Theodoric of York’s New Book

I just inhaled Steve Martin’s new autobiography of his stand-up years, Born Standing Up, on a two-hour flight to Chicago. Martin’s prose is spare, workmanlike and often awkward, except when he’s discussing the specifics of his act; there everything coalesces into a taut clarity that makes the whole worth the read.

I bring this up on my blog because reading about Steve Martin’s youth reminded me of why I’m still in academia. He writes, just before revealing the effect that Lewis Carroll’s logic-poems* had on his developing routine:

“I continued to pursue my studies and half believed I might try for a doctorate in philosophy and become a teacher, as teaching is, after all, a form of show business” (86).

Every time I get up in front of a group of students, it’s a little song and dance number. When I plan lectures, I think to myself, “Ok, so the Aristotelian definition of tragedy is a good ten minutes of material, then I can follow that up with part of the old Wheel of Fortune routine. Now I just need a good opener…” And when a class really clicks, it’s invigorating. I can understand how performers get addicted to applause.*

Now, to make this post relevant to this blog’s mission statement, here’s a link to a YouTube video of Steve Martin’s Saturday Night Live appearance as Theodoric of York, the Medieval Barber. (And for the YouTube impaired, here’s a link to a transcript.) Google’s Blogsearch tells me that you’ve probably already seen this link through Anachronista or Quod Ero Spero.

My favorite bit has to be this speech:

Well, I’ll do everything humanly possible. Unfortunately, we barbers aren’t gods. You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter’s was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.

I’m often asked**** how accurate Theodoric’s take on medieval medicine is. I can’t speak about the toad, but he’s mostly right about the bleeding; if your humours are out of balance, the only solution is to curb the excess. His technique is a bit sloppy, though. Medieval doctors were not only concerned with how much blood to take from the body–where the blood was drawn from and when it was drawn were just as important. Thus medieval doctors had to consult elaborate charts that took into account the connection between various veins and the signs of the zodiac. (When the moon is in Capricorn, bleed them from the knees; in Taurus, go for the throat!) Here is a less than stunning example of one of those charts, but it’s the best I could find on short notice:


It’s a combination vein man and zodiac man. For larger individual examples of each, see here and here, respectively. True Steve Martin fans will enjoy the first link, where it looks like the medieval illuminator drew a banjo instead of the expected esophagus/stomach combination.

Blood-letting wasn’t the end all be all of medieval medicine, however. There were also purgatives, laxatives, and emetics to prescribe. If you got sick in the Middle Ages, you could expect that something disgusting was going to soon be forced out of some part of your body, one way or the other.

*For those too lazy to follow my carefully Googled links, here’s how Lewis Caroll’s logic puzzles work:
1. Angelina Jolie dipped in gold body paint must be in all movies based on medieval texts.
2. Yet, all unsuccessful Hollywood blockbusters misunderstand medieval texts.
3. All really good movies employ the Got Medieval Guy as a fact checker.
4. No movie that misunderstands medieval texts features the gold-body-paint enhanced charms of Ms. Jolie.
5. No successful Hollywood blockbusters have employed the Got Medieval Guy.
Therefore, all really good movies are based on medieval texts.
**And unlike performers, when it doesn’t click, I can always give someone an F to make myself feel better.***
***Let me assure any former undergraduates of mine who’ve stumbled across this page that I am completely serious. If you don’t laugh at your professor’s jokes, you have only yourself to blame for all that red ink on your next essay. Be a good audience, or else.
****Mostly by my father-in-law, who will not let go of an idea once it enters his head.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • pilgrimchick

    Well, true enough on the humors. When I interpreted as a 17th century pilgrim, we not only prescribed to the “purging” of humors in overabundance, but also to keeping humors balanced through diet. Every food had a predominant humor, and it was the responsibility of a good housewife to balance a meal. For example, since fish was “cold and wet” predominantly, it was recommended that it be cooked with onions or garlic or pepper, all “hot and dry”, to balance out the effects of the main ingredient. Do you find this also in Medieval medicine?

  • Jennifer Lynn Jordan

    Wow! I just finished Born Standing Up, and also posted this video in a vicodin haze, not knowing that you had just posted it. Sorry to inadvertantly copy you!

  • LLCoolCarlIII

    No sweat, JLJ. As I noted, it was floating around the blagosphere long before I put up a link.

    And pilgrimchick, in a word: yes. It extended to the way you cooked food, too. Since beef was dry, it was best balanced by boiling; pork was moist, so best balanced by roasting. Also, if you were of a particular temperament, you were supposed to avoid too many foods of that sort. Angry people (choleric) were cautioned not to eat too many onions or leeks. Someone once told me that this is the source of a joke in the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales about the Franklin, who drinks wine at breakfast, to counteract his sanguine temperament, but he’s got his humors wrong. (The best jokes are ones half-remembered that require lots of explanation.)

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