Monday Series: A Disease with No Remedy V

Lithograph: portrait of P. Pinel, aged about 70; by Ducarm {?} after 'A. M.', published by Blaisot, n.d.

By the end of the eighteenth century, many medical men had written exhaustively on the hereditary predisposition to phthisis, implementing medical hereditarianism as a social recourse for advocating social distances between elements of society. Historian Sean Quinlan argues that between 1748 and 1790, heredity in France gave doctors an idiom for diagnosis in light of the social crisis resulting from the Revolution, in order to prescribe appropriate hygienic responses. Recognizing the high morbidity rates among the population, doctors strove to explain the so-called wasting diseases that appeared to “indicate the prevalence of hereditary degeneration among the population.”[1] Quinlan carefully notes that concerns over hereditary transmissions of disease were not conscious epistemological conceptual shifts, in which physicians gathered and applied new information from studies of phthisis; rather, attitudes towards domesticity, gender roles, and reproductive politics played a stronger rhetorical role in encouraging—if not forcing—physicians to shift conceptual thoughts of hereditary diseases to social concerns. He also adds that “moral degeneracy undermined the future vitality of European society,”[2] and forced physicians and state men alike to cure hereditary diseases through moral hygiene, by emphasizing family values. Reinforced by French essentialism, fears of hereditary taint downplayed any rationality, and strove to explain away widespread fears of degeneracy, nervous disorders, and demography decline. Essentialism was such a powerful explanation for heredity and moral degeneracy that hereditarians invoked sorrowful passions and unhealthy sexually activity such as masturbation and “venereal excesses” as causes for degenerating diseases like phthisis.[3]

Hereditary disease, as an explanatory tool for physical and moral degeneracy and as a diagnostic tool for explaining social ills, epitomized socio-political concerns in eighteenth century France. Some, such as Jean Baptiste Timothée Baumas, a physician at Montpellier medical school, claimed hereditary diseases challenged the natural order of things. As Quinlan explains, Baumas made a connection between heredity, consumption, and moral degeneracy and downplayed the positive aesthetic gloss often associated with consumption, believing that consumptive children who inherited morbid predispositions soon suffered from nervous disorders. Like some of his medical counterparts, Baumas believed that advocating moral hygiene was a far better approach in combating the hereditary disease and patients could generally overcome their hereditary limitations and self-consciously regenerate themselves. Other French physicians, such as Pierre Jean George Cabanis (1757-1808), Philippe Pinel (1745-1826), and Félix Vicq D’Azyr (1746-1794), attempted to reform the medical profession to become more socially relevant by emphasizing that hereditary transmissions of disease should be regarded as a public health problem.[4]


[1] Sean M. Quinlan, “Inheriting Vice, Acquiring Virtue: Hereditary Disease and Moral Hygiene in Eighteenth Century France.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 80 (2006), p.667.

[2] Quinlan, “Inheriting Vice, Acquiring Virtue,” 665.

[3] David Barnes, The Making of a Social Disease: Tuberculosis in Nineteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p.29.

[4] Carlos López-Beltrán,. “The Medical Origins of Heredity.” In Heredity Produced: At the Crossroads of Biology,

Politics and Culture, 1500-1800. Eds. Stoffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jürg Rheinberger (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2007), p.111.

18th Century Medical Experts and Medical Expertise

A brief overview of three fantastic historical papers on eighteenth century expertise and experts:

Steven Shapin, “Trusting George Cheyne: Scientific Expertise, Common Sense and Moral Authority in Early Eighteenth-Century Dietetic Medicine,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 77(2): 263-297.

