Washed and Spiced

Peter Bradshaw

  • The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture by Jonathan Sawday
    Routledge, 327 pp, £35.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 415 04444 8

Dr Paul-Michel Foucault, a wealthy and conservative surgeon, is deeply irritated by his young son’s evident disinclination to follow him into medicine and apparently infuriated by his effete strain of bookishness. He decides to toughen the boy up by introducing him to the bracing and heroic virilities a surgeon habitually displays. So he takes the young man into the operating-room of the hospital at Poitiers and forces him to witness the amputation of a man’s leg.

His son is profoundly upset. A family row ensues in June 1943 when Dr Foucault’s son announces that history and literature are his vocation, notwithstanding his good marks in science, and that he wishes to enter the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Dr Foucault’s ferocious denunciations are stilled by his wife: ‘Please don’t insist. The boy works hard. Let him do what he wants.’ But that terrible memory of the Poitiers operating theatre, which spoke so eloquently of power and sovereignty and their pitiless impress upon the body – the patient’s body, his own body – stays with young Foucault for the rest of his life. He is tortured with dreams of a floating surgeon’s scalpel. During his student years at ENS he slashes his chest with a knife. He even amputates his own name: from Paul-Michel after his father, it becomes just Michel.

Foucault is the grandparent of the flourishing academic industry that is today’s study of the body – and nowhere is this study more at home than in the Early Modern period. It was Foucault’s horrific evocation of the traitor’s torture – his ‘amende honorable’ at the beginning of Discipline and Punish, his demonstration of the way cruel partitions and lacerations were transformed into the ‘rational’ techniques of penal surveillance and the modern clinic, his remarks in The Order of Things on Cuvier’s comparative anatomy and his many other intellectual coups de théâtre that laid the ground for work on the criminal body, the sexual body, the labouring body. His work both on historical sources and conventionally literary texts anticipated for generations of graduate students a rich future of inter-disciplinary research; and the fact that he was one of the few French superstars to pay attention to English intellectuals like Bentham and Adam Smith made his work all the more congenial to Anglo-American scholarship. Indeed, his vision of the body’s various ideological and taxonomic subjections complemented Ernst Kantorowicz’s 1957 exegesis of the monarch’s ‘two bodies’ and the political theology of the king’s person as an incarnation of the state.

Recently, however, voices have been raised in dissent against the swollen ‘body’ industry, notably by Terry Eagleton, for whom the endless discussion of the body remains a tiresome and dubiously fruitful extrapolation of the obvious which – with its interest in violent and pitiful subjection – promotes a neurotic and defeatist view of power in history and discourse.

Jonathan Sawday’s The Body Emblazoned, a monumental study of Renaissance anatomy, is a contribution to this debate. It is an impressive work which investigates the troubled status of the body in the English Renaissance. Sawday synthesises a wide range of material, from anatomical handbooks and their illustrative plates to The Faerie Queene and Donne’s elegies, and takes the reader through the mysteries of Renaissance dissection with elegance and clarity.

Insofar as he has a starting-point for his discussion, it is the myth of Perseus and Medusa: a male protagonist confronting a female opponent and rendering her powerless by dismembering her and dispersing her body parts. It is an eloquent metaphor for anatomy as an expression of power, and Sawday applies it to dissection as a whole, and to a genre of literary dissection – the courtly ‘blazoning’, or enumerating, of a woman’s exquisite body parts with a mixture of fetishistic rapture and male self-regard.

His other classical template is the flaying of Marsyas in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the satyr’s terrible cry: ‘Who is it that tears me from myself?’ The flaying image is arguably more convincingly and consistently applicable to a study of Renaissance anatomy – and it was on this image, rather than the Medusa myth, that Sawday relied in an earlier essay on the subject. The ecstatic agony of Marsyas speaks of the profound unease that accompanied man’s gaze within his own interior – a sense of being estranged from a part of himself, a feeling that his sense of identity, of an indivisible self, had been permanently fractured and undermined. Anatomy was the occasion and the expression of what Sawday calls the ‘alienity’ of the Renaissance subject, the terrifying, painful and occasionally comic spectacle of the dismembered human form: an aspect of what he calls the ‘Uncanny Body’, a phrase derived from the Freudian notion of the unheimlich, the idea that the body, so completely and intimately ‘ours’, is, in certain contexts, profoundly alien and inexplicable.

Sawday leads us on a tour of the various personae that the dissected body contrived to assume in the Renaissance as if along a gallery hung with anatomical plates. There is the ‘Body in the Theatre of Desire’, in which the author samples the pungent residues and perfumes of morbid eroticism that linger in the anatomy theatre. There is the dissected body as spectacle of punishment and medium for education and edification – a vital component of post-Foucauldian studies of the body. There is ‘Sacred Anatomy’ in which dissection is akin to a parodic, secular sacrament and the body’s form a means of demonstrating the natural order of the state and the universe (an Aristotelean piety emphatically revived after the Restoration).

