differing historical paradigms, late medieval physiology presents itself as a frustrating hodgepodge of coexisting theories that would seem, on the face of it, to be consistent only in their contradictions of one another. The very same thinker, whether physician, philosopher, theologian, or poet, will at one moment attribute a certain function to the brain and at another moment attribute precisely the same function to the heart. One is tempted to use words like "confuse," "conflate," or "contradict" to describe the mess, or to line up one set of described function under the category "metaphor" and another set under the category "medicine."

But any of these neat solutions ultimately robs us of the beautiful complexity of medieval constructions of the body and its cohabitation with the soul. Worse, it renders exploration of these worlds a mere pleasure trip into the quaint errors of our predecessors, engendering an attitude that prevents our engagement with systems that demand us to think bodily experience in a different way. To begin to open a way into this intricate and challenging interweaving of corporeal functionality, it is necessary to linger for a moment on the concept of function itself. What do we mean when we claim that the heart or the brain has a certain function? We are all too accustomed to imagining that if the brain has a certain function, or does something, then the heart does not. In assigning function to an organ, we often isolate it, content in thinking that we have found the source of a specific action. But this is not the way the medieval world understood organ function. To begin to get back behind our own limiting notions of function, we might do well to begin much closer to our own time, with a few images derived from William James' "Ingersoll Lecture on the Immortality of Man," given in 1898.

In his lecture, James addresses two principal objections to the doctrine of immortality, the first being an isolationist notion of the brain's function, or as he puts it: "How can we believe in life hereafter when Science has once for all attained to proving, beyond possibility of escape, that our inner life is a function of that famous material, the so-called 'grey matter' of our cerebral convolutions? How can the function possibly persist after the organ has undergone decay?" He suggests that we are limited by a narrow definition of function; we must inquire into the possibility that there are different kinds of "functional dependence." James offers three varieties: the first is productive function (a tea kettle produces steam); second, releasing or permissive function (the trigger of a crossbow releases an arrow); and the third, transmissive function (colored glass filters light). In general, our ideas of brain function have assumed that it is productive. But what if the brain's function is instead transmissive?

James proposes two analogies for imagining transmissive function, colored glass and the keys of an organ: "The keys of an organ have only a transmissive function. They open successively the various pipes and let the wind in the air-chest escape in various ways. The voices of the various pipes are constituted by the columns of air trembling as they emerge. But the air is not engendered in the organ. The organ proper, as distinguished from its air-chest, is only an apparatus for letting portions of it loose upon the world in these peculiarly limited shapes." Another analogy for describing this transmissive function is that of the voice of the speaker: "The air now comes through my glottis determined and limited in its force and quality of its vibrations by the peculiarities of those vocal chords which form its gate of egress and shape it into my personal voice." Rather than producing consciousness, thought, or inner life, the brain acts, in this analysis, like the organ or the vocal apparatus. It sifts, determines, and limits something that comes from beyond itself.

According to this theory of transmission, the brain renders thought and inner life particular. When the brain decays, that which is personal is irreparably lost. After death, the mechanism of transmission, like a particular color in a prism, is no more, but the light continues to exist. To return to the air analogy, the particular sound of a personal voice has disappeared, but the air that constituted that voice is still with us.

This notion of immortality wouldn't appeal to the medieval Christian world, in which an individual soul must survive the death of the individual body in order to enjoy rewards or suffer personalized punishments in eternity. But James' transmission theory aptly introduces the sophisticated and subtle ways that many late medieval thinkers envisioned inter- and intracorporeal circulations. On the intracorporeal level, the heart was the organ credited with productive function in the body. It made blood, created heat, formed semen, and generated spirits, those volatile entities that carried out the work of the soul. The brain's function was entirely transmissive; it did not create but merely refined input received from the heart. The medieval world could explain paralysis due to head or neck injury by suggesting essentially that the transmitter was damaged. Motion was still being produced in the heart; it simply couldn't be communicated to the limbs.

James' terminology is also well suited for describing medieval notions of intercorporeal circulations. He notes that the ordinary production theory of consciousness holds that the action of bodily sense organs on the brain leads to brain action in the form of sensations and mental images that in turn lead to higher forms of thought and knowledge. However, in the case of events such as religious conversion, miraculous healings, premonitions, apparitions, or visions, there is no role for the sense organs. Perhaps, James suggests, these effects are not "produced" within the body, but rather arrive from outside: "All that is needed is an abnormal lowering of the brain-threshold to let them through." Further, "we need only suppose the continuity of our consciousness with a mother sea, to allow for exceptional waves occasionally pouring over the dam."

In medieval terms, it is not an abnormal lowering of the brain threshold that permits access to a greater entity continuous with the self (or to other entities), it is openness of heart. When it comes to intercorporeal circulation, the heart's function is both productive and transmissive: sensory processes involve the traffic of spirits into and out of the heart, while divine intervention into an individual human soul takes place in the heart. In fact, medieval accounts of the entire range of human experience, from the mundane to encounters with the supernatural, suggest that very little was thought to be produced by the individual body in isolation. Living in the world was understood to entail a fundamental condition of openness or availability to the things in that world. Purely productive function of any kind is thus thrown into question; thought cannot be an unadulterated production created as a response to an entirely separate presentation of data. Thought (and particularly speech) is always a curious admixture of the thinking, speaking subject and the things themselves, as there is no absolute separation between the sensory presentation of objects and the production of thought in response to that data.

I will return to this essential reciprocity in bodily function in later chapters. First, we must address the following question: How did we get from the notion of an essentially productive heart to our current certainty of an essentially productive brain? On the question of the primacy of the heart and the quality of its function, William Harvey had to find metaphors to match or to surpass the existing imagery of the heart as productive source. In Harvey's language, the heart's function becomes permissive (the trigger on a crossbow), rather than productive or transmissive. He defeats the metaphors of productivity and transmission through a deft rewriting and the substitution of powerful new metaphors in place of the old ones.

The Unity of the Soul

Both Harvey and Descartes place a new degree of emphasis on centralized control. The accepted physiologies in place at the time that Harvey publicized his discoveries tended to distribute powers generously, if not equally, around the body. The heart, the brain, and the liver each had a crucial role to play in maintaining life. Harvey's rhetoric refocused such multipolar systems into a body politic with a unified source of power, a distinctly Aristotelian approach. At least in this regard, his concepts have much in common with late medieval models. I noted previously my intention to reconstruct a thought community organized around many of the structures and principles of Aristotelian natural philosophy. But in order to get at the central tenets held within that community, we must first sketch out the varieties of possible systems and styles of thought that coexisted in the late medieval West. Each of them hinges upon different ways of thinking the soul, its infusion into the body, and its subsequent inhabitation of the body.

Excerpted from The Medieval Heart by HEATHER WEBB. Copyright © 2010 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski
By illuminating medieval conceptions of the relationship between body and soul, Webb shows us how medieval thinkers understood life. Her approach is original, her execution both innovative and exciting.—Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, University of Pittsburgh
Giuseppe Mazzotta
This elegant and erudite book gets to the heart of medieval conceptions of everything from poetry to science, theology, and politics. The originality of the argument, the brilliance of its conception, and its almost unique status will make this a must-read in Dante studies.—Giuseppe Mazzotta, Yale University

Meet the Author

Heather Webb is Associate Professor of Italian, Department of French and Italian, at The Ohio State University. She lives in Columbus, OH.

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