Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection
by Katharine Park
A review by Jessica Jernigan
Anyone who has ever studied the history of the human body knows that the male form was considered the normative -- not to mention the ideal -- form by everyone from the ancient Greeks to American medical men of the 20th century. The female body was a weak copy, and a woman's ability to bear children was both a symptom of her compromised state and her defining physical characteristic. Women were an unfortunate if necessary aberration, and their bodies were a mystery best left unexplored.
It appears, however, that this account may be a bit too simple. In her calmly provocative new book, Katherine Park (a professor of the history of science at Harvard and coauthor, with Lorraine Daston, of the excellent Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750) offers a nuanced reconsideration of the role of the female body in the evolution of Western medicine. As she looks at the dissections of saints, mothers, and anonymous felons in the late Middle Ages, Park argues that women were integral to the birth of our understanding of modern anatomy, and she illuminates a time when medical scholars and practitioners believed that to understand "the secrets of women" was to understand the secrets of life.
Park begins in 1308, with the autopsy of Chiara of Montefalco, an abbess and renowned visionary and ascetic whose internal organs bore the signs of her sanctity. (Her sister nuns found an image of Christ crucified and various symbols of the Passion when they opened her heart, and three small stones in her gallbladder, which the nuns understood as a reference to the Holy Trinity.) Park explores this and other "holy anatomies" before she turns her attention to medieval matrons whose corpses were opened -- sometimes at their own behest -- so that their families might learn whether they died of an illness or infirmity that might be passed on to their children. Park concludes by considering the anonymous felon whose public dissection appears on the dramatic title page of Andreas Vesalius's groundbreaking work, On the Fabric of the Human Body (first published in 1543). As she works her way through these forgotten anatomies, Park describes how conceptions of the female interior changed over time, and how attitudes toward a woman's understanding of her own body changed, too. She presents images and narratives in which women are dynamic participants in the exploration of their innermost parts, and she delineates woman's transformation from subject to mere object in the pursuit of medical knowledge.
Park describes her work as feminist history, and she is attentive throughout to the creation and function of gender. This does not mean, however, that she accepts feminist history-of-science orthodoxy. She disputes, for example, the widely accepted notion (presented most famously in Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex) that the "one-sex" model -- the idea that the female body was simply an underdeveloped male body -- dominated the scholarly imagination from Galen to the Enlightenment (and the endnotes suggest that a more thorough refutation is in the works). Her consideration of the overlapping roles of midwife and doctor is also much more complex than the popular narrative of wise women persecuted by patriarchal physicians. Park explains that the knowledge of the midwife was suspect in the Middle Ages not because it came from a woman, but because it was subjective, contingent, and orally transmitted in the vernacular. There is, of course, a connection between the midwife's gender and her lack of formal education, and Park has a keen eye for the straightforward misogyny of some of the authors she cites, but she also cites several academics who acknowledge midwives as a valuable source of obstetric information. Her analysis is a salutary reminder to avoid anachronism and generalization when examining the historical record. Park's correction reconstructs a time when science meant Aristotle, when any observation that seemed to contradict received wisdom had to be interpreted and reinterpreted until it conformed to ancient authority. Park asks us to enter a universe where metaphor makes reality, and our understanding is enriched by this imaginative immersion.
Secrets of Women is the kind of book that's more likely to end up on the shelf of a university library than in a beach bag or on a bedside table, but it has much to offer the general reader interested in medical history and the cultural construction of gender. Park writes in a commendably clear, lively style, and her portraits of holy women and noble matrons opening their bodies to scientific exploration are fascinating, eye-opening, and occasionally rather moving.
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