What gives a physician his expertise, and how does one trust that expertise? Shapin addresses this issue, by focusing on eighteenth century dietetics, an area that encompassed common sense, and yet was an aspect of medical authority; for Shapin, George Cheyne is a prime example of medical authority of the common culture between patients and physicians. Early modern dietetics and therapeutic self-knowledge was a result from habit and constitution; one became an expert on his own body merely through trial and error. This of course, derived from the ancient “Rule of Celsus,” whereby “a man in health, who is both vigorous and his own master, should be under no obligatory rules, and have no need, either for a medical attendant or for a rubber and anointer. His kind of life should afford him variety.” Dietetics was essentially management of the non-naturals, and the common culture between physicians and patients gave physicians authority, but only as long as their advice counted as common sense. This cultural sharing also undermined medical expert authority, a problem which did not change until the emergence of the mechanical philosophy of Descartes, Boyle, and Newton, which emphasized the invisible corpuscles. Shapin argues that this new philosophy led to new grounds of medical expertise (iatromechanism), as physicians spoke their authority from the invisible realm, and promoted the maintenance of health, the cure of disease, and the prolongation of human life, which was factored in Cheyne’s works. A fashionable physician, Cheyne was acclaimed for his dietetics, particularly his “lowering” diet, which emphasized moderation in food and drink, and advocated vegetarianism (especially his weird milk-and-seed diet). As an expert of authority, Cheyne counselled many members of high society, and a large number of letters survive from his correspondence with Samuel Richardson, and Selina, countess of Huntingdon, which are the case studies Shapin focuses on during the third half of his paper. Cheyne was a trusted physician, not only due to his expertise and knowledge of the invisible world, but because he was a patient of his dietetics as well, an aspect which became a strategy in gaining a patient’s trust.

Shapin’s paper wraps up by analyzing two kinds of experts: the prudential, who bases his expertise based on an accumulation of experience, and whose judgements are informed by those experiences, and the ontological, whose authority is derived from the possession of a special kind of knowledge. Of course, we see instances whereby the polarization is diffused, but it seems that the ontological expertise may distance the patient, due to lack of trust – why should the patient trust the physician, especially in cases where the physician’s advice seems contrary to common sense (think of being given antibiotics and being told that this will make you feel better)?

Andrea Rusnock, “The Weight of Evidence and the Burden of Authority: Case Histories, Medical Statistics and Smallpox Inoculation” in Roy Porter, Medicine in the Enlightenment (Rodopi, 1995), pp.289-315.

One of the chief architects of the use of statistics into medicine was the physician James Jurin, who sought to quantify the benefits of smallpox inoculation, by collecting and evaluating case studies through correspondence. Jurin’s numerical rations eventually became a feature of expertise, through the accuracy and trustworthiness of testimonies. The first step in Jurin’s statistical research was to establish a correspondence network, which in turn, presented complete, faithful and accurate case histories of cases of smallpox inoculation (to be compared with cases with natural exposure to smallpox, or cases without inoculation); it was the details, and Jurin’s questioning character, which presented accurate information for him to analyze. Any odd cases of inoculation were privy to Jurin’s judgement, as he challenged cases that did not fit with his research. Jurin also downplayed difficult cases (such as if the inoculation did not lead to a case of smallpox) by reducing the variety of inoculation experiences to a limited number of categories for statistical analysis. The individual case histories became powerful tools for convincing others, and at the same time, they questioned the validity of authority and trustworthiness (e.g. how do we regard the case histories as accurate information?). Rusnock points out that although many agreed with Jurin’s application of a numerical approach to medicine, many in turn questioned the validity of his correspondence research, particularly in regards to the use of inoculation.

Rusnock notes that only the healthy and wealthy were inoculated, while most deaths attributed to smallpox were recorded among the poor. How does one advocate the numerical approach when there are obvious demographic constraints to the research? Does this in any way deter the validity of the statistical approach for providing medical authority?

Roy Porter, “Consumption: Disease of the Consumer Society?” in John Brewer & Roy Porter, Consumption and the World of Goods (Routledge, 1994), pp.58-81.

“Did the wealth of nations secure the health of nations?” The paradox of health and wealth was captured by early modern economists, who viewed the wealth of the nation not in measure of dollars, but by “money in motion,” the labor and consuming populations. Placing the body politic upon the body human, “high living” became a means for preventive medicine, a way to ward off the diseases in an age where hunger stalked the land. Essentially, the health of the people was defined by the consumption of rich food and drinks, which in turn, reflected the wealth of the nation. However, as the experience of George Cheyne demonstrates, high living erodes health, as Cheyne’s diet and obesity led him to question the relationship between civilization and health; he argued that despite England’s increase in wealth, a large portion of her people became vulnerable to the “English Malady,” which was a result not just of the high living, but the disproportioned spread of wealth. Further, Porter outlines three features that allowed Cheyne to become such an authoritative figure: Cheyne set himself up as a dietary apostle, challenged the popular “high diet,” and he advanced a lifestyle designed to refine the grossness of waste by “lightness” of the body. In the second part of his essay, Porter argues that the consumer revolution led doctors to judge the new consumption patterns as threatening to health, as the consumption factors led to deeper pathological forms contrary to the advice set out by Cheyne. Thomas Beddoes was a foremost critique to the light and lowering diet arguing that the rise of chronic diseases was not due to any dietary factor, but rather the result or the new snobbish aspirations to sensibility. Propriety and the fashionable created a deficit (as opposed to Cheyne’s excess) of health, as the body was disregarded for a sort of “fetishism of culture.”

