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9-08-2015, 14:54

The body

Understandings of the body in the centuries around 1500 were very different from those of the modern western body, though they had changed little in over a thousand years. For scientists, physicians, and other learned individuals, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 bce ), and the Greek physicians Hippocrates (c . 460–375 bce ) and Galen (129–199 ce ) had explained human anatomy and physiology in a satisfactory way, and there was little reason to reject this. In fact, Galenic and Hippocratic precepts actually became more widely known in the sixteenth century than they had been earlier, when translations from Greek medical works were published in astounding numbers: nearly 600 editions of Galen’s writings were printed between 1500 and 1600. The Galenic body contained four of what were termed “humors,” fl uids that infl uenced bodily health – blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Each individual was thought to have a characteristic temperament or “complexion,” determined by the balance of the four humors, in the same way that we might describe a person today as having a “positive outlook” or a “Type A” personality. The organs were viewed primarily as channels for the humors, rather than as having only one specifi c function. Blood, for example, originated in the liver from the assimilation of food, then ebbed and fl owed as a thick fl uid in the veins, nourishing the body. Some of it seeped through the walls of the heart, where it mixed with air coming from the lungs, and then ebbed and fl owed as a thin, almost spirit-like fl uid in the arteries, energizing the body with its “life force.” In Galenic theory there were thus two kinds of blood, one moving in the liver and the veins, and the other in the heart, lungs, and arteries; blood of both types was the dominant humor, carrying the other humors through the body. Illness was caused by an imbalance in these humors, which was why the most common form of medical treatment was drawing blood, the only one of the humors for which the amount could be adjusted easily. (Black bile and yellow bile were never clearly identifi ed, and the amount of phlegm the body produces is limited.) Diet, exercise, sleep, sexual activity, and relations with family and friends could also affect the balance of the humors, promoting good health or encouraging disease. Too much drink or worry, smoky rooms, bad companions, or too many arguments could make one “unbalanced” mentally as well as physically, with individuals dominated by black bile, also called melancholy , especially likely to become depressed or even insane.

