When Latin gets sick: mocking medical language in macaronic poetry

Medieval medicineWhen Latin gets sick: mocking medical language in macaronic poetry

Šime Demo

JAHR, Vol. 4, No. 7 (2013)


Macaronic poetry is a curious cultural phenomenon, having originated in classical antiquity and taken its standard form in the 15th century in northern Italy. Its basic feature is mixing of linguistic varieties for a humorous effect. In this paper, connections between macaronic poetry and the language of medicine have been observed at three levels. Firstly, starting with the idea of language as a living organism, in particular Latin (Renaissance language par excellence), its illness, from a humanist point of view, brought about by uncontrolled contamination with vernacular, serves as a stimulus for its parodying in macaronic poetry; this is carried out by sys- tematically joining together stable, “healthy”, classical material with inconsistent, “contagious” elements of the vernacular. Secondly, a macaronic satire of quackery, Bartolotti’s Macharonea medicinalis, one of the earliest macaronic poems, is analysed.

Finally, linguistic expressions of anatomical and pathological matter in macaronic poetry are presented in some detail, as in, for example, the provision of a disproportionately high degree of scatological and obscene content in macaronic texts, as well as a copious supply of lively metaphors concerning the body, and parodical references to medical language that abound. Furthermore, anatomical representations and descriptions of pathological and pseudo-pathological conditions and medical procedures are reviewed as useful as displays of cultural matrices that are mirrored in language.


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