Monday Series: The Criminalized Body V

Body-Snatching and the Criminalized Body: A Badge of a Marginalized Condition

O Poverty! thou art the unpardonable offence…
Thou hast neither rights, charters, immunities nor liberties![1]

One of the major public conflicts with dissection stemmed from their fears of body-snatching. The shallow graves of the poor[2] were prime targets for body snatches and the ongoing debate between body snatching for purposes of dissection and the 1752 Act left the poor sympathetic to the condemned criminal, whose body was further destroyed and punished through dissection.

The sanctity of the grave further propelled eschatological attitudes towards dissection and the body. Moreover, confusion about the status of the corpse as a property right raises further issues towards ownership, dissection, and burials—Ruth Richardson argues that at the height of London’s graverobbing scenes in the 18th century, the corpse was largely viewed as a commodity, bidded and sold in an underground market between thieves and surgeon-anatomists. However, as the dead body did not constitute real property, no legal laws were technically violated with grave-robbing, nor could the family of the condemned corpse have any claim over burial rights.[3] By 1783, as a result of popular turmoil at the gallows, London executions were transferred from Tyburn to Newgate, but it did not cease to account for the class betrayal or bitterness of the London poor.[4] Jonathan Sawday also captures the status of the corpse as a reflection of the exploitation of the marginalized poor:

The question of the status of the dead human body is a fraught one. It is particularly fraught since, throughout the world, many indigenous peoples have ceased to tolerate the western habit of ‘acquiring’ human remains for scientific (and sometimes non-scientific) investigation…some Europeans looked to the marginal members of their own societies – the criminal, the poor, the insane, suicides, orphans, even, simply, ‘strangers’ – as potential ‘material’ upon which they could legitimately practice their own researches and investigations into the human form.[5]

As potential “material,” the criminal and the poor therefore were denied propriety rights over their own bodies; but we should not be quick to catalogue the status of criminality as a direct consequence of the poor, or vice versa, even though the Poor Laws of the nineteenth century attempted to make poverty a crime.

By the nineteenth century, the New Poor Laws and the drafting of the revised Anatomy Act further heightened the prejudice against the criminalized body and the poor’s objections to dissection. In 1832, Jeremy Bentham’s proposed bill aimed to ensure the privilege of the Royal College to preserve their rights to corpses; the bill weaved elements of Benthamite utilitarianism with Malthusian policies.[6] With the drafting of the bill and the new demand for bodies as a result of new anatomical-pathological models of disease, the 1832 Anatomy Act came into effect. With this Act, a new definition of property rights allowed family members the right of burial, although it also extended medical privileges, allowing the medical profession to obtain the corpses of the poor for purposes other than dissection. By 1834, the Poor Law Amendment established the New Poor Law, which essentially cast poverty as a crime.

It is no surprise that the marginalized poor found both the Anatomy Act and the New Poor Laws morally reprehensible, since it implied that poverty reflected moral shortcomings, and the vulnerability of the poor and criminal alike were adequate grounds for exploitation. Thomas Lacquer’s paper emphasizes the role of the pauper, an even more vulnerable state than the poor man, and how by the early nineteenth century paupers had no claim whatsoever over their own bodies, and they were aware in death they could end up owned by someone else.[7] Lacquer quotes a popular ditty reflective from the period:

Rattle his bones over the stones,
He’s only a pauper who nobody owns.

