Opening a window on a closed world

Secrets of Women

May 25, 2007

What usually comes to mind when imagining the scene of anatomical dissection in Renaissance Europe is the opening of a cadaver (normally an executed criminal) in the presence of learned physicians or surgeons and their students. That legitimate forms of dissection might be done elsewhere (at home, for instance) and also play a role in anatomical learning is bound to seem surprising, if not strangely shocking.

Yet, as Katherine Park points out, the opening up of bodies, especially those of women, occurred throughout the late Renaissance for reasons not connected with medical school instruction. Surgeons might be called to embalm the body of an illustrious person, for instance, or the corpses of holy men and women might be opened to verify assertions of divinely altered internal organs.

More generally, Caesarean births and autopsies led to opportunities to examine the body outside the context of academic learning. As Park emphasises, on many of these occasions the subject was female, and the opportunity to open the female body provided the chance, for both physicians and non-physicians alike, to observe the anatomical "secrets of women", especially those that pertained to reproduction.

These occasions were not, Park insists, merely coarse background practices against which university dissections acquired more refined and legitimate status. Each reflected the experiences of the other, like "angled mirrors", making the encounter with the dissected body in medical schools a less isolated event and allowing greater relevance for a variety of motives, locations and cultural meanings in the process of anatomical discovery.

Park's approach to exploring the larger realm of practical dissection is to focus on carefully chosen case studies. In regard to opening the bodies of holy women, she tells the story of Chiara of Montefalco, an Umbrian abbess whose fellow nuns opened her body in 1308 searching for signs of sainthood (she had claimed she had a sign of the cross inscribed on her heart).

Another story involved Elena Duglioli, who had proclaimed that Jesus had removed her heart altogether and that, although a virgin, her breasts produced milk. Her corpse was repeatedly opened, both by lay observers and by Jacopo Berengario of Carpi, one of the best known physicians of the period.

These women's bodies were thought to contain holy secrets, and much of the understanding of how women's bodies could produce such internal wonders rested on contemporary beliefs about generation and reproduction. According to ancient authority, the imagination of pregnant women, stirred through vision, could have a powerful influence in the shaping of the physical characteristics of the newborn. If vision influenced generation in such a direct sense, what might be generated elsewhere in the bodies of divinely inspired visionary women?

Neither Chiara nor Elena was the physical subject of medical instruction.

Nevertheless, the need to know something about their bodies led to close inspections, especially in the region of the abdomen. Needing to know other things led also to other types of non-public domestic dissection. In this regard, opening the bodies of patrician wives and mothers in northern Italy (usually to ascertain the cause of infertility or the cause of death following childbirth) focused attention on the uterus (the most important domain of women's secrets). These occasions offered special opportunities for probing the mysterious workings of the uterus, sometimes as a result of seeking assumed maternal causes for recurring family illnesses.

The social and moral conditions of these women contrasted sharply with the woman being dissected on the title page of one of the most important texts in the history of anatomy, a book referred to briefly as the Fabrica (1543) of Andreas Vesalius. This was a woman who had been hanged (her execution postponed by her claim of pregnancy).

Most observers, Park claims, would have noticed that Vesalius was in the act of dissecting the uterus. Most would probably also have grasped an unambiguous message, that the manual art of surgery was essential to understanding the rationality of the body. Some observers would also, she claims, have been reminded of stories related to classical or mythological instances of dissection - Nero dissecting his mother, Agrippina, for instance.

In this last regard, especially, some of Park's claims seem to reach quite far and one wonders how much evidence there really is to shore up arguments conclusively. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating and astute discussion with an exciting thesis, taking the subject of dissection out of the medical school and situating its origins in practices of everyday life.

Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection

Author - Katherine Park
Publisher - Zone Books
Pages - 419
Price - £23.95
ISBN - 9781890951672

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