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Blood Matters

Blood Matters explores blood as a distinct category of inquiry in medieval and early modern Europe and draws together scholars who might not otherwise be in conversation.

Blood Matters
Studies in European Literature and Thought, 1400-1700

Edited by Bonnie Lander Johnson and Eleanor Decamp

2018 | 368 pages | Cloth $89.95
History / Cultural Studies / Literature
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Table of Contents

—Bonnie Lander Johnson and Eleanor Decamp

Chapter 1. Was the Heart "Dethroned"?: Harvey's Discoveries and the Politics of Blood, Heart, and Circulation
—Margaret Healy
Chapter 2. "The Lake of my Heart": Blood, Containment, and the Boundaries of the Person in the Writing of Dante and Catherine of Siena
—Heather Webb
Chapter 3. Sorting Pistol's Blood: Social Class and the Circulation of Character in Shakespeare's 2 Henry IV and Henry V
—Katharine Craik

Chapter 4. Mantled in Blood: Shakespeare's Bloodstains and Early Modern Textile Culture
—Hester Lees-Jeffries
Chapter 5. Rethinking Nosebleeds: Gendering Spontaneous Bleedings in Medieval and Early Modern Medicine
—Gabriella Zuccolin and Helen King
Chapter 6. Screaming Bleeding Trees: Textual Wounding and the Epic Tradition
—Joe Moshenska

Chapter 7. Corruption, Generation, and the Problem of Menstrua in Early Modern Alchemy
—Tara Nummedal
Chapter 8. Bloody Students: Youth, Corruption, and Discipline in the Medieval Classroom
—Ben Parsons
Chapter 9. Blood, Milk, Poison: Romeo and Juliet's Tragedy of "Green" Desire and Corrupted Blood
—Bonnie Lander Johnson

Chapter 10. "In Every Wound there is a Bloody Tongue": Cruentation in Early Modern Literature and Psychology
—Lesel Dawson
Chapter 11. "In such abundance … that it fill a Bason": Early Modern Bleeding Bowls
—Eleanor Decamp
Chapter 12. Macbeth and the Croxton Play of the Sacrament: Blood and Belief in Early English Stagecraft
—Elisabeth Dutton
Chapter 13. Simular Proof, Tragicomic Turns, and Cymbeline's Bloody Cloth
—Patricia Parker

Chapter 14. Blood of the Grape
—Frances E. Dolan
Chapter 15. Blood on the Butcher's Knife: Images of Pig Slaughter in Late Medieval Illustrated Calendars
—Dolly Jørgensen
Chapter 16. Queer Blood
—Helen Barr

List of Contributors

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Bonnie Lander Johnson and Eleanor Decamp

This book emerges from a concern, shared by a number of medieval and early modern scholars across the world, that "blood" was and is a word whose copious signifying capacities remain desperately underexamined. Frequently conjured on stage and in the printed word as both literal substance and figurative description, "blood" rarely appears to be drawn from a single, shared historical interpretation. What exactly did our medieval and early modern predecessors define as the red stuff that runs in human veins? And just how vast was blood's potential application in figurative descriptions of the human condition?

Medical and social historians of the medieval and early modern periods are increasingly locating blood as a rich and complex area of inquiry; recent individual works, each devoted to one of blood's many functions, have focused on the role blood played in Galenic thought, in the intersection between familial networks, gender, childcare, and reproduction, and in women's health in both early modern England and France. Hannah R. Johnson and Jean E. Feerick have examined blood and race in medieval blood libels and early modern colonialism; Louise Noble and Richard Sugg have unearthed early modern literature's interest in blood as a medicinal substance; and Bettina Bildhauer's interest in medieval German approaches to blood is wide-ranging. All of these studies draw on work by Caroline Walker Bynum and Gail Kern Paster—and this collection is no less indebted. Bynum's Wonderful Blood (2007) has ensured that for medievalists blood is now a crucial consideration when thinking about literary and cultural constructions of gender, race, holiness, devotion, and the body. And Gail Kern Paster's The Body Embarrassed (1993) guaranteed that a generation of early modern scholars are attuned to the historical reality of the humoral body.