It was widely aware that paupers, more so than the poor, had no rights over their own bodies, particularly against the medical profession. As Lacquer argues,

To be a pauper meant not only to contemplate burial with indignity, having one’s life publicly marked the most dismal of failures, but also having one’s body, worth nothing alive, sold for dissection when one had ceased to own it. To be poor was to be profoundly vulnerable. Worse, to be a pauper was to be so vulnerable…that one risked death by accepting help from those who appeared to offer food and shelter.[8]

The essential point derived from Lacquer’s argument is his approach in defining the bodies of the poor as reflective of the badge of their (workshop) condition, an image of the body politics in nineteenth-century England.


Unlike the Middle Ages, which signified distinctions between angelic and monstrous bodies, the latter possibly a vessel for demonic evil, by the eighteenth century, the body politics of England was a reflection of the distinct social hierarchies, whereby one’s identity could be apparent down to one’s own skin. Morgan and Rushton remark that “the habit of dissection…did establish in the minds of the literate the idea that social reality – and the consequence of a particular way of life – were to some extent written on the body, and that if the truth about someone was to be obtained, the body was the first place to start.”[9] Thus, one’s self-identification could be viable upon the body itself, essentially embodied as a “mark of identity.”

The criminalized body is an example of embodied identity, with the mark of moral stagnation apparently fused on the body itself; thus criminals were usually described as physically repulsive, and any deformities as a mark of “criminality.” Becker for example, mentions that Elizabeth Sawyer, tried and convicted in 1621 for witchcraft, had a “crooked and deformed body,” proof of her spiritual corruption.[10] As well, Helkiah Crooke’s (1576-1635) An Explanation of the Fashion and vse of three and fifty instruments of Chirvrgey contains a section entitled “From the Printer to the Reader,” which contains a lavishly detailed of a criminal’s deformed body brought to the College of Physician’s Hall “to be Cut vp for an Anatomy.” [11] Focused on the deformed exterior of the corpse, the printer remarks his scorn and disgust for the criminal, who had been sentenced to be executed for the murder of a fellow member of the College. What’s extremely notable about the Printer’s description is his focus and discussion on the criminal’s feet, which he remarks was a traditional trait associated with demonic evil[12] To the printer then, the deformed nature of the body is evidence for the criminalizing status of the corpse. As Hilary Nunn points out, the printer, in his detailed description, left out the name of the condemned criminal,[13] disregarding the criminals’ own identity for the identity that the printer chose to give him, the criminalized body.  Is it merely a coincidence that the first criminal to be condemned under the “Murder Act,” Thomas Wilford, was a deformed man, born with only one arm?

Can we thus become accustomed that assume that eighteenth century individuals could attribute “self” to the body, making it monstrous, worth of scorn and ridicule?[14] The criminalized body captures this “otherness” trait, and becomes a vessel for society’s discord, vengeance for justice, and beliefs of the criminal status. Hume had argued the existence of repugnant “moral monsters,” those “anti-human” creatures embodying the marks of their heinous nature upon their bodies. He defines the moral monster as “[a] creature, absolutely malicious and spiteful were there any such in Nature, must be worse than indifferent to the images of vice and virtue. All his sentiments must be inverted, and directly opposed to those, which prevail in the ‘human species.’”[15] Steintrager, however, notes that Hume’s creature only marks the absolute limit of what is considered human; the epistemological focus then develops a construction of identity, in collaboration to social perspectives. He remarks that to “moral monstrosity’s role in constructions of identity must by added a secondary primary role: not only does the model of monstrosity in humanity’s certain groups, it allows for active interventions at the social and institutional levels.”[16]

Thus, the mark of the criminalized body, its true identity, is a social construction, an embodiment of the social reality of the individual, heightened and rectified by the legislations such as the 1752 “Murder Act,” and the 1832 Anatomy act, which attempted to provide legal justifications for the exploitation of the marginalized society, through the process of dissection.

*Thanks, Dear Reader, for your support in the first of the Monday Series. I hope you enjoyed this one. Next week I’ll begin a new series: “A Disease with no Remedy: Confronting Hereditary Phthisis, 1714-1830” where I examine some of the historical perceptions behind tuberculosis as a hereditary malady, and how medical practitioners recommended various dietetics to treat symptoms. In part, this series is an attempt to impart a historiography of medical hereditarianism by examining the reasons behind its popularity as a medical idea, from 1714 to 1830 in France and Britain.

Until next week, happy reading!!

[1] G. Beaumont (1898) in Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p.261.

