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Early Medieval Law Codes and Medicine I

12 Nov

WARNING: This Post Contains Graphic Content!!!

Now that I’ve helped increase site traffic sufficiently warned everybody, I should clarify that this doesn’t contain any nudity but there may be some items which have a certain yuck factor.

NOTE: I originally intended this to be a single post but after the length of my tangential digression I decided to split it into two parts. The second part will discuss some of my thoughts on the kinds of injuries which folks in Late Antiquity might have a reasonable prospect of surviving, some of which I would once have considered to be pretty much a death sentence. Click here for Part II.

I finished reading Lisi Oliver’s The Body Legal in Barbarian Law a week or so ago. She uses evidence from the various laws/law codes of Roman successor kingdoms to evaluate, based on the value placed on injury to various parts of the body, what the barbarians (I’ll use her terminology here) reveal regarding the importance of the physical form. For example, she takes some time to discuss what parts of the body are most important functionally vs which are most important aesthetically. By looking at whether a law assigns greater value to damage to a functionally or aesthetically important body part she can look at what’s more important to one of the barbarian groups and does this vary with social status. For example, is an aesthetic body part valued more highly for an elite female as opposed to a slave male. This is an interesting book and if the subject intrigues you, I encourage you to take a look at it.

But this is not a review of this book. As I was reading her account she discusses some injuries which, 15 years ago, I would have thought would have been an automatic death sentence before the advent of modern drugs to counter sepsis, particularly antibiotics. She also mentioned one injury which absolutely freaks me out.

I’m going to open with my gross-out tangent which really isn’t relevant to the second part of this post as the injury is neither life-threatening or fixable (back then anyway). I’m going to begin with an anecdote. In Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four one of the most important scenes – perhaps the most important – occurs towards the end of the account of Winston’s being broken by O’Brien. Winston’s had the dog beaten out of him – he’s been starved, beaten, tortured, but there’s still a piece of him, at his core, that remains intact. Leading up to this there have been occasional references to a specific room which the other prisoners say is “the worst place in the world” (I’m paraphrasing – the book’s here somewhere but I haven’t found it). So O’Brien takes Winston in there. Winston defiantly tells O’Brien that despite everything that’s been done to him, he hasn’t betrayed Julia, his lover. We’ve previously had hints (though I hadn’t made the connection to this point) that Winston is very frightened of rats. O’Brien pulls out some sort of cage device which holds some huge, starving, ravenous rats. He places it on Winston’s head and describes how, once released, the rats will go for his eyes and burrow through his cheeks to get at his tongue. As O’Brien’s about to release the catch and Winston can hear the rats scrambling around trying to get at him, Winston screams, “Do it to Julia! Tear her face off! Eat her eyes!” or something like that. The final breaking of Winston.

In thinking about this when I read it the first time (I was in my teens) I was pretty sure that the worst place in the world for me would have been being fitted with a similar helmet, but one filled with yellowjackets. Any social bee or wasp would have done but the yellowjackets would have been the worst. When I was 9 I stepped in a ground nest, got stung a bunch of times and had to be taken to the hospital. Ever since then I’ve had a pretty strong fear of bees. At one time I considered it overwhelming. I’m better now – if I see the bees/wasps I can deal with them rationally. I know what sets them off and how to behave. And I’ve been stung since and it’s not that bad. But if a sudden buzzing happens in my ear, I still have a moment of panic.

Lisi Oliver has given me a new, not place but worst thing in the world, at least for a little while. In discussing wounds to the nose she writes of Ripuarian and Alamannic laws that, “If, however, a sufficient amount has been struck off so that mucus dribbles from the stump; a fine equal to the full penalty for eye or ear is required. This legislation addresses the physical task of the nose to contain mucus.” 1

OK, I’d never once considered a wound which would expose the sinuses to such an extent that snot would be constantly running down your face. This first passage of hers was bad enough but she becomes a bit more explicit later.

In Ripuarian law, a damaged nose that can still contain mucus must be compensated for with fifty solidi, but if the stump cannot hold mucus (mucare non possit), the penalty is doubled to 100 solidi – 50 per cent of a freeman’s wergild. Certainly these rulings consider the greater degree of injury to the dribbling stump; however, it seems at least possible that in setting the assessment for the perpetual drip, the Ripuarian legislators may also have taken into account the visual embarrassment. If this hypothesis is true, the punitive surcharge would not seem to have been assessed in Alamann law, in which restitution for slicing off a sufficient portion of the nose so that mucus flows freely is a mere twelve solidi, or 6 per cent of wergild.2

That one did it for me. I’ve often found humor in folks who express a desire to have lived even a couple of hundred, let alone a thousand or more years ago. I suspect what they would (in the vast majority of cases anyway) like is to visit and then come back home. I like camping for a few days at a time but this does not mean I want to live my entire life without electricity or flush toilets. For me, the new worst thing in the world would be to have my nose sliced off so that mucus would constantly be running down my face because my sinus cavities would be exposed to that degree, and in a world without the prospect of cosmetic surgery to fix it. I suspect that this is a temporary condition and that with time my phobia will return to stinging wasps, however this was a powerful enough visual image for me that I felt it my duty to share it with anyone who reads this blog.

Feel free to thank me. ;)

1 Oliver (2011), p 93.

2 Oliver (2011), p 168.

Oliver, Lisi, The Body Legal in Barbarian Law. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (2011). ISBN: 978-0-8020-9706-4.

Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four, originally published in 1949. There are various editions out there including inexpensive paperbacks. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to.

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5 responses to “Early Medieval Law Codes and Medicine I

  1. Michelle Ziegler

    November 13, 2011 at 4:11 am

    You don't have to expose the sinuses to get a constant drip not unlike a runny nose that can't be contained. (Lots of toddlers have a drip running down their faces, unfortunately) I suspect that the cartilage part of the nose is what has been cut off. Wasn't this a punishment in some cultures?

     
  2. Curt Emanuel

    November 13, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    You'd have to take enough nose off to expose where the submaxilliaries drain into the nose, I'd think. That's up around the bridge of the nose. Byzantines liked to cut off noses along with blinding when they deposed someone. They considered disfigurement to be a disqualifier. In the West they'd generally just tonsure you.

     
  3. Jonathan Jarrett

    November 15, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    You think this is a thing of the past, but when I was in Naples in September there was a woman begging outside of Santa Chiara there, with a young child and a baby, whose nose was missing, and though it was as far as I could glimpse dry, she still isn't leaving my memory any time soon.

     
  4. Curt Emanuel

    November 15, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    Pretty sad. It probably wasn't what happened with the Italian baby but a couple of years ago a some people living not too far from here were arrested after a rat ate off their baby's toes. Terrible stuff – and my isn't this cheery? Of course I started it with the post.

     
  5. Jonathan Jarrett

    November 16, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Damn, sorry, that was ambiguous. The baby was fine. It was the mother who was disfigured. I couldn't say, however, whether it was congenital or inflicted and there are at least three ways in which I really could not have asked. ANYWAY YES sorry.

     

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