Medieval manuscripts teem with exempla, or short illustrative tales, which occur in sermons, longer poems, confessional manuals, medical texts, and even in dedicated collections. Many exempla concern sickness and healing, both sacred and secular. Devils are physicians who offer false medical advice, suggesting that it is unhealthy to listen to sermons and healthy to stay up late at the tavern drinking and playing dice, which lead to material medical conditions such as dropsy and gout. A sickly friar feels punished by God when his sickness vanishes. A hermit considers whether it is holier to fast or to visit the sick.
The study of exempla has been dominated by a socio-historical focus on their use to contain and to control. With this view, these texts are often simplified into tools for generating fear and submission in which listeners are stripped of any agency. However, this talk presents the exemplum as a more slippery, complicated genre, particularly when the sentence does not fit the narrative so tidily.
This paper will put narratives of care in dialogue with theories of illness narrative developed recently in the field of medical humanities. What are the constraints of the genre? What is the potential for the exemplum, often perceived as the rudest and humblest literary genre, to upset expectations while offering a rich and varied understanding of sickness and care?