[2] Though by no means this was simply restricted to the poor; Richardson also notes that the wealthy spent a fair amount of money in securing coffins, or else digging deeper graves (Richardson, p.98).

[3] Richardson, p.58.

[4] Richardson, p.75. Richardson also notes that this led to the gradual withdrawal of public executions, towards the privacy of prisons.

[5] Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the human body in Renaissance Culture (London & New York: Routledge, 1995), p.3.

[6] Richardson pp.111-115.

[7] Thomas Lacquer, “Bodies, Death, and Pauper Funerals.” Representations 1 (Feb. 1983), pp.109-131; p.122.

[8] Lacquer, p.125.

[9] Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton, “Visible Bodies: Power, Subordination and Identity in the Eighteenth Century Atlantic World.” Journal of Social History 39:1 (2005), pp.39-64; p.41.

[10] Lucinda M Becker, Death and the Early Modern Englishwoman (Adershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2003), p.77.

[11] A treatise bound with Crooke’s 1631 edition of Microcosmographia. Image reproduced with permission of the British Library in Hillary M. Nunn, Staging Anatomies: Dissection and Spectacle in Early Stuart Tragedy (England: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005), p.37.

[12] Nunn, p.35.


[14] See Denis Todd’s Imagining Monsters: Miscrentions of the Self in Eighteenth Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), where Todd gives an excellent literary analysis of Swift’s Guliver’s Travels, and the ideas of “otherness” by virtue of the character’s deformities. See especially Chapter 5, “A Lamp of Deformity,” and Chapter 7, “What the Body Says.”

[15] An Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals (1751), in James A. Steintrager, “Perfectly Inhuman: Moral Monstrosity in Eighteenth Century Discourse.”Eighteenth-Century Life 21.2 (1997), pp.114-132; p.116.

[16] Steintrager, p.125.

Mind & Body: The Philosopher’s Body as a Subject

I’ve been doing a lot of (re-)reading lately on ideas of the body and the embodiment of  knowledge on the body–mainly because I was aiming for some background reading as I prepared the CFP for the 2011  HAPSAT Conference. Some of these were based on reading summaries I prepared for Prof. Lucia Dacome’s “Body and Medicine in Early Modern Europe” course at IHPST. So if you’re tired of these article summaries, please let me know!

Article Summaries:

Paula Findlen, “The Scientist’s Body: The Nature of Woman Philosopher in Enlightenment Italy” in The Faces of Nature in Enlightment Europe (Berlin: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, 2003), pp. 211-236.

Simon Schaffer, “Regeneration: The Body of Natural Philosophers in Restoration England” in Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  1998), pp.83-120.

The philosopher’s mind in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was often perceived in close relation with his body. Could there be a separation between the ideas of the mind and carnal knowledge associated with the body? Could knowing bodily secrets hold the key to philosopher’s knowledge and its interpretations in the mind? Paula Findlen and Simon Schaffer bring these issues into light, Findlen narrating the story of eighteenth century Bologna’s “Virgin Doctor,” Laura Bassi, and Schaffer presenting perspectives on regeneration within the Royal Society in Restoration England. Both Findlen and Schaffer analyze the ways in which natural philosopher’s knowledge and integrity is explored through perspectives of their body and bodily functions.

Findlen tells us that eighteenth century fascination with Laura Bassi was not only due to her role as one of the first female graduate of the University of Bologna and its most celebrated professor, but rather due to Bassi’s merging of two distinct types of knowledge: scientific knowledge associated with the philosopher, and carnal knowledge of the woman’s body. Prior to her marriage to Giuseppe Veratti in 1738, Bassi was perceived as a virginal icon of knowledge, dedicated to the glory of the city as its Minerva. Successfully defending forty-nine theses by the time she was twenty years old, Bassi was highly regarded as an intellectual as much as a woman, especially within the cultural movement of “modern conversations.” During the 1730s, Bassi continuously tested her intellectual mettle within public settings, often engaging in discourses with scholarly men, sparking rumours sexual misbehaviour within the groups. Continuous jokes and satire circulated within the city, since as Findlen explains, Bassi’s high intellect embodied a masculine state of mind, which her body was expected to reflect. Bassi’s mixed reputation – as a philosopher, and a sexual woman – often centered her in city gossip, alluding damage to her reputation; public perspectives of Bassi’s closest supporters were often viewed as her lovers, or at least admirers (e.g. Zanotti, Beccari, Bianchi).