It should come as no surprise that blood is emerging as a central concern for scholars working in the medieval and early modern periods; it was in these centuries that blood underwent some of its most significant and lasting conceptual transformations. Definitions of blood in Western European medical writing ca. 1400-1700 were slippery and changeable: blood was at once the red fluid in human veins, a humor, a fluid governing crucial Galenic models of bodily change such as plethora and purging, a waste product, a cause of corruption, a source of life, a medical cure, a fluid appearing under the guise of all other bodily fluids, and (after William Harvey's discovery of its circulation) blood caused the seventeenth century's greatest medical controversy. However, the period's many figurative uses of "blood" are even more difficult to pin down: the term appeared in almost every sphere of life and thought and ran through discourses as significant as divine right theory, doctrinal and liturgical controversy, political reform, and family and institutional organization. Any attempt to trace blood's "lexical unwieldiness" in the literature, drama, and visual arts of the period must therefore grapple with a highly overdetermined sign.

However, recent scholarship on blood in the medieval and early modern periods is not in full conversation. The works mentioned here are separated by both period and discipline. Blood Matters is designed to recognize blood as a distinct category of inquiry and to draw together those scholars developing an expertise in the area who might otherwise not be in dialogue. The nature of blood, as a substance and an idea, requires interdisciplinarity; blood touches and is codified by every area of human experience. But it also demands an interperiod approach, especially where the years 1400-1700 are concerned. These centuries proved crucially transformative for those discursive sites in which blood played a key role: Eucharistic controversy, anatomical cultures, Counter-Reformation piety, the emergence of nation-states and colonialism, and the rise of primogeniture.

Charting the full range of blood's meanings in the history of European thought will be an ongoing project, requiring the expertise of scholars from a variety of disciplines and periods. This book is offered as the first wide-ranging, interdisciplinary study of blood in Western Europe ca. 1400-1700, bringing together historians, literary scholars, and drama specialists. In this volume theatrical practice and medical practice are found to converge in their approach to the regulation of blood as a source of identity and truth; medieval civic life intersects with seventeenth-century science and philosophy; the categories of class, race, gender, and sexuality find in the language of blood as many mechanisms for differentiation as for homogeneity; and fields as disparate as pedagogical theory, alchemical cultures, phlebotomy, wet-nursing, and wine production emerge as historically and intellectually analogous. The breadth of study here is not to demonstrate that blood has a bewildering omnipresence, which defies semantics, logic, and categorization, but to explore how it enables medieval and early modern thinking (and our own) to confront the contradictions and failures of scientific, artistic, and social constructs. And so through our bold intellectualization of blood matters we gain a tool for discourse itself.

Blood Matters takes seriously its interdisciplinary and interperiod agenda. The book seeks in blood's various qualities and behaviors those unifying ideas from which are emerging methodological approaches capable of bridging disciplinary and period divides. Blood is therefore not just the object of our inquiry: its conceptual and semiotic patterns shape individual chapters' analytical approach but also provide the terms through which separate disciplines can converse. Each of the book's five sections (Circulation, Wounds, Corruption, Proof, Signs and Substance) brings together work from at least two distinct specialisms and historical periods.


Blood Matters takes as its starting point William Harvey (1578-1657), whose discovery of the circulation of the blood has been seen as marking the beginnings of modern science—not so much through the physiological reality he revealed but rather through the controversial nature of his inquiry, which rejected the early modern medical community's intellectual tradition of philosophical disputation in favor of empirical observation and experimentation. In her chapter on Harvey, Margaret Healy questions the recent critical attempt to read Harvey's discovery as a radical "dethroning" of the heart (and the centralized political authority represented by the heart) in favor of the more dispersed and circulating blood. Arguing that Harvey's anatomical observations were not an expression of commonwealth politics, Healy reveals instead how the language Harvey used to articulate his discovery drew upon a much longer tradition in which circulation and rotation have been used to describe a range of human states and experiences. Like Heather Webb, whose chapter analyses the figurative language of circulation in the writing of Dante and Catherine of Siena, Healy demonstrates how powerful—and how pliable—circulation was, and is, as a metaphor for the organization of human society, the distribution of its goods, and the regulation of its moral health.

By bringing these chapters together with Katharine Craik's study of class, blood-typing, and the circulation of personhood on the Shakespearean stage, Blood Matters interpolates Webb's medieval Italian account of charity's demands on the individual-in-community with the now long-standing New Historicist interest in the rise of the individual and, in so doing, pushes early modern criticism's concern with historical personhood into important areas of inquiry that it has for too long neglected. New Historicist descriptions of the emerging modern, Protestant individual have for some decades looked to early modern Galenic and medical lexicons to account for the increased isolation and containment of the self within the body. But recent work by Gail Kern Paster, Lesel Dawson, Nancy Selleck, and Richard Sugg has instead explored early modern descriptions of the body as intersubjective or "interpersonal," as open to and embedded within the physiological operations of other bodies. While broadening the terms in which early modern identity is understood, these new accounts nonetheless remain bound by those physiological interpretations of the self so central to early modern scholarship's interest in embodiment.