I would have liked to have heard more from Sawday about the ‘high’ political content of anatomy or the role played by anatomy and the body in the relation between the monarch, his court and his subjects – a mixture of metaphor, convention and ideology which was brought to an obvious crisis with the execution of Charles I. Admittedly, much has been written about the anatomy theatre as an arena of punishment. For example, in London the body of an executed criminal would be procured by the Barber Surgeons’ Beadle, whose presence at the gallows was routinely the cue for the attendant crowds to riot, a disorder incited by the felon’s dependants. The corpse was subsequently taken to the Barber Surgeons’ Hall in London for a public dissection followed by a sumptuous feast. This sequence of events indicates that – apart from everything else – a dissection at this time had a cathartic function as a ‘crisis’ through which the public onlookers were guided from the grim, chastened spirit of the public execution to the warm spirit of carnival and feasting.

The anatomist’s art was enacted not only on the bodies of criminals and the dispossessed in the sovereign’s name, but on the sovereign himself. The corpse of the English monarch in the Early Modern period would be viewed by the Privy Council, and when they had adjudged it to be cold, the attendant surgeon would be called on to eviscerate the body. The abdomen and chest would be incised, and the heart and thoracic and abdominal viscera removed for separate burial. Incisions would be made along the arms and thighs to let out the blood and allow space for the insertion of aromatic spices by the Clerk of the Spicery. Once the body had been washed and the spices inserted, the surgeon would sew up the original incision. The body was then ready to be wrapped in ceremonial cloth and coffined. This was a reverential anatomy of the monarch – the obverse of the kinds of dissection practised in public elsewhere. Sawday includes an observer’s description of the embalmment of James I:

The King’s body was about the 29th of March disembowelled, and his harte was found to be great but soft, his liver fresh as a young man’s; one of his kidneys very good, but the other shrunke so littel as they could hardly find yt ... the semyture of his head soe stronge as they could hardly break it open with a chisell and a sawe, and so full of braynes as they could not, uppon the openninge, keepe them from spillinge, a great marke of his infinite judgment.

The body had a secret history in the Renaissance, a history composed of rumour and surmise, hitherto guarded by the semi-professional initiates of surgery and midwifery and partly disclosed to the laity at the moments of death and birth. Now the new anatomy was forcing the mysteries of this interior history out into the open. Sawday has little to say about the practice of human vivisection, although it is clear that this was sometimes – perhaps often – carried out by accident on unconscious men who had survived hanging. He discusses the ways in which the treacherous territory of the body was seen in these quasi-vivisectional terms as mutely withholding its secrets, just as the mutinous native inhabitants of the colonies concealed their whereabouts and intentions from the planters and the pioneers.

Human vivisection was one of the forms that torture took in Early Modern England. Francis Bacon himself approved of it as a means of interrogation, having in 1615 witnessed the torture of Edmond Peacham, a Somerset clergyman who had written a paper attacking the King; and there is ample evidence that Bacon considered torture useful for understanding the structure and functions of the body. In the Sylva Sylvarum, he writes that ‘some creatures do move a good while after the head is off, as birds; some a very little time, as men and all beasts,’ and continues:

it is a report also of credit that the head of a pig hath been opened, and the brain put into a man’s hand, trembling without breaking any part of it, or severing it from the backbone, during which time the pig hath been, in all appearance, stark dead, and without motion, and after a small time the brain hath been replaced, the skull of the pig hath been closed, and the pig hath a little time after gone about.

This is similar in tone to his coolly dispassionate descriptions elsewhere of torture:

I remember to have seen the heart of a man who had his bowels torn out (the punishment with us for high treason) which on being cast into the fire, leaped up at first about a fool and a half high, and then by degrees into a less height ... There is likewise an old and trustworthy tradition of an ox bellowing after its bowels were torn out. But there is more certain report of a man, who having undergone this said punishment for high treason, when his heart had been torn out and was in the hands of the executioner, was heard to utter three or four words of prayer.

But this overtly violent political history of the body is not the burden of The Body Emblazoned. Sawday is concerned with a far more diffuse ‘culture of dissection’, and draws on the disciplines of art history, medical history and literary criticism to produce a highly readable account of a difficult, opaque subject. The readings of ‘sacred’ anatomical images are particularly illuminating, especially those of the pioneering works of Vesalius and Charles Estienne. These stunning images of flayed and dismembered corpses, apparently at ease in book-lined chambers or sauntering through the countryside near Padua, have long captivated readers. Sawday provides the most convincing explanation to date for their enigmatic disposition when he explains how the anatomical illustrators utilised existing religious imagery – such as that of Jesus’s ‘sacred heart’ – in order to sell advances in anatomy to an audience suspicious of their irreligious implications.

Those images which show dismembered corpses curiously peeling back their own flesh to gaze inside, without anguish or resentment, are not the products of mere whimsy. Sawday argues that corpses were depicted that way for very specific reasons, the most obvious of which was to exemplify the doctrine of Nosce te ipsum – the pious injunction to ‘know oneself’. More important, by subtracting the anatomist from the picture and making the body bring the anatomy on itself, the artists exempted the anatomist from the obloquy of appearing to be a blasphemer and an intimate of the dead.

Renaissance anatomy is a neglected topic. It is Jonathan Sawday’s achievement to have made it his own without the redundant fetishising that characterises so much work on ‘the body’. It is difficult now to recover the extraordinary intellectual and imaginative excitement in Early Modern England surrounding the advances in anatomy – gains for which this country was thrilled to stake a proprietary claim with William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. The Body Emblazoned has found a way back to this excitement. It is also a remarkable study of a period unlike any before or since, when the dead spoke to the living.