The artists with the butchers' knives

The Body Emblazoned:
May 26, 1995

These days interdisciplinarity is always advocated, often attempted but rarely successful. Jonathan Sawday's study is proof, however, both of its feasibility and its merits. The Body Emblazoned concerns the transformations in understanding of the body between the Renaissance and the Restoration. Alike rejecting old-fashioned history of ideas and new-fangled master doctrines, yet not sinking into amorphous discursive soup, Sawday seeks to demonstrate the intimate interaction between changing aterial practices and emergent intellectual and artistic images.

The paramount new activity impacting upon the body in the early modern period was anatomy. From Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543) through Harvey and beyond, the surgeon's knife cut into the corpse as never before. Anatomy became the cutting edge of medical investigation and a key feature of a doctor's training, but, with the building of magnificent anatomy theatres, it also became a conspicuous public celebration of an alliance between civic and medical power.

The consequence - quite apart from the advancement of anatomy, physiology and medicine per se - was the discrediting of traditional tropes about the body, and its relations to mind, soul and self. Ancient taboos about the body and its sacred inviolability could, almost by definition, no longer stand once dissection was securely established. This meant that in certain ways the body grew degraded, reduced to an object exposed to violation by the inquisitive gaze, to be hacked about, dismembered and experimented upon, rather than reverenced as a mysterious or magical whole created in God's image. Yet in the eyes of Sir Thomas Browne and other "religious doctors" it could equally be ennobled: no longer that sack of **** reviled by the Patristic theologians or as a Bakhtinian grotesque, it was soon to be exalted as a masterpiece of mechanism, proof of divine design. The polysemicity of the anatomised body is Sawday's focus.

The newly exposed body did stout service as a metaphor and stimulus for so much else. Because the corpses surgeons dissected were standardly those of executed criminals, the business of anatomising assumed a penal character, and the anatomist was often rendered infamous as a cousin to the hangman or the butcher. The cruel invasiveness of the knife suggested and ramified with other newly conspicuous modes of mastery, not least the bloody colonisation of the New World and its natives, or the often misogynistic courtly culture of the conquest of women - themes linked by John Donne, with his "Licence my roaving hands, and let them go,/ Before, behind, between, above, below./ O my America! my new-found-land".

"Anatomising" became a popular literary and philosophical genre, both in the sense of grasping a subject through formal partition and division, as in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), and also of prying beneath the surface to unveil hidden truths, and lance festering sores, as in Philip Stubbes's Anatomy of Abuses (1583). A new literary-cum-religious genre came into fashion: self-anatomy, introspection to one's own body (autopsy, literally). "I have cut up mine owne Anatomy," declared Donne in his Devotions: "dissected myselfe, and they are got to read upon me". This technique of self-examination ("nosce te ipsum") and often self-flagellation incorporated a visceral intensity hardly heard again until Freud.

Yet anatomy not only suggested penetrating - and, one is tempted to say, "deconstructing" - it equally involved public display. Anatomy theatre dissections were veritable spectacles - theatre in the literal sense; and they were paralleled by other varieties of corporeal display, notably the rhetorical exhibition of female beauty in the "blazon" tradition, in which the poet would parade the parts of his mistress as trophies for (homosocial) erotic admiration. With ambivalent implications, Queen Elizabeth contrived to appropriate that tradition for her own purposes, making a blazon of herself and turning her own body, with a pinch of poetic licence, into a symbol of nationhood (Gloriana, Astraea) and a quasi-religious erotic icon. Among Caroline and Cavalier poets, praise of female parts became inseparable from voyeuristic and salacious mental undressing: as the anatomised woman became, in effect, a pin-up, the darkly erotic subtext of anatomising grew obvious.

The most daring aspect of The Body Emblazoned lies in its attempt to trace the symbiosis of the medical, philosophical and artistic - links that concatenated in the Dutch Republic in the 1630s. There it was, above all, that painters incorporated dissection scenes into their repertoire, audaciously alluded to the pieta tradition of the crucified Christ in their renderings of the corpse on the anatomist's slab. To paint the corpse was to dissect it with the artist's not the surgeon's knife. In his "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp", Rembrandt also aimed to present the body as essentially a mechanical contrivance, made up of discrete parts, thus both developing and exemplifying the mechanistic outlook of the "new philosophy". Can it be purely coincidental, Sawday asks, that Descartes too was living near the butchers' quarter of Amsterdam at roughly the same time, and was himself performing dissections? The body machine as conceptualised by the "new science" (mere flesh) was a far cry indeed from the mysterious interiority of the divine, if haunted, corporeal habitation as depicted but a few years earlier by, for instance, Du Bartes or by Edmund Spenser in the House of Alma section of the Faerie Queene.

The anatomical tradition culminated in William Harvey. His demonstration in De Motu Cordis (1628) that the heart was but a pump, destroyed age-old correspondences and archetypes (the heart as monarch) and, for all Harvey's personal conservatism, corroborated the dualistic Cartesian separation of body (scientifically available at last, but now treated as a thing apart) from mind (rescued from reductionism, but losing its moorings). If anatomy was to be destiny, consciousness had to be incorporeal, or at most a ghost in the machine. Between them, Harvey, Descartes and Rembrandt (or rather their shared mentalite) realised the insight of Donne when he stated that bodies "are ours, thou they are not we".

Similar arguments to these exist, but this book's novel and particular virtue lies in its avoiding the triumphalism of traditional medical history ("the Vesalian revolution") or the nostalgic moralisings that routinely come in the baggage train of notions like T. S. Eliot's "dissociation of sensibility". For Sawday anatomy does not primarily bring the lamentable death of an organic universe, or entail the commendable triumph of science; rather, the culture of dissection created new ways of seeing that could serve as resources for intellectual and artistic purposes as disparate as the Royal Society and Thomas Traherne. What is triumphantly shown by this shrewd, assured and well-illustrated book is that keen attention to the function of particular cultural sites - theatre, court, anatomy theatre, even the butcher's shop - lays bare the material basis for understanding otherwise perplexing cultural and intellectual transformations.

Roy Porter is professor of the social history of medicine, Wellcome Institute.

The Body Emblazoned:: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture

Author - Jonathan Sawday
ISBN - 0 415 04444 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £35.00
Pages - 3pp

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