One of the advantages of working in central London is the sheer number of interesting exhibitions and other events going on all around me. The other day I wandered into the Wellcome Collection to see if they had anything interesting to see, and was rewarded with a free exhibition called Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian Medicine, which is on until the 8th of April 2018, exploring health and illness in India and nearby countries. The exhibits on display mostly relate to a much later era than the one which I study: indeed, the exhibition posters emphasise that the theory and emphases of ayurvedic medicine did not remain static, but changed over time, in response to imperialism and western influence. Nevertheless, when I look at something from a different culture to the one that I study, I like to look for connections and continuity, even when you might not expect to find them. So when I encountered bloodletting and references to the humours, I immediately started drawing mental comparisons with English medical books and the wider European context in which they existed. The Leechbooks, to which I have referred on numerous occasions in this blog, have long been known to be derived from Mediterranean medical works: the healing plants recommended in them attest to this. This post is part of an (entirely inadvertent) occasional series on bodily fluids – having previously looked at vomit and snot, I think it’s now time for blood!
This drawing, the star piece of the Wellcome exhibition and that after which it is named, was made in Nepal around 1800, using text from the sixteenth-century Bhāvaprakāśaḥ.
This is entirely drawn from the Ayurvedic understanding of the human anatomy, unlike other Indian images of the human body. The channels and organs drawn on the torso are specified as in Ayurvedic literature, with organs named as receptacles for one or other of the organic fluids … They are the seats of the humours (wind, bile and phlegm) and do not generally engage in the kind of processing which modern western biomedicine expects of an ‘organ’.
Catalogue entry for Wellcome Library no. 574912i
This excellent article, an extract from In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room by Aarathi Prasad, explains in brief the ancient and long-lasting ayurvedic philosophy of Indian medicine and the ‘balance through moderation’ which underpins it. Prasad explains how this principle would have been familiar to Europeans whose own ancient medical theories were based on the idea of the four ‘humours’ – blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile – which had to be kept in balance, and are roughly analogous to the three doshas of wind, bile and phlegm referred to in ayurveda. The humours are referred to as wætan, fluids or moistures, in Old English.
Signs of the illness: the illness comes from bad humours flowing from above, or from vapours, or from both. Then, in this illness, one must first let blood from the upper vein, after which one must give a plant drink …
But when should you let a person’s blood? A Tibetan manuscript in the Wellcome exhibition offers many answers to this question, showing which days are good and which are bad, and when one should guard against demons. According to the description online, it ties together a great deal of different ideas in a single poster-sized diagram:
Chart indicating good and bad bloodletting days and when to guard against demons. The chart also contains a sme ba, 9 figures symbolising the elements in geomancy, in the centre with the Chinese pa-kua, 8 trigrams, surrounded by 12 animals representing months and years. Below this, symbols of the 7 days of the week. 106 compartments containing an ornamental letter in each and written in dbu indicate bloodletting days. The protector deities, top, are Manjursri, the White Tara and Vajrapani, below them the 8 fortune signs and other symbols.
Catalogue entry for Wellcome Collection, Or Tibetan 114
The idea of good and bad days for bloodletting would have been completely familiar to Anglo-Saxons who were in the know. Several manuscripts include a list of what were known as dies Egyptiaci, the ‘Egyptian days’, on which it was considered dangerous to let blood – in this case, either from a human, or from a farm animal:
Beate Günzel notes that these are so called because Egyptian calendars had once listed them as unlucky days. On medieval English calendars, which show the feasts of the saints and the signs of the zodiac, these are sometimes marked with the abbreviation D’, or, in this twelfth-century example, with the words ‘Dies egiptiacus‘.
According to the Lacnunga medical collection, not only should you not let the blood of either humans or animals on these ‘plihtice dagas’ (dangerous days), but you also shouldn’t eat goose meat on them, and anyone who is born on these days will meet a sticky end!
There are three days in the year which we call ‘Egyptian’ – that is, in our language, dangerous days – on which no-one, for any need, is to diminish the blood either of a human or of an animal …
When we study different periods of history, we find ourselves seeing more and more connections, confluences and continuities, across time and across space. While the early medieval English may not have had direct contact with India, they were in contact with the rest of the western church, and with Rome and the Mediterranean, as also were many parts of Asia, a network of influences by which ideas were spread widely across the world.
Beate Günzel, ed. Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (London: Boydell Press, 1993).