There was as much interest in Bassi’s sexual life, if not more, as in her choice to focus on modern issues of Newtonian philosophy and physics, rather than restricting herself to ancient texts. Findlen argues that the extreme interest in Bassi’s body essentially was due to the fact that Bassi’s body was distinctively a female one, and it embodied potential for a maternal image of knowledge. The possibility that Bassi could be the new Galatea – a woman shaped and molded by men – also caused problems for her reputation, and reminded the public that Bassi’s mind simply could not be separated from her body. Despite being an object of envy and ridicule, Bassi eventually provided a solution of the problem of her female body: she decided to take charge of her own sexuality, restricting it to the boundaries of marriage in order to remove it from public scandal. She believed this to be the only way to ensure her reputation and allow her to teach in public. Bolognese citizens, however, were shocked at her decision, for many expected her to maintain the image of the virginal Minerva. As Findlen argues, “Once a man had dominion over her body, what would happen to her mind?” Nevertheless, Bassi eventually gave birth to eight children, and taught a successful physics course in her home, though her frequent pregnancies continued to remind males of her differences.  The plain awareness of her sexual difference is also reflected in debates as to whether Bassi was allowed to join the Academy of the Institute of Sciences (she did, in 1734). Bassi is a reflection of one of the rare women who succeeded, though the distinction between her mind and body never really disappeared.

Schaffer on the other hand, examines the close relation between instrumental use of the body, and traditions of “magical, religious and symbolic action.” He provides three instances upon which the idealized philosopher’s body was used, or viewed, for scientific experiments by the Royal Society in Restoration England: the blind Jan Vermassen, who could discriminate colors by touch, the sheep’s blood transfusion into Arthur Coga, and “stroker” Valentine Greatrakes’ miraculous cures. The Royal Society (especially Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle) emphasized the exploration beyond bodily limits of knowledge; the use of instruments – e.g. the eyeglasses, the microscope – could expand the frontiers upon which knowledge was obtained. The idea that formulated was whether through the body politic, the regeneration of bodies could be possible through natural or spiritual powers, in order to distance the world of refined bodies (and thus reliable facts) from the grotesque. Schaffer provides the example of the “royal touch,” which presented the monarch as the spiritual healer of the nation’s wounds and the embodiment of its restored health. The royal touch to cure King’s evil, an old tradition that emphasizes the idea that the king’s touch could cure King’s Evil, a disease known as scrofula, which caused hideous boils. Thousands knelt before Charles’ I, and each time he did so, he demonstrated his divine right to rule. After the Commonwealth, Charles II continued the practice – though it was also illegal for anyone else to claim cure for the disease. The insecurity of the monarch and elaborate processions towards the use of the royal touch seemed to remind him of the clear contrast between angelic and monstrous bodies, a gesture that carried implications upon natural philosophy within the idea of regeneration.

Vermassen’s case raised a philosophical debate of whether “color” was confined to the body, igniting questions between real colors inherent in bodies, and imaginary ones (e.g. Descartes). Boyle and Descartes denied this distinction, and Boyle himself argued that different bodily states produce different colors, demonstrating that bodily sensations could not reliably be trusted. He emphasized the use of instruments as a way of perfecting the human fallacies in order to restore man to Eden. Thus, following Boyle, to test on one’s own senses became a moral duty of the natural philosopher, and is demonstrated by Coga’s transfusion with sheep’s blood. Schaffer argues that like optical and philosopher’s instruments, the idea of transfusion was perceived by seventeenth century natural scientists as a way of restoring prelapsarian man’s perfection, by reversing some of the Fall’s effects. Experimental philosophy also subjected itself to human conditions, using the saint as a subject. The idea of regeneration was also spread to debate about the roles of mundane bodies and divine spirits, as with continuous observations and experiments on Greatreakes’ hands, which were believed to exhibit some divine conditions, or at least a divine spirit in Greatreakes’ body.

Both Schaffer and Findlen’s arguments presents a historical picture upon which ideas about the body were closely tied to ideas of the mind, even within natural philosophers themselves, representing idealized beliefs about the process in obtaining knowledge. What we receive from their arguments is that social meanings of bodily techniques often is reflected in the philosopher’s use of representation of the body – knowing the body reflects the mind’s status, the philosopher can thus use it to explore and expand knowledge itself.

