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The First Cut is the Deepest

For this week’s post I decided that I would highlight an item from one of Adam Matthew’s earlier collections, Defining Gender, 1450-1910

This page is taken from De Formatu Foetu, or, The Formation of the Foetus, a work by the Flemish anatomist Adrianus Spigelius that examined the female reproductive system. This ‘flowering foetus’ image was, however, reproduced in a whole host of medical and midwifery texts across the early modern period.

Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library

The way in which the female subject was portrayed may be somewhat unfamiliar to the modern observer. Rather than being a lifeless, sterile mannequin, as we would expect from a comparative diagram today, she in fact parades her flayed form against an elaborate landscape, seemingly indifferent to her own dissection. This was a theme that was common across all anatomical texts during this period, and the victims of the anatomist’s knife were often shown as active, and full of life – a true representation of the perfect human form. To dissect the human body was seen as something of a taboo (although not to the extent we may assume) and so anatomists had to portray their subjects as cooperating in their own dissection to avoid provoking public scrutiny.

These woodcuts and engravings were also crammed full of metaphor and symbolism, which highlighted the cultural and religious frameworks in which the practice of dissection took place. Here, for example, natural metaphor is used to show how the female body was a fertile ‘field’ that could create life. Flaps of skin frame the viscera like the petals of a flower, revealing her curled up ‘fruit’ inside. In her hand she clutches an apple to emphasise her fertility, whilst the barren plinth upon which she kneels seems to spring in to life at her very touch. Her hair is also long and flowing, a contemporary symbol of heat and sexuality.

Defining Gender also has another engraving of a dissected newborn child, again taken from Spigelius’ work on reproduction. Here the ­­­small, dissected tot lounges peacefully on a blanket, gripping the umbilical cord that connects him to an excavated placenta. The vital organs have been labelled to aid anatomical instruction, and it is likely that this text would have been used during dissection as a comparison to the real thing.

Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library

There’s so much more to be said about anatomical images such as these, but I’m sure you’ve had your fill for today. Defining Gender, 1450-1910 remains a great resource for the study of early modern culture, particular its documents on contemporary bodies, sex, and childbirth.





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