‘Not all evidence is in bones’; Calvin Wells is quoted as saying in a 1966 article in the American arts magazine Horizon. He asserts that ‘ancient disease and injury have often been faithfully recorded in works of art…sometimes the skeletal material supplements the artistic’. It’s evident that Wells invested a considerable amount of research into the artistic representation of injury, disease and medical treatment throughout history. Most of Wells’ published work on the subject focuses on anthropological artefacts from African, East Asian or Pre-Columbian tribes and societies. However, Wells, who resided in both East Anglia and the French Pyrenees, was also interested in how European artists and craftsmen captured the history of human illness and medicine in various traditional artistic mediums.
St. Mary’s Church in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, is the third largest parish church in England and has one of the most renowned ‘angel roofs’. Fashionable between 1395 until the English Reformation, angel roofs are elaborately carved church ceilings and remain the largest surviving body of English medieval woodwork. Only 170 angel roofs remain today, with the majority located in East Anglia. The angel roof at St. Mary’s was commissioned to mark the marriage of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, and the cherubim are said to represent the Royal couple. Alongside the large ‘demi-angels’ are hundreds of smaller-scale carvings. In 1964 the East Anglian photographer Hallam Ashley undertook a photographic study of these figures, which inspired Wells to write an accompanying article.
In the article 15th-Century Wood-Carvings in St. Mary’s Church, Bury St. Edmunds Wells writes that the church roof is ‘adorned with some of the finest woodwork to have survived the vandalism of Cromwell’. The most interesting aspect of the carvings is that ‘many have some relationship to disease or medicine’ and those that have no direct medical link may have been indirectly influenced by the proximity of several hospitals’. Bury St. Edmunds was a medieval centre for infirmaries, which served both large monastic and secular populations. In some carvings the references to medical treatment is explicit.
The carving on the left is a doctor with a uroscopy flask. Uroscopy was the historic medical technique of examining a patient’s urine for symptoms of disease, and was common practice up until the 17th-century. In this carving Wells notes that the doctor is tilting the flask forward ‘as though debouching its contents over the congregation’. The more ecclesiastical carving on the right is an angel with a pestle and mortar which were common tools for preparing ‘plants and fruits which figured prominently in the herbals and leech-lore of the Middle Ages’.
Elsewhere Wells identifies wood-carvings with more ambiguous links to medieval medical practices.
The horn of the unicorn (pictured left) was a valuable ingredient in an ancient ‘material medica’, the substances used in the composition of medicine. The 15th-century physician James Primrose wrote that ‘unicorn horns…are thought to be the prime antidote for all’ and offered the user ‘renewed strength and vigour’. The horn of this mythical creature, which was in fact narwhal tusk, came to symbolize quackery and fake medicine by the 17th-century.
The carving of the monkey (picture right) is indicative of medieval scepticism of the medical profession. Wells notes that the carving of a primate in a collar and chain holding a uroscopy flask is a ‘disrespectful gibe caricaturing the physician as an ape – a motif that is found elsewhere in medieval carvings’.
Henry VI’s Ear
“My life is spent studying the evidence for disease in ancient bones and early works of art, so I was delighted to receive your letter”
The above quotation is Wells’ response to the German folklorist Ellen Ettlinger, who was seeking a medical diagnosis for the aforementioned Henry VI. In researching an article about religious representations of Henry VI being invoked as a saint, Ettlinger came across a curious pair of stained glass windows in King’s College Chapel Cambridge.
In this detail from a stained glass window dated 1525 (above left), Henry VI has a ‘curious right-ear – like a question mark’. In a later 19th-century copy (below), the king has a ‘very distinctly deformed right ear’. It had been recorded that Henry suffered a neck wound at the first Battle of St. Albans (1455) and Ettlinger was curious as to whether this was the cause of the deformation.
Wells relished medical puzzles such as this, and wrote Ettlinger a lengthy and detailed letter of reply. In his opinion it was ‘unlikely that the arrow wound at St. Albans would have produced a lesion of the ear’ as ‘wounds of the neck had a strong tendency to be either trivial or lethal’. Wells’ assertion was that the deformed ear in the 1525 portrait was pseudopathological, which is to say that although there is the appearance of disease none is actually present. After examining similar examples, Wells observed that anatomically incorrect ears were a common feature in artwork of the period. The Victorian craftsman who made the 19th-century copy most likely thought the inaccuracy was intentional and reproduced it. As an exercise in diagnostic thinking, Wells supposed that if the deformity was indeed intentional then Henry VI likely had an epithelioma, or ‘rodent ulcer’. Ellinger agreed with Wells’ first conclusion on the grounds that an image created to promote the cult of Henry VI would unlikely portray the saint suffering from such a temporal affliction.
Among the artwork and objects Wells examined for ‘glimpses into the ailments of ancient people’ were coins, pottery, wax seals, and even fabric. In Bones, Bodies and Disease Wells asserts that the Bayeux Tapestry provides a unique medical record of the battle wounds and fatalities suffered during the Norman conquest of England. One of Wells’ preferred medical artefacts were votive images. A votive, or ‘ex-voto’ is an offering to a saint or divinity given in fulfilment of a vow, or in gratitude or devotion. One of the most common types are ‘ex-voto anatomica’, which are modelled on parts of the human body. In 1977 Wells collaborated on an article with renowned archaeologist T.W. Potter which involved the analysis of a sample of 8,000 terracotta ex-voto anatomica excavated at a healing sanctuary at Ponti de Nona near Rome.
The ex-voto excavated at Ponti de Nona included many types of body parts, including heads, limbs and internal organs. In his report Wells noted that feet were the most common, making up some 40% of the entirety of ex-voto excavated. One explanation for the prevalence of a particular body part may have been because worshippers in that location were more likely to suffer from injuries or diseases specific to that certain part of the anatomy. For example Wells observed that Ponti de Nona was surrounded by rural farming communities whose members would have been predisposed to injuries of the legs and feet. Based on analysis of the remaining ex-votos, Wells postulated that people of Ponti di Nona also suffered from arthritis, migraines, gonorrhoea, and dermatological conditions. In the article Wells defended the limitations of diagnosing illness in terracotta artefacts writing ‘it is better to infer a range of possibilities than retreat into a safe but unhelpful silence, making no attempt to interpret these interesting objects’.
Medical and scientific knowledge has developed significantly since the 1970s, meaning interpretation of visual arts is no longer such a valuable tool for palaeopathological research. However, Wells always asserted that artwork was just one of many sources of evidence to be used in combination or in lieu of skeletal evidence. In this respect Wells saw artists and craftspeople as early clinical observers, providing a description or record of pathological conditions long before doctors. Whereas human remains are generally buried or cremated, artwork is treasured, preserved and put on display. As a doctor and art lover Wells would no doubt have identified with the famous Hippocratic saying ‘Ars longa, vita brevis’ (Art is long, life is short).
1966. Calvin Wells ‘Ancient Aches and Pains’ in Horizon (Summer) pp.114-120
1965. Calvin Wells ’15th-Century Wood-Carvings in St. Mary’s Church, Bury St. Edmunds’ in Medical History 9 pp.286-288
1973. Ellen Ettlinger ‘Notes on a Woodcut Depicting King Henry VI Being Invoked as a Saint’ in Folklore, Vol.84, No.2 (Summer) pp.115-119
1985. T.W. Potter & Calvin Wells ‘A Republican Healing Sanctuary at Ponte Di Nona Near Rome and the Classical Tradition of Votive Medicine’ in British Journal of Archaeology Volume 138. pp.23-47