More recently still, there has been an increased desire to reassess the scholarly assumption that Cartesian duality was accepted absolutely by early moderns, and to include in our accounts of physiological experience a proper historical sense of the soul as conditioned by, and in relationship with, the body. To this end, Webb's analysis of the medieval individual compelled by the demands of virtue to circulate both physiologically and spiritually within the community of the church offers a theologically inflected description of selfhood much needed in early modern discussions. The neglect of this virtue-based interpretation by early modern scholars cannot be sufficiently accounted for by pointing to the Protestant Reformation's isolation of the self from ecclesial intervention in the spiritual and moral affairs of individual Christians; charity and community remained central imperatives regardless of confessional allegiance.

What is perhaps most striking about the group of chapters on circulation is their shared view of blood as a substance whose figurative possibilities—and not just in the English language—are caught up in those social conflicts that emerge when theories or discourses of movement collide with discourses of authority. In Shakespeare and Dante, as much as in writing from the theological, political, and scientific fields, blood's circularity underpins descriptions of society as collective against opposing images of authority as fixed, centralized, or rigid. But as Katharine Craik's analysis of Henry V demonstrates, blood's circularity was also deployed as a way of protecting authority: the shared blood of noblemen was a more limited domain of circulation into which common blood was not usually admitted.

Blood's long history in figurative descriptions of human relationships and community organization stems in part from the equally long-standing role it played in the construction and depiction of personal identity. What the chapters in this section suggest is that in the late medieval and early modern periods, new negotiations between collective and individual identities were emerging through revolutions in scientific, doctrinal, and political thought. Blood offered a vital conceptual terrain through which to pose questions about the self as separate from and embedded within the blood that circulated in collective bodies, from the body of Christ, and the body politic, to the social bodies that underpinned economic negotiation and the world of the professional theater itself.


Blood's role in the conception—and reconception—of individual and collective identity also emerges in the late medieval and early modern interest in wounds. As the chapters in this second section reveal, wounds were often interpreted as sites of rupture; not only material, biological rupture but also ontological: wounds were capable of determining where one form of selfhood ends and another begins. Beyond the distinction made by the chapters on circulation—that blood could both reveal and occlude where one person's identity starts and another person's ends—the chapters on wounds suggest that the eruption of blood from the body could initiate the emergence of new states of being altogether. This is evident both within the individual bleeding body (for Helen King and Gabriella Zuccolin, the bleeding wound forces the reconception of a body's gender, as much then as now) and in the conception of bleeding bodies more generally (for Hester Lees-Jeffries, the wound, depicted onstage through bloody clothing, can pose the question of where the self ends and the world begins). And, as Joe Moshenska argues in his study of the bleeding tree topos, the wound could even problematize the distinction between sentient beings, objects, and textual events.

The sight of blood emerging from a wound was, and will always be, arresting. Wounds register the vulnerability of the human body, reminding us how easily the skin, which ought properly to contain our blood, can be ruptured. A wound is evidence of how suddenly the vitality of a life can be drained away, as though all the complex particularities of personhood, one's experiences and thoughts, one's tastes, sentiments, and relationship to the world, were merely water on whose rapid course "I" fades quickly to nothingness. It is perhaps not surprising then that wounding emerged as an event that provided opportunities for poets and playwrights, as much as for physicians and theorists, to explore drastic moments of differentiation—between life and death, human and animal, man and woman, sensate being and insensate object, person and world. This may be as true for our own society as it was for any other, but, as this volume argues, the medieval and early modern period saw a rapid increase in the anxious questioning of those systems of thought—doctrinal, medical, moral, philosophical—that underpinned conceptions of the human person and its relationship to the world and to God. And it is for this period in particular that an image as condensed and startling as a wound could become the site of such questioning: the period's literature and drama abounds with that flowering of sophistication and playfulness capable of concentrating unwieldy conceptual challenges into the ornate rendering of a Classical topos or the fold and cut of a doublet.


