Picturing the Female Body, Part II: A Historical View

27 Aug

Last week, I went to the exhibition “Books and Babies: Communicating Reproduction” at the University of Cambridge Library.  The exhibition is a collection of prints, anatomical drawings, comic books, novels, and science texts from the medieval period to the present that attempt to understand human reproduction.  Looking at them is a marvelous reminder that the way that we think about the body has changed over time.

Here is a picture from one of the exhibits:

Think it’s a penis?  Nope, it’s a 16th century image of the womb from Thomas Raynalde’s The Birth of Mankind.  I am guessing that the top part that looks like a walnut is the uterus, the shaft is the woman’s vaginal canal, and the bottom portion are a woman’s genitals.

The exhibit is well worth a look if you happen to be in Cambridge or will be before the exhibit closes at the end of December.  Those who won’t be traveling there this summer or fall can see an online version of the exhibit, complete with most of the display’s pictures and captions at http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/exhibitions/Babies/index.html.   It’s an important reminder that the way that perceptions of the body are not static.  As Barbara Duden has so powerfully demonstrated in her book The Woman Beneath the Skin, men and women used to see the body as a changeable, fluid thing.  Believing that the body was filled fluids and gases that could change and morph, people in the early modern period described women menstruating from their breasts, passing gas through their ears, and experiencing a wind in their uterus.  It is only recently that we have seen the body as a stable, fixed thing that can be dissected and understood through charts and graphs.  Likewise, men and women used to believe that the female was the inverse of the male with the genitals tucked neatly inside rather than hanging outside the body, as powerfully demonstrated by the above picture.  The exhibit should at least make us more careful about making claims that men have always been this way or women always that.


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