Monday Series: The Criminalized Body IV

Samuel Ireland, Caricature of a dissection (1780-1890); after pen-drawing by J.H. Mortimer, in Fry coll., Yale.

The triumph of justice was a common theme in both the gallows and the anatomy theatre. Crowds were often drawn by the ghoulish atmosphere surrounding the high visibility punishment of the criminal at the gallows, viewing the carnivalisque mood as a restoration for moral justice. Exhibitions of public dissection reflected the “ritualization of the upside-down world of [carnival], sanctioned the evident sacrilege of violating dead bodies,”[1] with punishment rooted in publicity and the public’s channelling of vigilante justice. Conventionally, public perceptions of punishment was served not only as a moral responsibility—serving the community by punishing crimes committed—but also as a form of divine justice—punishing the soul as God would possibly require.

Through the “Murder Act,” the relationship between the execution scenes and the dissection scenes presents the criminalized body as central to the spectacle, his punishment a social focus “determined not only for societal revenge or even as a deterrent to others, but as an act of penance,” for the anatomist’s “salvation of his own sin-stained soul.”[2] Just as the executioner hangs the criminal, the surgeon who performs the dissection takes upon the role as executioner of the law,[3] and aspires not only to guarantee the “second death” of the corpse, but even to continue with “vengeance taken on the corpse.”[4] Death of the criminal then, was to be viewed as a gateway for divine punishment; the criminal, tortured and punished for his sins through his body, would then face his Maker, who would then punish the soul. Like the executioner, the anatomist was to adapt himself in the role as a transubstaniator.[5]

Despite carnivalisque attitudes towards executions and dissections, the status of the criminal’s body was perceived by citizens as a reflection of the marginalized section of society. Capturing the relationship between punishment and death, Samuel Edgerton argues that “if the condemned entered into his physical suffering on the scaffold with dignity and decorum, appearing brave but penitent like a stoic Christian martyr, then God might be impressed enough to grant him redemption in the hereafter.”[6] Themes of the afterlife and social customs are also captured within the realms of dissection; not only is the condemned criminal a symbolic embodiment of the demonic aspects of human nature, and the executioner/anatomist’s blade the mark of divine authority, but the collective representation of the scenes, in conjunction with the social body, reflect the grotesque elements of a thematizing image of the popular (social) body itself.[7] Furthermore, as Jonathan Simon points out, “the place of the human body in a society situated between Christianity and humanism further heightens” the tensions between detached scientific knowledge and the engaging nature of the surgeons as agents of the Crown.[8] Edgerton also notes that capital punishment was never a final process, an irrevocable sentence forever ending a life, but rather perceived as a way to reprimand the condemned’s case until he reached a higher, divine “appeals court.”

Bodies of the criminals, punished and damned, would continue to pay in the hereafter for the sins they had committed. Any attribution to formalize punishment towards the criminal in life was only to elaborate his divine punishment as he met his Maker; as an embodied capturing of his sins, the criminal’s body would not only contain his sinful crimes, but the dissection itself would signify the secondary torture inflicted on the criminal, further marking the stigmatizing nature of the criminalized body.


[1] Porter, Roy, Porter Bodies Politic: Disease, Death and Doctors in Britain, 1650-1900 (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2001), p.49.

[2] Samuel Y. Edgerton Jr., Pictures and Punishment: Art and Criminal Prosecution during the Florentine Renaissance (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985), p.131.

[3] Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p.33.

[4] Clare Gittings, “Sacred and Secular: 1558-1660.” In Death in England: An Illustrated History. Eds. Peter Jupp and Clare Gittins (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), pp.147-174; p.149.

[5] Edgerton, p.213. Edgerton also mentions that the criminal’s body enables itself as a sort of sacrament, whereby the dissector takes it upon himself to perform the “sacred ritual.” In doing so, the dissector also “earns expiation for his own sins.”

[6] Edgerton, p.131.

[7] Paster, Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), p.15.

[8] ]Jonathan Simon, “The Theatre of Anatomy: The Anatomical Preparations of Honoré Fragonard.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36:1 (2002), pp.63-79; p.66.