The Bodies of Anatomical Theater

By Joe Z.

Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 7.05.33 PMEarly modern understandings of the human body’s functionality were closely tied to the dissections and vivisections of animals. One of the most fundamental bodily functions, the circulation of blood, was discovered by William Harvey as a direct result of these experiments  (Binkley 160). The need to understand human and animal bodies reaches beyond the simple desire to comprehend anatomical function, involving additionally the search for fundamental differences between how the categories of bodies operate. By knowing the difference between how animals and humans function, humans would justify not only their treatment of animals for entertainment, but both their use and consumption.
As Erica Fudge wrote, animals during this period were seen as “for human use.” The wool of the sheep, for example, was only being held on a sheep’s body through the season until it was needed by a human (Fudge 94,95). This leads to an interesting paradigm wherein animal dissections were used to better understand the functions of the human body, yet the anatomical differences found in the same dissections were used to solidify the differences between human and animal. These differences were then used to justify mistreatment, and they positioned animals as a means of entertainment or as a series of provisions, such as meat for food or pelts for clothing.
It is also of note how popular anatomical theaters became during this time, with public dissections becoming more common as a means of entertainment. This includes human dissections as well as animal. This fact serves to place human and animal corpses on the same level, as both were used to educate and entertain the audiences who would come to watch a dissection. Some anatomical theaters presentied the public dissections more as forms of natural art than a means of scientifically attempting to understand the processes behind life (Findlen  278). The use of human bodies as a means of entertainment much like those of other animals would likely have raised questions of dominance within the audiences watching the dissections take place.
These theaters provided the audiences of the time with the ability to see the internals parts of the body, and hear the theories of the time of how the pieces operated. Living animal subjects would also allow the audiences to see the organs in action, and help them not only understand the processes of their own bodies, the bodies of the living organisms around them. Audiences could see, first hand, the differences and similarities of the internal organs of humans and other animals, likely answering, and raising many questions of the difference between Homo sapiens and Animalia.  
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Joseph is a junior and creative writing major at Ball State University. He finds scientific movements during the early modern period to be particularly interesting.
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Binkley, Pauline E. “William Harvey, M.D. the Discoverer of the Circulation of the Blood.” The Illustrated Magazine of Art 1.3 (1853): 159-61. JSTOR. Web. 30 April. 2014.
Findlen, Paula. “Anatomy Theaters, Botanical Gardens, and Natural History Collections.” The Cambridge History of Science Volume 3: Early Modern Science. Ed. Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 272-280. Print.
Fudge, Erica. Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Print.
Vesalius, Andreas. De huma ni corporis fabrica. 1543. Boston Medical Library in the Fracis A. Countway Library of Medicine. Chsi.harvard.edu. Web. 1 May. 2014.  ​
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About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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