Introduction: Surgery and the Wounds of Sin

  • Jeremy J. Citrome
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The above words, spoken in 1941 by the noted psychiatrist C. Buxlinghame in an after-dinner speech to colleagues, illustrate the folly of regarding the customs of the past from too high a pedestal. Burlinghame, a pioneer of psychosurgical procedures ranging from shock treatment to lobotomy, invokes as part of his rhetorical strategy medicine that is recognizably “medieval,” and that modern society tends to either greet ‘with laughter or dismiss contemptuously. Yet Burlinghame’s artless pillory of medieval surgery betrays an overt anxiety over his own healing methods. Indeed, the mutilation of the frontal lobe to curtail antisocial behavior is now regarded as a relic of a particularly inhumane period of psychiatric medicine. Although Burlinghame employs the perceived antiquity—indeed, the alterity—of medieval surgical methods to make his own practices seem innovative by comparison, there is, in fact, continuity at work here. The violence of Burlinghame’s methods are designed to reintegrate the patient into the law-abiding community, just as the “leeches,” “bleedings,” and other forceful excisions that constituted medieval surgery were meant to restore the patient not just physically but also morally and spiritually. To the profoundly penitential culture of later medieval England, sin and sickness were inextricably linked; and surgery, even as it progressed in its ability to cure physical affliction, became even more important as a metaphor for the pursuit of spiritual health.


Thirteenth Century Fourteenth Century Spiritual Health Anonymous Author Corrosive Chemical 
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© Jeremy J. Citrome 2006

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  • Jeremy J. Citrome

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