Despite the many different traditions in medieval and early modern medical theory and practice, one element of blood's behavior remained a consistent point of interest and concern: its capacity to be corrupted. The corruptibility of blood was both a material and moral truth and was crucially linked to its perceived role in the generation and development of life. As the chapters in this section all make clear, blood's role in sex and reproduction ensured that it was routinely described as a force capable of both generation and corruption because blood, like human sexuality, was built from the moral opposition fundamental to original sin. Where the blood of Christ was uniquely pure and redemptive, human blood was at once a source of purification and a substance forever tainted. Just as the remission of sin was the ultimate goal of all Christian endeavor, so the cleansing of blood's inherent corruption was the implicit goal of most of the period's numerous medical regimens.

As Tara Nummedal's work on alchemical bloods demonstrates, the duplicity of blood as both the source of life and the cause of corruption was concentrated most in medieval and early modern perceptions of menstrual blood. Despite the menstruating body's function as an exemplary model for nature's expulsive and self-regulating power (as King and Zuccolin also suggest), menstrual blood itself carried the period's anxieties about women's moral duplicity and biological weakness. Menstrual blood was understood to be the matter out of which new life was formed in the womb: this fact, together with the crucial role menses played in cleansing purgation, underpinned the view of menstrual blood as good, wholesome, vital, and perhaps, if not pure, then purifying. But menstrual blood and menstruating women were also thought to be corrupting: they could bring madness, disease, and death to those who touched or looked upon them. Nummedal's work highlights how much blood's important role in alchemy stemmed from its dual function as generative and corrupting, but also how alchemical bloods were used to express the period's uncertainties about sexuality, and female sexuality in particular.

Blood's dual function as generative and corruptible, especially in the realm of sexuality and reproduction, was a particular concern for medieval and early modern writers when they turned to the problems of adolescence. Ben Parsons's work on medieval pedagogy reveals that from at least the thirteenth century adolescence was "often seen as an anatomical and medical problem as much as a disciplinary one, a point at which the body is temporarily corrupted, and corrupts mind and morals in turn." Medieval and early modern thinking about moral and physiological corruption perceived blood as crucially linked to the appetites—for food, as much as for sex, objects, and social positioning—and the purity of blood during the formative stages of infancy, childhood, and youth was thought to shape the relative health of one's appetites into adolescence and adulthood. As Parsons's work illustrates, the corrupted appetites of the medieval adolescent were both cause and effect of their corrupted and too-prevalent blood—a view clearly still in circulation by the time Shakespeare was working. Bonnie Lander Johnson explores these concerns as they emerge in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, arguing that the relative physiological and emotional success of children's passage through the stages of nourishment—blood, milk, food—had crucial implications for their later development and health.

Medieval and early modern writing on blood as a substance governing sexual and reproductive health is heavily influenced by the period's anxieties about women's bodies and the special monopoly women had over the production of life. This writing suggests how concerned the period's medical, pedagogical, and scientific writers were over the fact that human life was formed by women's blood. Menstrual blood was thought to be the raw materials for infant bodies and their first food; breast milk (blood under a different guise) nourished children until weaning, and the entire process was overseen primarily by mothers, midwives, and wet nurses. By the time children reached the schoolroom and the interventions of those pedagogues described in Parsons's chapter, their blood and appetites were already formed. While the wild behavior of youth had a clear physiological cause, it was also necessarily rooted in an understanding of humanity as fallen. On its own, the fallen state was attributable to a woman and her appetites, but, as the chapters in this section reveal, a person's ability to be redeemed of original sin—whether in marriage, the schoolroom or the alchemist's laboratory—was also greatly influenced by the relative corruption or purity of the women who formed their blood in the womb and at the breast.


Throughout the medieval and early modern period, blood's close association with human identity underpinned its function as a form of evidentiary proof. Blood was perceived as not just essential to, but also the essence of, the person in whose veins it ran. Blood was, as Lesel Dawson puts it, thought to "encode a subject's experiences and embody some quintessence of the self." This belief can be traced in part to blood's role as a carrier of spiritus and soul, but also to the fact that blood is normally hidden within the body. Blood is the secret, internal self. And it is the truth of this hidden self that is necessarily glimpsed when blood is shed. As Elisabeth Dutton observes, "blood cannot, in the ordinary run of things, be found outside the body; once it is outside the body, it demands attention and explanation." In the same way, when evidence was required to prove an uncertainty (whether in the legitimate context of judicial inquiry or the revenger's desire for truth about the beloved) blood was usually demanded as proof.

