By Esther W.
According to Kenneth Himmelman, “the body has been, and will continue to be, an important semiotic key to understanding any culture’s conception of the world” (198). In the early modern period, scientific and artistic practice reflected this concern via a shared obsession with depicting and defining the body. So what does early modern depiction of the body reveal about the collective social consciousness of early modern thought? As the title of this article suggests, early modern science and art literally depicted physical bodies, inside and outside. However, in depicting the literal body, early modern science and art also revealed its ambiguity. During the Renaissance, the body is thus both inside and outside definition.
Though images of women having sex with swans might seem a surprising method of representing bodily debates, early modern artists were fascinated with the myth of Leda and the Swan for this reason. In the tale, Zeus assumes the form of a swan and has sex with Leda on the same night that she consummates her marriage to Tyndareus, the king of Sparta. Leda conceives and gives birth both to the children of Zeus and those of Tyndareus (in some versions, the children of Zeus hatch from swan’s eggs). This myth was such popular fare that artistic imaginings of their sex and childbirth were reproduced in countless paintings, engravings, and even jewelry. It is potentially useful here to consider that the swan is a feminized form, and that early modern laws surrounding lesbianism specifically criminalized sexual relationships between women that used penetration. Early modern scientific thought posited that, through the overheating of the blood, women could sometimes transform into men. Physicians also categorized this hybridity with distinct (and indistinct) terms. These women might be, “Female sodomites, tribades, hermaphrodites, or spontaneous transsexuals” (Traub 42). It’s clear that early modern scholars were pathologically concerned with the literal and figurative hybridity of the female body, which is reflected in the scene of Leda and the Swan. Depicting the female body in the act of sex and childbirth illustrates its literal liminality- It exists in hybridity, one can be both inside and outside its space. This hybridity is also figurative- through sex with the feminized swan, Leda’s body exists both inside and outside definition. It is simultaneously feminine and masculine, human and animal. The action of birthing complicated these categories further, as it was often equated with defecation.
While artists gravitated toward complex myths, early modern science debated the practice of corpse medicine, or medicinal cannibalism. In such cases, physicians prescribed “mummy” (embalmed human flesh) to be consumed by patients to treat illness (Sugg, 2078). Epilepsy sufferers were told to suck the blood of open wounds, and would line up after public executions to purchase and drink the hot blood of a freshly hanged criminal (Gordon-Grube, 407). Like Leda and the Swan, medicinal cannibalism also depicts the literal and figurative liminality of the body. Through the consumption of flesh, cannibalism blurs the physical distinction between inside and outside and between bodies. Corpse medicine also exists inside and outside figurative definition, blurring the lines between human and animal, life and death, health and poison, veneration and disgust.
In both the female body and corpse medicine, we find two examples of early modern body hybridity, as well as two sources of intense social anxiety. Liminal space, the absence of polarity and static category, freaks us out, and early modern art and science depicted the body as the ultimate liminal space. This body hybridity is also liminal in the response it creates- in the early modern period, the body was both a source of fear and of fascination.
Image: Bos, Cornelis. Leda and the Swan. Early 16th century. Engraving. British Museum.
Gordon-Grube, Karen. “Anthropology in Post-Renaissance Europe: The Tradition of Medicinal Cannibalism”. American Anthropologist. 90.2 (1988): 405-409. Print.
Himmelman, Kenneth P. “The Medicinal Body: “An Analyisis of Medicinal Cannibalism in Europe, 1300-1700”.
Dialectical Anthropology. 22.2 (1997): 183-203. Print.
Suggs, Richard. “Corpse Medicine: Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires”. The Lancelot. 371.9630 (2008): 2078-2078. Print.
Traub, Valerie. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.