Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 6, 2023
Jennifer Borland Visualizing Household Health: Medieval Women, Art, and Knowledge in the Régime du corps University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2022. 240 pp.; 33 color ills.; 52 b/w ills. Hardcover $114.95 (9780271090597)

In this finely produced monograph, Jennifer Borland offers a compelling case study of medical illustration and bookmaking in the later Middle Ages. This case consists of seven deluxe manuscripts of a French-language medical regimen, all bearing initials richly illuminated with scenes of medicine and domestic life. These initials provide Borland with evidence for the active part of women in caregiving and domestic management. Visualizing Household Health: Medieval Women, Art, and Knowledge in the ‘Régime du corps’ places this seven-manuscript corpus at the center of its investigations and expands outward from there, from the finely wrought design of historiated initials to the greater milieux of manuscript ownership, medical imagery, and texts of household management in the period. As Borland rightly observes, these manuscripts are “at the intersection of multiple categories” and “are genre-bending books” (2, 4)—elite, domestic, practical, sumptuous, learned, and vernacular all at once. They invite reexamination of the categories called upon to study them, and Borland’s book rises to the challenge of such reexamination.

The Régime du corps is a mid-thirteenth-century French text made up of extracts from authoritative Latin medical learning that have been condensed, combined, and vernacularized to create a new discourse on the maintenance of health. The Régime was an early and popular product of the growing appetite for medical learning in the vernacular, and it survives in whole or in part in seventy-five manuscripts—a corpus mapped in one of the book’s helpful appendices (“Appendix 3: Known Manuscript Copies of the Régime du corps”). The diversity of the Régime’s manuscript contexts makes clear that its readership was heterogeneous and multiple, though it was a rather particular subset, elite and secular, that was responsible for the lavish illuminated copies that occupy Borland. Those manuscripts with historiated initials (between 37 to 149 initials per copy, often glittering with gold leaf) fall into two chronological groups: three manuscripts created in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and four made in the fifteenth century. A prologue found in some of the earliest surviving copies of the text attributes it to Aldobrandino of Siena, apparently writing in 1256 as personal physician to Beatrice of Savoy, countess of Provenance, “presumably in anticipation of Beatrice’s travels to see her four daughters, all of whom were the present or future queens of England, France, Germany, and Sicily” (2). This feminine origin story is an important touchstone for Borland’s interpretations throughout, which pursue the claim that “gender is essential to understanding the Régime and its images” and which explore “the roles for women’s work within the medieval household” (4). The manuscripts’ illuminations provide persuasive support for this course of analysis.  

Borland is a clear and effective writer, and her gifts for observation and evocation are especially evident in chapter one, “The Visual Language of the Régime du corps.” This chapter is the heart of the monograph, where the imagery of the Régime comes to life. For a scholar familiar with the medieval history of medicine, it is also the chapter that contains the greatest number of new insights and surprising conclusions. Borland first orients her reader by providing an overview of the organization of images, which follow the sequence of the Régime’s four parts, and a differential characterization of each illuminator. Like other skilled interpreters of medieval iconography, Borland is alert to the conventional repertoires of imagery in contemporary circulation, which she draws on to demonstrate the fine-grained decisions made by artists and the interpretive nuance and surprising connections such conventions made possible. As she points out, while some of the Régime’s illustrations follow paradigms established in religious or encyclopedic works, “other scenes reflect artistic originality when clear models for the topic did not exist” (37). Indeed, as Visualizing Household Health shows, the domicile’s novel emergence into pictorial representation in the later Middle Ages is part of the broad cultural history to which the Régime belongs and contributes.

Borland pursues several claims across her first chapter—arguing for the sophistication of the image-making in these Régime manuscripts, drawing out what she calls their open-ended “narrative” potential (40), and demonstrating the prevalent “intimacy of everyday household care” (59). The culmination of the chapter lies in her powerful interpretations of pictures of infant care and physical touch. The diverse illustrations across manuscripts for the Régime’s chapter on newborns allow for fascinating comparisons. For instance, some of the manuscripts mark the chapter with the scene of a noblewoman examining a potential wet nurse, a woman of lower status who displays her breast for evaluation. The image of the wet nurse reflects the text of Régime, which includes extensive discussion of how to select a proper nurse. Borland shows how changing ideas of fertility, status, and maternity shape these images. Three of the later manuscripts, in contrast, mark the chapter with a tableau of “lying-in,” in which “the emphasis is on intimacy, motherhood, community, and the central role of attendant caregivers” (49). Together, these different initials indicate the high priority that the illustrators of the Régime placed on representing women’s sociality in the practice of care. At the same time, that sociality was multivalent, and the touch of one woman by another could be alternately appraising or caring. The multiplicity of women’s roles, as both patients and skilled medical practitioners, emerges powerfully over the course of the chapter. Borland’s generative focus on the practice of touch (51–58) provides an original way to consider the gradations of status and authority that striated the increasingly diversified field of bodily care in the later Middle Ages. I have already alluded to the value of the appendices accompanying the volume, and indeed Borland’s comparative chart of all the pictorial subject-matter across illustrated Régime manuscripts (Appendix 2) will facilitate the type of comparative analysis that Borland so effectively carries out.

The next three chapters center on the contexts influencing medieval production, circulation, and use of the intricately illustrated Régime manuscripts. Chapter two focuses on audience. Since the commissioners and owners of the deluxe manuscripts are unknown, Borland reconstructs a probable setting and profile of readers by looking to similar texts and extrapolating from the social milieu of Countess Beatrice and her daughters. The trajectory thus constructed moves gradually from France to England and from royal circles to “wealthy professional elites” (91). Chapter three places the Régime within the broader contexts of medieval regimen literature, medical illustration, and the texts that traveled alongside the illustrated Régime in manuscripts. Chapter four looks to the elite household as the subject of advice, debate, and pictorial representation in the later Middle Ages—a lively discourse to which the illustrated Régime can be seen to contribute. These three chapters gravitate around the task of contextualization, and the reasons for this are understandable. Such contexts flesh out the “multiple categories” (2) to which these manuscripts belong. Nonetheless, I found myself wishing that each chapter had culminated in the kind of powerful visual interpretation that closes out chapter one. A fair amount of these chapters is focused on work by other scholars, drawing their findings into the orbit of the illustrated Régime—and such work is necessary and important. Yet it would have been useful to see these contexts brought to bear on the interpretation of specific historiated initials, to explore how our grasp of them is changed by the frameworks that Borland reconstructs. As an art historian and adept visual interpreter, Borland is poised to do so with élan. Because the illuminated Régime manuscripts “are many things at once” (2), they constitute a unique case study. Some of that distinctiveness, the rare conjuncture of several specific domains, is obscured by the emphasis on wider contexts instead of the pictures themselves. 

Visualizing Household Health: Medieval Women, Art, and Knowledge in the ‘Régime du corps’ is a valuable contribution to the study of medieval medicine, deluxe manuscripts, and elite domesticity. Its in-depth interpretations of some of the Régime’s historiated initials stand out as especially noteworthy. The book will be a worthwhile read for historians of medicine, art historians, those interested in queenly and noble households in France and England, and feminist scholars seeking to reconstruct women’s spheres of agency in the later Middle Ages.

Julie Orlemanski
Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Chicago