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Medival illustration of The Wounded Man

The Wounded Man: A Fascinating Story of Pain and Healing


Since its first appearance during the Middle Ages, an image became part of medical and surgical learning.

The image shows a man (and sometimes, a woman) with several knives, swords, arrows, axes and hammers in the process of injuring his body, with exposed bones, an inflamed neck and swollen glands, and venomous animals biting his feet. It’s yet an eloquent image of human suffering and pain.

The “Wounded Man,” Der verwundete Mann, as he appeared in numerous medical and surgical treatises since the Middle Ages. Wundarznei, “Surgery”, by the famous German surgeon, Ortolf von Bauerland, from the 14th century, bore the first documented appearance of the “Wounded Man.”

Although the figure of the Wounded Man may seem morbid, or even grotesque, to the modern reader, his use during the Middle Ages and later years served a rather editorial purpose; he served as an index for navigating to the contents of the book. In addition to the numerous wounds inflicted on his flesh, there were also short texts which led back to the page where the procedure for the healing of wounds was discussed in depth.

The Wounded Man was never merely a “sadistic” illustration. He was a way for the doctor or surgeon to quickly search for the section describing how to treat the wound or disease. The image also appealed to the imaginations of medical students, who were given an idea of ​​all of the forms of pain a body could suffer as a result of war, accident and epidemic diseases like the Black Death which ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages.

Illustration of The Wounded Man

With the invention of the printing process, the Wounded Man lost some of his crudeness and drama, but his function remained the same. It was in the Fasciculus medicinae, published in Venice in 1491, that he made his first printed appearance.

Another curious thing about the figure is that he also records the aesthetic changes in the representation of the human body over many centuries. The Wounded Man appeared in Italian, Spanish, and German medical treatises, in both luxury and hand-copied versions, with inscriptions around him, and as a merely ornamental motif, as on the cover of Das Buch der cirurgia, the “Book of Surgery,” a 1497 work of Hieronymus Brunschwig.

Military technology and its development historically can also be seen reflected in the body of the Wounded Man, as different types of swords appear, from sabers to scimitars, depending on the historical enemy of the time. Even cannonballs appear in a version presented by Hans von Gersdorff in his book Feldbuch der Wundarznei, “Fieldbook of surgery,” from 1517.

The Wounded Man iconographically recalls representations of Saint Sebastian, a saint tied to a tree stoically enduring numerous arrows fired into his body. The Wounded Man though refers to the human body’s resilience, its capacity to be cured, and the expertise of surgeons who relied on him to as a resource for the sick and the injured. To paraphrase Voltaire, the efficacy of medicine is in allowing nature to heal the sick.


Image: Public Domain

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