Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Early Modern Perceptions of the Body
This series explores the dark and grotesque side of Western mythology by focusing on its monsters. In particular, it will analyze the origins of female monsters and the influence they had and continue to have on Western culture through the lense of Posthumanism. The aim of the series is to expose the connection between women’s bodies and sexuality and their monsterization, which can present itself in different forms, often corresponding to a woman’s main biological life stages — adolescence, adulthood, and menopause. Understanding how female monsters are created unveils the misogynistic constructs at the base of our patriarchal social structure and allows us to dismantle them. Finally, to reveal the skeletons—and other monsters—in our society’s closet is only the first step, as feminist movements have found new possible uses of female monstrous figures by reclaiming them and using them as symbols for their fight.
This 101 series is divided into six articles, including:
1. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Monsters on the Threshold of Becoming
2. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: The Psychology of the Monstrous Feminine
3. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Female Sexuality
4. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Abjection and the Body as a Liminal Space
5. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Early Modern Perceptions of the Body
6. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Monsters as Posthuman Feminist Symbols
Early Modern Perceptions of the Body
In order to critically think about and question modern society's perception of the body and its relationship with the mind and the outer world, it is necessary to uncover the origins of such conceptualization and to create a comparison with alternative approaches. Early modern ideas, for example, greatly diverge from currently established ones, which consider the physical dimension as clearly demarcated and separated from the mind. The early modern body was kept under control by spiritual practices, often enforced by religious institutions. The fact that it was perceived as fluid and open to the world, contrary to how it is regarded now, meant that it was also thought to be vulnerable to external threats: social and emotional experiences could negatively or positively affect the physical body and potentially endanger it. This is reflected especially in common beliefs on pregnancy and factors that could affect it, like the mother experiencing strong emotions. However, the outer world and other bodies were not just a threat, but a necessary source of interaction for the body to thrive physically and emotionally, which were connected dimensions. Having friends to confide in was considered essential to keeping a balanced mind and therefore a balanced physical health. Despite how distant in time it may be, the early modern perception of the body resonates interestingly with posthumanist thought, which challenges the current conception of human, and argues for a more fluid interpretation that would be able to attest to the interconnectedness inherent in human life.
The Body Under Religious Control
The body in early modern times was subject to various restrictions and purifying measures, and according to philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva—whose theory of abjection is discussed in Abjection and the Body as a Liminal Space—religions have been a tool to enact this type of control. This attempt at purification stems from a rejection of the abject: religion, morality, and law act as ritualized arbitrary modes of containment based on dichotomies of pure/impure, prohibition/sin, and morality/immorality, necessary to expiate the element of perversion inherent in the abject. For instance, the discomfort caused by certain bodily fluids has led to their demonization or idealization. In Christian mythology, blood is connected to a dualistic and sometimes oppositional symbolism: menstruation is the subject of numerous taboos because in this case blood is deemed a source of pollution and evokes disgust; on the other hand, the blood of Christ is sacred and brings salvation. Of course, this ambivalence is rooted in and simultaneously reinforces gender differentiations and the perceived identification of the female body as abject. As Kristeva argues, laws of purity “are the ritual repudiation of what is culturally defined as abject very often, but not exclusively, what reminds us of body of our mothers: menstrual blood, mucus, etc.” (Condren, 1999, p. 12).
The fact that some of the pillars of Christianity are founded on the negation of abjection, however, necessarily binds them together. Shame, one of the most utilized mechanisms to impart control as well as to have people enact self-control, is deeply linked to abjection and the perpetuation of Christian theology (Condren, 1999, p. 10). Learned ideas around shame and disgust stand at the basis of Western ideas of civilization, and dictate distinctions between clean and unclean, proper and improper body. The corporeal dimension is the dwelling place of corruption, desire and immorality, and many Christian practices require different levels of restriction to keep them under control, from regulations around food, such as traditions of fasting, to asceticism, and other methods of abstinence. Such practices are based on the basic distinction between “sacred” and “profane”—assigned to the realms of transcendence and immanence respectively— which is used by religions like Christianity to organize reality through rituals and regulatory mechanisms (Arya, 2014, p. 63).
The Early Modern Body
The pursuit of purification needs to be contextualized in the specific perception of corporality that made it logical to use the body as a way to punish or control the spirit. Early modern ideas were grounded in attentiveness to bodily fluids and their flow, and the belief that the outer world and the individual’s emotional reactions to it could affect the material body. Contemporary notions are instead marked by opposing ideas: the scientific method is only applied to the material sphere, adhering to the divide between body and mind introduced by Cartesian philosophy during the Enlightenment, and emotions and social interactions are not taken into consideration when discussing physical health. Moreover, scientific research tends to revolve more around organs than fluids, contrary to early modern approaches, which for instance encouraged the withdrawal a person's blood through the practice of bloodletting for medical reasons, since blood flow was indicative of one's health. As German historian Ulinka Rublack states, until the late 18th century health was still defined as “a state in which none of the bodily fluids had too much or too little movement” (Rublack, 2002, p.1). Such flow was understood both as the material movement of bodily liquids, but also as the metaphorical juice of life, further stressing its importance in how good health was conceptualized.