METHODS AND ANALYSIS 1 The linguistic turn

The body might seem to be a part of the natural world, not a cultural creation. We all experience our own bodies from the inside, feeling pain and pleasure, health and disease. Though evolutionary change has shaped the human body, it operates very slowly; there have certainly been no major changes in the physical structure of the body in the past fi ve hundred years. All of these statements seem common sense, and yet they are disputed by historians of the body, who point out that understandings of the body are culturally specifi c and change over time. Some would even argue that because people in the past perceived and described their bodies differently, those bodies really were different, or at least they are unrecoverable as historical subjects in themselves, because all we can know about them are the words and visual images – the discourse – referring to them. This emphasis on the unrecoverability of actual experiences and the centrality of discourse is often loosely referred to as “deconstruction,” “poststructuralism,” or the “linguistic turn” in history. It became very popular in the 1980s and 1990s when many historians were infl uenced by literary and linguistic theory, but was also hotly debated. Proponents of this point of view argued that historians should not be preoccupied with searching for “reality,” because to do so demonstrates a naïve “positivism,” a school of thought whose proponents regarded the chief aim of knowledge as the description of phenomena. Opponents argued that this went against the basic purpose of history, and that an emphasis on unchangeable linguistic structures denied people’s ability to shape their own world – what is usually termed historical “agency.” All historians recognize that their sources have limitations, they asserted, but historians also understand that sources refer to something beyond the sources themselves – a person who lived and died, an event that occurred or was blocked. The linguistic turn affected many areas of historical study, not simply that focusing on the body, but study of the body throws the dispute – which is still going on, though with less vitriol on both sides – into high relief. On the one hand, bodies seem clearly to be tangible, physical objects, but on the other, various cultures have described their structure and functioning so differently that it is hard to imagine they are all talking about the same thing. Though the humors were distinct, under certain conditions they could also transform themselves into a different humor, or into any other fl uid that the body produced, such as milk or semen. Thus during pregnancy women’s menstrual blood nourished the fetus, and during lactation it turned into milk and continued to nourish the baby. During intercourse, blood turned into semen in men, and perhaps also in women, though learned individuals disagreed about whether women produced “seed” or were simply the vessels in which generation (what we would term “reproduction”) occurred. The transformation of blood into semen led many physicians to recommend that men limit the number of their ejaculations, and poets sometimes described sexual relations as little deaths – “oh, I die, I die” was a standard poetic conceit for orgasm. Heat was the primary agent in most of these transformations, and heat was also related to gender. Men were hotter and drier than women, which is why they went bald (their internal heat burned up their hair) and had bigger brains and broader shoulders (the heat expanded these). Heat also pushed the male sexual organs outside of the body, whereas women’s lack of heat led to theirs remaining inside. Women’s lack of heat was the reason they menstruated, for men burned up unneeded blood internally. The incorrect amount of heat created gender confusions: “virile” women who had more bodily heat than normal were seen as capable of producing semen, and effeminate men who lacked normal masculine heat were thought to lactate. Even menstruation was not completely gender-specifi c, for it was not clearly separated from other types of bleeding in people’s minds, and was often compared to male nosebleeds or hemorrhoids or other examples of spontaneous bleeding. The centrality of bodily fl uids in medical theory led physicians to regard looking at a person’s urine or taking their pulse as the best diagnostic tools for all kinds of illness; physicians were trained through a long university education and had a high social status, so that they regarded close physical examinations of patients as both socially beneath them and medically unnecessary. Medical training in the sixteenth century began to include more dissections, and anatomists such as the Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius (1514–64) critiqued Galen’s claims about the structure of the body and the way it operated. Based on dissections he performed himself while lecturing at the University of Padua, Vesalius wrote his major work, De humani corporis fabrica (1543; On the Structure of the Human Body ), which included detailed drawings. This and other medical discoveries caused some physicians to begin to doubt the humoral theory, but not until the late eighteenth century would the idea of the psychological effects of the humors die out among learned Europeans, and not until the nineteenth did blood letting completely lose favor as a medical procedure. Most people probably did not understand all the intricacies of the humoral theory, but they experienced bloodletting on a regular basis, performed by barber-surgeons, who also carried out other medical procedures on injured or ailing bodies, such as setting bones or lancing boils. People also used purgatives to rid their bodies of superfl uous humors or of “poisons,” and sought out other treatments to maintain health or treat illness that were not based strictly on the humoral theory. Practical experimentation over many centuries had provided a range of medicines made from herbs, salts, minerals, and other ingredients that were thought to be effective against specifi c illnesses or as general tonics to promote health. These could be purchased at apothecaries’ shops if one lived in a city, or from men or women with a reputation as healers, or the ingredients could be gathered and mixed oneself, for early printed books included medical guides for making home remedies and cookbooks included medicines along with other recipes. Some of these ingredients were understood to work – and, indeed, did work, for they continue to be used in medical treatment today – through physical or chemical processes. Others were thought to be effective through their “sympathetic” qualities, that is, they resembled the affl iction and could thus drive it away; spotted plants of various sorts, for example, were prescribed for diseases such as measles. Such sympathetic action shaded into the magical, for healers often recommended reciting certain sayings while taking the medicine, or prescribed rituals alone. Sometimes these rituals were regarded as outside of or in opposition to Christianity and their practitioners were suspect, though priests also engaged in healing rituals with saints’ relics or holy water. Most people confronting illness probably tried a range of options sequentially or simultaneously: bloodletting, therapeutic mixtures, rituals, prayer. Food was more important than medicine in keeping the body healthy and functioning. Bread was the center of the European diet, though its quality was highly variable depending on social status. Wealthy urban people ate fresh bread made from wheat fl our that had been sifted until it was white, while poorer urban and rural people ate darker bread made from a mix of grains and baked or bought only sporadically, or mush made from grains or beans. To this were added vegetables in season, which in southern Europe meant leafy or root vegetables most of the year and in northern Europe meant primarily root vegetables in summer and fall and nothing in winter and spring. This scarcity of vegetables could cause scurvy, a disease caused by the lack of vitamin C; sauerkraut – cabbage pickled in salt and vinegar – was a useful antidote, developed in central Europe, and by the sixteenth century made and sold by female vendors in many cities. Poor people in cities actually got much of their food already prepared from vendors. Bread or vegetables or even porridge require cooking facilities, to which the very poor, living in a basement or attic room, had no access. Meat was a luxury, eaten in the fall by rural families as they slaughtered the animals that would not make it through the winter, eaten more regularly by the wealthy, sometimes so much that they suffered from gout, a very painful infl ammation of the tissues around the joints caused by too much uric acid and made worse by eating too much protein. Meat was judged more important for men than for women; according to German ordinances, male agricultural workers were to be fed meat and other foods twice a day, and women only vegetables, soup, and bread. In these statutes only men were to be provided with wine, though it is clear from other sources that women drank wine and beer nearly as readily as men did. The differences in dietary components – and the problems they caused – between poor and wealthy, men and women, were primarily a matter of economics, but they were also related to ideas about natural and social hierarchies. Birds were seen as more noble than pigs, as the former lived in the sky (and thus close to God) and the latter rooted around in the earth; thus birds were the proper food for high nobles, and pork was a food for peasants. Such foods not only symbolized the class of their eaters, but also transmitted qualities to them. Just as a child could absorb moral and spiritual qualities along with nutrition from the milk of a wet-nurse, so nobles could gain sensitivity and intelligence from eating delicate birds. Religious teachings also led to differences in dietary practices. Jews and Muslims did not eat pork, Catholic and Orthodox Christians did not eat meat on certain days, Muslims did not eat during the daylight hours at certain times of the year, Jews did not eat shellfi sh. Thus a test for how fully individuals who claimed to have converted from one religion to another had done so was requiring them to eat what their old religion judged taboo. Covering the body had meaning as well, for clothing marked an individual’s gender, class status, and religious allegiance. Sometimes this was offi cially regulated, as city councils and other governmental bodies passed sumptuary laws requiring groups of people to dress in specifi c ways. Jews were obliged to wear symbols on their clothes or hats of a specifi c color (often yellow), so that they would be easily recognizable. Prostitutes might also be ordered to sew stripes of yellow or red on their clothing, wear a specifi c type or color of cloak, or keep their hair uncovered. Anyone who was not a member of the nobility was prohibited from wearing gold, fur, certain fabrics, or specifi c colors, and anyone not a member of the urban elite was prohibited from wearing garments worth more than a specifi ed amount. These laws also regulated spending on celebrations such as weddings or baptisms according to social class, and were justifi ed as a way to limit frivolous spending on luxuries, promote local production (many laws restricted the purchase of imported clothing or foodstuffs), and assure social order. It is clear from court records and from sermons and pamphlets decrying those who ignored them that sumptuary laws were not always followed, but governments – and in the case of Jews and prostitutes, church offi cials – continued to issue them well into the eighteenth century. What one put in or on the body was clearly a moral as well as a material issue, and the body itself had moral and religious meaning. The bodies of Muslim and Jewish men were marked by circumcision, a procedure celebrated by prayer and festivities for most boys and by elaborate multi-day festivals with parades and banquets for the sons of the Ottoman sultan. Christianity taught that the resurrection of the body was one of the rewards for adherents, and that on this earth the actions of the body were significant – in Catholicism and Orthodoxy they helped to merit salvation, and in most varieties of Protestantism good works were marks of saving faith. As chapter 5 will discuss in more detail, though Protestants and Catholics in western Europe differed in certain points of theology, they were united in their efforts to impose order and discipline on both the individual physical bodies and the corporate social bodies of their adherents.