This book's focus on blood's role in the search for evidentiary proof expands upon a growing critical interest in the history of judicial reasoning, from the "rise of Protestant legalism" to changes in the judicial and moral status of evidentiary proof more generally. The medieval and early modern period's trust in blood's ability to speak the truth is nowhere more evident than in its use of cruentation to prove guilt in murder trials. Cruentation was the term given to the instantaneous and fresh bleeding from the corpse of a murder victim when it was brought into the presence of its assailant. Such blood was interpreted as testimony to the murderer's guilt. Fundamentally, the phenomenon was understood as providential, as a truth revealed in blood by God. But, as Lesel Dawson argues, this explanation also underpinned more local assumptions about the nature of the fleshly body and the bonds by which bodies—living and dead—were connected to each other, materially and morally.

It might seem surprising that the same cultures that thought blood constituted a person's secret being also routinely drew blood for health purposes. More surprising still, the blood drawn in phlebotomy was perceived as waste matter, a "noisome" and unwanted presence in the streets of London. But, as Eleanor Decamp's chapter suggests, anxieties surrounding the opposing definitions of blood as both essential selfhood and waste can be detected in early modern London's efforts to regulate all areas of phlebotomy. If a person's blood was perceived as capable of carrying their essential selfhood, the "truth" of their being, but was also, once spent and absorbed into the general waste of a community's shed blood, considered merely an anonymous source of pollution, then the fleeting moment in which blood appears at the surface of the skin emerges as especially meaningful. Developing further the view of bloody rupture as ontologically significant (as advanced in this book's section on wounds), the four chapters on proof demonstrate how much blood's role in the assertion and loss of personal identity was bound up with its capacity for complex and unstable patterns of signification.

Blood's status as evidentiary proof is familiar to contemporary societies, even if the truths it can prove to us are quite different from those in the medieval and early modern period. The chapters by Dawson and Decamp illustrate how pervasive and deeply felt was the period's investment in blood's capacity to prove the truth (of criminal behavior, of a phlebotomist's trustworthiness and training). Then, as now, we need to know that we have recourse to substances and techniques through which we can access absolute truths. The urgency of this need was a familiar subject on the stage. As the chapters by Elisabeth Dutton and Patricia Parker demonstrate, both the medieval and early modern theaters used blood to interrogate the human need to know the truth—of one's faith, one's safety from sin, and (most famously on the Shakespearean stage) of a spouse's fidelity.

Dutton's and Parker's chapters on blood's complex status as proof on the stage foreground the theatrical quality of evidentiary proof more generally, while the chapters by Decamp and Dawson illustrate how "staged" the human requirement for truth can be even in the realms of professional practice and legal justice. The theatrical nature with which early modern medical men promoted their expertise is already well recognized, but Decamp's chapter highlights how far barbers' and surgeons' self-promotion extended: to the dressing of their shop windows, their use of instruments, and their treatment of the waste blood drawn from their clients. When phlebotomy practices emerged on the stage, they both replicated the medical "performances" apparent on the streets of London and recodified them within a new moral and semiotic terrain in which they came to articulate the widespread anxiety about the competence of those who let blood.

In a similar way, when acts of cruentation appeared on the stage, they became occasions for elaborating the remorse felt by murderers. The early modern criminal justice system was required to stage publicly the guilt of perpetrators, and the theater's adoption of these scenes navigates their role in the desires of audience members (at the theater and in the courtroom). Spectators not only wanted to see crime policed but to be part of the moral cleansing for which contrition is designed. In this way the stage gave playgoers what they needed—a chance to believe that guilt can be proved beyond doubt and that the recognition of such truth enables universal cleansing. But, as Parker's work on bloody cloths makes clear, the theater also denied this same desire by suggesting that blood, as a sign, could ultimately only stand for itself and not for certain proof of anything at all.

Signs and Substance

One of Christendom's central doctrines, the doctrine of Real Presence, has throughout the last two thousand years come under constant attack. But in the centuries with which this book is concerned, this doctrine met with the most radical dissent. By questioning Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist, reformers initiated what we might call a culture of doubt, in which the relationship between signs and substances more generally came under scrutiny. The chapters in this final section all treat depictions of blood that exploit the period's sophisticated approach to the relationship between substance and sign. In doing so, they draw on a rich and varied scholarly tradition. But each chapter pushes into new territory: the role of blood in medieval butchery and its depiction in popular calendars, nationalist arguments over the production and consumption of wine, and the queering of England's most famous saint, Thomas Becket.