Perceiving the body as a flow implies that it "was not regarded as a whole and clearly delimited entity, but rather […] was understood as something that was constantly changing, absorbing and excreting, flowing, sweating, being bled, cupped and purged” (Rublack, 2002, p. 2). The early modern body was not characterized by its separation from the outer world, on the contrary, it was understood through their interactions and exchanges. The importance placed on emotions is proof of how much one's external environment was believed to influence their physical health. Early modern philosophers like Francis Bacon wrote on the ideal of friendship in relation to health. It was believed that showing no emotion was barbaric and most importantly dangerous, because repressed feelings could assume material form and have physical repercussions. The body was therefore deeply interrelated with the mind, as one was able to affect the other, and vice versa. Connections with other people were also fundamental, and self-sufficiency was thought of as detrimental to one’s health, since it would not allow the heart to be freed of emotional burdens it may carry, and any blockage that did not allow the bodily flow to move naturally was dangerous, whether it was a psychological problem, as it would be called today, or a physical one. Today’s tendency to categorize knowledge through strict and clear-cut separations between body and mind, self and other, inner and outer world differs entirely from early modern approaches, according to which “the body was perceived so strongly as acting in relation to human interchange and interactive openness or closure” (Rublack, 2002, p. 11).
The intricate relation between the body and the outer world is especially prevalent in the early modern understanding of pregnancy, which imposed a specific code of conduct around pregnant women. In her study of the female body in 16th-century Germany, Rublack observes that pregnancy was thought to enhance women’s bodily sensitivity and the connection between their physical and emotional health, which also impacted the well-being of the baby. Miscarriages, for example, were believed to be caused not by physical complications but by socially derived shocks. During pregnancy women could not be purified through menstruation, and their blood would accumulate in their uterus, surrounding the baby. In such an already dangerous state, the baby would be harmed if the woman became angry, since the flow of blood would hurt it, or if the woman was shocked, the blood would drain away, and the baby would starve (Rublack, 1996, p. 94). Private and public support were therefore fundamental for the mother’s health, since social experiences affected the mother’s emotional sphere and therefore her physical state too, turning pregnancy and successful child delivery into a shared effort. Pregnancy was a manifestation of the "unfinished and open body... not separated from the world by clearly defined boundaries" but "blended with the world" (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 26), occupying a liminal space where borders between birth and death, as well as between outer and inner experiences were blurred.
Analyzing early modern perceptions of the body could help us understand how our own perception of it is a relative construct that has a specific history and cultural origin. Reconsidering and deconstructing such views in regards to the divide between body and mind has been the focus of posthuman studies, which interrogate how issues of bodies, technology and boundaries challenge the notion of human and what defines it. Discourse on disability and prosthetics, for example, demonstrates how problematic the notion of a whole and perfectly defined physical body is; in her A Cyborg Manifesto, feminist philosopher Donna Haraway famously asks: “Why should our bodies end at our skin?” (Haraway, 1990, p. 220). The question would also apply in regard to how early modern people perceived corporeality: characterized by motion, fluidity, and interconnected with the world and with other bodies. A body that is influenced by emotions and by the social environment it lives in, which did not end at the skin. Today, posthumanist literature is bringing forth new proposals of embodiment and interconnectivity when discussing the subject and physical borders beyond the binary of body and mind, like the notion of assemblage, according to which “all distinctions are troubled, whether between self and other, or between the categories of human, animal, and machine” (Shildrick, 2015, p.14), and the lived body does not correspond and is not limited to its physical dimension.
In conclusion, the early modern perception of the body as an open and mutable entity that was not limited to its physical form led to stronger constraints, enacted to maintain order and control over something that early medicine could not fully comprehend, but also protected from the outer world, which could greatly affect the individual. Emotions and feelings were part of the bodily experience, as they were thought to be dangerous if not carefully balanced and expressed. Pregnant women, whose reproductive abilities were the manifestation of the body’s interconnectivity with the outer world, were easily affected by social experiences, and a simple shock could cause a miscarriage or fetal abnormalities. Despite the fact that Western society’s perception of corporeality ended up changing and establishing itself as a more rigid and precise categorization of body and mind as distinct entities, recent posthumanist discussions have urged for deconstruction of such strict approaches in favor of a less dualistic and more fluid definition of “human”, which would be more reflective of a progressively complex and interconnected reality.
Arya, R. (2014). Abjection and film. Abjection and Representation: An Exploration of Abjection in the Visual Arts, Film and Literature, 63-81. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230389342_7
Bakhtin, M. (1984). Rabelais and his world. (Iswolsky Hélène, Trans.). Indiana University Press.
Condren, M. (1999). Women, shame and abjection: Reflections in the light of Julia Kristeva. Contact, 130(1), 10–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/13520806.1999.11758875
Haraway, D. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Rublack, U. (1996). Pregnancy, childbirth and the female body in early modern Germany. Past & Present, 150(1), 84–110. https://doi.org/10.1093/past/150.1.84
Rublack, U. (2002). Fluxes: The early modern body and the emotions. History Workshop Journal, 53(1), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/53.1.1
Shildrick, M. (2015). “Why should our bodies end at the skin?”: Embodiment, boundaries, and somatechnics. Hypatia, 30(1), 13–29. https://doi.org/10.1111/hypa.12114
Cover Image. Orr, J (1581). John Banister giving an anatomical lesson at the Barber-Surgeon's Hall in 1548. [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.josepocas.com/2019/10/licao-cirurgia-aos-cirurgioes-barbeiros-john-banister/
Figure 1. Gillray, J. (1807). Breathing a Vein. [Print]. Retrieved from: https://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-bloodletting
Figure 2. Sharp, J. (1671). Depiction of an open womb. [Engraving]. Retrieved from: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/sw68jftr/images?id=n2rmdj6q
Figure 3. Ketham, J. (1494). Guide for bloodletting. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencealert.com/this-rare-book-shows-how-insane-medicine-was-in-the-16th-century