SOURCE 4 Elizabethan sumptuary laws

Sumptuary laws were passed during the reigns of Henry VIII and Mary, but were routinely ignored and were almost impossible to enforce. Several times during her reign Elizabeth issued admonitions to obey the existing laws, and also set out their stipulations in greater detail. This is an extract from a statute issued in 1574, which provides both a justifi cation for the law and intricate details about prohibited clothing. The excess of apparel and the superfl uity of unnecessary foreign wares thereto belonging now of late years is grown by sufferance to such an extremity that the manifest decay of the whole realm generally is like to follow (by bringing into the realm such superfl uities of silks, cloths of gold, silver, and other most vain devices of so great cost for the quantity thereof as of necessity the moneys and treasure of the realm is and must be yearly conveyed out of the same to answer the said excess) but also particularly the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen, otherwise serviceable, and others seeking by show of apparel to be esteemed as gentlemen, who, allured by the vain show of those things, do not only consume themselves, their goods, and lands which their parents left unto them, but also run into such debts and shifts as they cannot live out of danger of laws without attempting unlawful acts, whereby they are not any ways serviceable to their country as otherwise they might be … Wherefore her majesty willeth and straightly commandeth all manner of persons in all places within 12 days after the publication of this present proclamation to reform their apparel … None shall wear in his apparel: Any silk of the color of purple, cloth of gold tissued, nor fur of sables, but only the King, Queen, King’s mother, children, brethren, and sisters, uncles and aunts; and except dukes, marquises, and earls, who may wear the same in doublets, jerkins, linings of cloaks, gowns, and hose; and those of the Garter, purple in mantles only … Velvet in gowns, coats, or other uttermost garments; fur of leopards; embroidery with any silk: except men of the degrees above mentioned, barons’ sons, knights and gentlemen in ordinary offi ce attendant upon her majesty’s person, and such as have been employed in embassages to foreign princes … Hat, bonnet, girdle, scabbards of swords, daggers, etc.; shoes and slippers of velvet: except the degrees and persons above named and the son and heir apparent of a knight … Note that her majesty’s meaning is not, by this order, to forbid in any person the wearing of silk buttons, the facing of coats, cloaks, hats and caps, for comeliness only, with taffeta, velvet, or other silk, as is commonly used. (From Enforcing Statutes of Apparel, Greenwich, June 15, 1574, 16 Elizabeth I.)

 

 

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