In the chapters by Frances Dolan and Dolly Jørgensen, blood crosses the sacred and secular boundaries, embedding sacred signification in earthly and profane objects and at the same time exposing such miraculous sign-making as fraudulent. Helen Barr's work on The Canterbury Interlude instead presents us with a definition of blood that resists substantiation altogether. The Canterbury Interlude, a fifteenth-century response to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, "conflates the sacrificial, healing, and sacred blood of a saint with the polluted and contaminated blood of a figure associated with murder, swindling and sexual deviance."

This commixture of unlikely bloods raises profound questions about the ontology of sacred blood and the figures with which it was most associated. Barr argues that in the short time afforded by the pilgrimage, the Pardoner's blood produces a dizzying array of significations. But as he journeys home from Canterbury, the Pardoner wears his bloody head wound hidden beneath bandages. Where the miraculous blood from Becket's wound was copious and an arresting material reality, the Pardoner's blood remains unseen, defying categorization as substance. It is a "queer blood that refuses identification and legibility." So severed from material blood, the Pardoner's blood reaches a point of ceaseless self-referentiality.

In semiotic narratives of the history of language, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries usually emerge as a moment when "the link that joins each object to its own appearance, each creature to its own body, each word to its own signified is radically called into question." But while Protestantism's separation of sign from substance constitutes a major turning point in the history of sign-making, so too did Thomas Aquinas's earlier justifications of transubstantiation. The theologies of substance and accident developed by Aquinas and his successors explain a unique phenomenon, the Real Presence. But these descriptions of the extraordinary rely on and are coterminous with an emerging medieval understanding of the "ordinary" relationship between substance and sign as itself far from straightforward. What Giorgio Agamben has said of the Baroque period also applies to the centuries preceding it: "each thing is true only to the extent to which it signifies another." This "mortification" of the proper relationship between sign and thing is "a token of redemption that will be rescued on the Last Day, but whose cipher is already implicit in the act of creation. . . . God appears thus as the first and supreme emblematist, an 'arguto favellatore' (subtle, witty fabulist)."

Blood is central to the semiotic project. Its presence in the Word and in wine (both the consecrated and, as Dolan suggests, the everyday) determines its role in the unique and divine events through which absolute links between substance and sign were made possible. The Reformation's radical distinction between flesh and bread, blood and wine, and the culture of doubt that ensued, confirmed blood's place in a conceptual paradigm in which transubstantiation is both possible and impossible. In this paradigm, the divine possibility of total congruence between sign and signified is always shadowed by the profane, or heretical, specter of their ultimate separation, just as the impossibility of any such unity between substance and sign is haunted by the truth it denies. Helen Barr's work confirms that literature well before the Baroque period knew and reveled in the fragility of its status as sign-system. The Pardoner's bleeding wound was, as much as Shakespeare's bloody cloths, circulating in a text that refused it any moment of substantiation, propelling it instead into ever more significations, each referring one to the next.

This uncertainty of language is also blood's uncertainty. In each of the categories explored in this book, blood both does and does not do what is asked of it. While blood's circulation enables us to construct ideas about the organization of communities and the movement of their resources, it also denies this collective impulse by instead closing off the circulation of relationship and wealth to those whose racial, class, or familial blood sets them apart. In its appearance at sites of wounding blood is a sign of life, confirming vitality and existence, but it is also a sign of that life's rapid fading. Similarly, the very (female) blood that gives life to infants is also the source of the world's corruption. And the blood we demand as evidence of an absolute truth can ultimately prove only how tenuous blood is as a sign: it cannot be trusted, and yet we cannot help but put our trust in it since there is little else in the natural world that can so signify the essential self or codify materially the experience of being.

Helen Barr's description of blood as a sign without substance might in fact speak to our own time as well as to the Renaissance. As much as contemporary biomedical discourses seek to isolate blood as anatomical matter disconnected from its role in the description of personal and social identity, we remain unable to locate definitively the material substance we call blood. Modern medicine may scrutinize, name, divide, replicate, and make useful blood's various components, but these processes and insights (limited to the professional few) and medicine's heightened comprehension of blood's homeostatic role in our health do little to help us unearth blood's meaning and humanity's relationship(s) to the red stuff. The growing scholarship on blood suggests that in fact "blood" works as hard at the metaphorical level as it does as pumped matter. It is, perhaps, blood's extraordinary figurative capacity that means it comes closest to being understood at those historical moments in which it undergoes the greatest redefinition.

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