According to the OED, the Common Germanic noun wound (wund, wunde, wonde, wounde, etc.) describes “a hurt caused by the laceration or separation of the tissues of the body by a hard or sharp instrument” or “an external injury.” The term was most frequently used throughout the Middle Ages to describe a bodily injury caused by an object, animal, or person (Bosworth-Toller I1, MED 1a.) or an external or internal ulcer or sore caused by disease (Bosworth Toller I2, MED 3). Less often, wound could indicate a pestilence or plague (MED 5b),a surgical incision (MED 2), or a scar left by a healed injury (MED 4). In a religious context, wound suggests the five wounds Christ received during crucifixion (MED 1b) and could be applied to sin, indicating spiritual or moral imperfection (Bosworth-Toller II, MED 1c). Wound could have other figurative connotations, insinuating dishonor (i.e., a criminal’s “wounded character”) or psychological instability (i.e., the “herte-wounde” caused by grief (MED, herte (n.) 1d) or “love’s wounde” caused by unrequited love (MED, love (n. (1)) 4).
Although most often applied to a physical injury, wounds could take on multiple figurative meanings, with both positive and negative connotations. For instance, the wounds a warrior or knight incurred on the battlefield could signify his physical prowess and serve as identifying markers, while a medieval saint’s wounds could suggest spiritual superiority. Indeed, saints were thought to retain the scars from their wounds in the afterlife (Metzler 56-7). Conversely, wounds to the body could signify judicial punishment received for criminal behavior or spiritual or divine punishment incurred for immoral behavior (Skinner 81-3). Additionally, a physician may purposely wound a patient in order to cure an ailment or injury (MED 2). As a result, visible wounds could connote a number of meanings, as Larissa Tracy and Kelly DeVries explain: “In the medieval world, wounds could be fatal or salvivic […]. They could be mutilating, proof of shame or valor. They could be the cause of lifelong admiration or endless poverty” (1).
Treatment for wounds during the Middle Ages included washing, dressing, and stitching up wounds and making ointments or plasters out of substances like honey or eggs. A section of Guy de Chauliac’s Chirurgia Magna (1363) devoted to wound care provided new treatment procedures dedicated to preventing wound complications, including instructions on extracting foreign objects, rejoining cut tissue, and preserving tissue and organ continuity. The Wound Man, an illustration found in surgical treatises from 1491 into the 17th century, sketches out various wounds, their causes, and possible treatments.
Wounds take on a spiritual significance when associated with the five wounds of Christ, and Christ himself becomes identified by these wounds. In John 20:24-29, for example, the disciple Thomas will not believe that Christ has returned until he is able to touch the wounds in Christ’s hands and side. In later medieval practices of affective piety, moreover, believers meditated on the crucified body of Christ, and religious images and writings depict and describe Christ’s wounds in great detail. Religious persons who received the stigmata, like St. Francis of Assisi, were perceived as especially devout. While Old Testament instances of the term generally refer to literal wounds incurred in battle or as a result of divine wrath, New Testament uses of the term focus on the figurative wounds of sin in addition to Christ’s wounds. Wounds as symbols for sinfulness are common in religious writings, including Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love (66.13-14) and Richard Rolle’s Psalter (26.15). Often called the “wounds of the soul” or the “wounds of the heart,” these instances of wounding refer to sinful behavior that has “injured” one’s relationship with Christ and position Christ as the healer of such wounds. Paradoxically, wound also surfaces in blasphemous oaths, curses, and exclamations such as, “By Christ’s wounds!” or “By His wounds!”
Lastly, we find psychological or emotional connotations relating to wound, particularly in medieval romance literature. Grief, rebukes from others, general melancholy, or love are all possible causes of wounds to a person’s heart, mind, or soul. In the literary motif of lovesickness, the sight of a beautiful love-object is said to harm the brain, heart, and body of the lover (Wack, esp. 166-73).
Evidence and Images
Doubting Thomas touching Christ’s wounds
Genesis 4:23, 34:25
Deuteronomy 23:1, 32:39
Judges 3:22, 5:26, 9:40, 20:31
1 Samuel 17:52, 31:3
2 Samuel 22:39
1 Kings 8:38, 20:37, 22:34-35
2 Kings 8:28-29, 9:15, 20:10
1 Chronicles 10:13
2 Chronicles 18:33, 22:6, 35:23
Job 5:18, 9:17, 16:15, 24:12, 34:6
Psalms 18:38, 38:5, 64:7, 68:21, 69:26, 109:22, 110:6, 147:3
Proverbs 6:33, 7:26, 18:8, 20:30, 23:29, 26:22, 27:6
Song of Solomon 5:7
Isaiah 1:6, 14:6, 14:12, 30:26, 38:21, 51:9, 53:5
Jeremiah 6:7, 30:14, 30:17, 37:10, 51:52
Ezekiel 26:15, 28:23, 30:24
Luke 10:30, 10:34, 20:12
Acts 5:6, 19:16
1 Corinthians 8:2
Revelation 13:12-14, 16:2
Metzler, Irina. A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages. London: Routledge, 2013.
Zak Baumann, Kenzie Caudill, Lauryn Cooper, Michael Gray, Janie Jones, Maria Lee, Drake McAllister, Becky Neff, Kari Shaw, and Sabrina Wood, all of Miami University Hamilton
Tory V. Pearman, Miami University Hamilton