“The One-Sex Body on Trial: the Classical and Early Modern Evidence” – a new review by Brandy Schillace

We are thrilled to be able to publish here a  wonderful review by Brandy Schillace, of Helen King’s book “The One-Sex Body on Trial: the Early and Modern Evidence.” (Surrey: Ashgate Press 2014.) Thank you so much to Brandy for her contribution to the blog – I will very much look forward to other pieces from her in the future!

– Georgia

The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Early and Modern Evidence

In so many important ways, I’ve been long anticipating this book. Where there is a lack, a need, we naturally look for satiety—and there has been a considerable gap in studies of the sexed body since the (pardon me) seminalwork of Thomas Laqueur: Making Sex. I do not mean to suggest a lacuna where none exists; certainly plenty has been written on the one-sex/two-sex body since the early 1990s. However, as Helen King herself points out, none of these works have, in a meaningful way, challenged—or even added to—Laqueur’s original analysis. If anything, they have solidified it, casting it as the background upon which all else must be built rather than as a concept or theory in its own right. Twenty years after its publication, Making Sex was still described as the standard, and as a graduate student I was given a copy as the potential foundation of my dissertation on women’s education and women’s bodies in the 18th century. There was only one problem: I found that I did not agree with aspects of Laqueur’s premise. It did not ring entirely true to what I was finding in women’s writing about their own bodies and minds in the eighteenth century.

That happens frequently, does it not? And any reasonable student seeks out the next text, and the next, to gain a broader perspective. But for me, in 2007, there were no other options. Or rather, all other options likewise returned me to the original as to the foundation, the blank background from which I was to begin. To be so statically conceived is unhealthy for any idea, no matter its worth. Closed to inquiry, its kernels harden. In The One-Sex Body on Trial, Helen King, historian and professor of classical studies at Open University, at last provides the counterpoint. Gracefully acknowledging the value of Laqueur’s work, she also offers its first real challenge. With her usual depth of perception, careful research, and immanent readability, King elaborates the other side of the one-sex/two-sex story.

One of the greatest strengths of King’s work related to her “storied” presentation. The medical humanities, though multiple and varied in definition and mission, largely seek to divine the human narrative behind medical meanings. Rather than asserting or denying the ‘one-sex’ body, King provides a reading of two key classical texts that problematize a single narrative of progression away from one model or towards the next. Close reading provides a new means of perceiving the terms in context, reminding us that in holding too close our own cultural understanding, we miss significance—or worse, misrepresent data. Using the story of Phaethousa (a woman and mother who seems to undergo masculinization) and Agnodice (a woman who wears male costume in order to become a physician), King demonstrates the variety of ways in which connotation and denotation collide. Even so common a thing as Agnodice’s calling card refuses to parse properly—to be “the WOMAN physician” can imply either that she is a woman and a physician, or a physician of women (she was, in fact, both).

In part one of King’s book, she assembles the classical evidence not of a strict adherence to the one-sex model, wherein women are men turned inside out with organs of generation that neatly correspond, but rather of a two-sex model that existed at times alongside but always in contention with the one-sex version. King does not argue for linear progression, however; rather than insisting that the one-sex to two-sex revolution happened, but happened earlier, she makes it clear that there was a range of models of the body. Vesalius, for instance, retains some of the earlier understanding of the body, such as the heart-shaped womb, but clearly departed from Galenic descriptions. The reading of Vesalius becomes clear only when the full context is considered. The question, whether Vesalius ascribed to the Galenic one-sex or Hippocratic two-sex model, is partly answered by close reading the images but also the text and the captions (frequently omitted in Laqueur’s work). Why is the abstracted womb shown without the female testicles? Because it is not an homage to Galen, of whom Vesalius claims “not even in his dreams did Galen ever see a woman’s womb” (57). Rather, it is, as King describes, the “womb and its constituent parts” –a thing unto itself and not the inverse of the male organs (59). King also describes the work of Laurens in 1593, who finds the vagina-as-penis idea frankly absurd—and Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book of 1671, where Sharp claims that despite certain similarities, male and female organs can never be considered the same. By a careful marshalling of evidence, close-reading and analysis, and copious footnotes, King makes clear the problems with Laqueur’s sweeping pronouncement that the two-sex revolution arrived in the 18th century. King’s first two chapters also serve as excellent reminders that history is complicated and close reading within a cultural context remains our safest guard against anachronism. However, the second part of King’s book departs from the usual means of explication and proof and offers an exploration of the two classic tales mentioned in the introduction. In her masterful engagement with these, King seeks to ask broader questions that remain deeply important and even foundational for the medical humanities—namely, on what authority does medical knowledge depend. Whose stories matter, and who gets to tell them?

In the second part of King’s work, we once again examine the story of Phaethousa, the woman who, after previously birthing children, stops her menses and grows a beard after (or possibly in response to) the exile of her husband. The chapters in this section highlight the frequently confusing contexts in which such stories appeared, asking us to re-evaluate their role as “true” case histories. To what extent does she represent a medical construct? Her name and place of abode would have had metaphorical relevance to readers; has she been included as proof of the Hippocratic two-sex model? She dies, after all, and does not fully change into a man. If anything, the beard is a sign of illness, possibly related to her inability to conceive children after the loss of her husband. Here, Phaethousa is at risk because she is, in fact, too womanly, too reliant upon pregnancy for health. Later contexts (and later centuries) reinterpret her story, however; she appears in Wit’s Theatre as a fully functioning male, having undergone the inversion successfully. Surely this usage supports the one-sex model wherein male and female organs are interchangeable with the proper heat. And yet, she also appears in lists of hermaphrodites in the early modern period. What do such changes in context and, indeed, meaning represent? The story represents a “blank canvas,” a place where divergent and overlapping understandings of sex and gender might be enacted and analyzed, and reading this broader context allows us to go beyond Laqueur’s dichotomy and to recognize the variety of markers that made sex apparent, such as beard, menses, and generative ability. Part three of King’s book, which provides a similarly close reading of the Agnodice story, likewise challenges Laqueur’s straightforward picture of the classical and early modern world. “True sex” means different things in different versions (and for different audiences) of these narratives.  Agnodice’s story, particularly, does not fit into a single genre; the “voice” shifts and the text is offered up both by Agnodice’s supporters and her enemies.

King’s chapters on Agnodice, which close the book, render explicit the role of interpretive context: Agnodice as assertive and active heroine; Agnodice as shameful woman from which no woman should learn, Agnodice as the pretender—not to be trusted, Agnodice as agent of change. To what extent does the story represent reality? To what extent myth and fiction? How are we to read her role or even her name (chaste before justice), considering she saves herself from accusations of philandering with her woman patients by exposing her genitals in the courtroom? Even more complex, if possible, than the tale of Phaethousa, the story of Agnodice toys with the Galenic one-sex model while depending upon the two-sex model for its happy conclusion. More importantly, as King remarks, “the reason why the story is being told affects how it is constructed” (206). In her final chapter, wherein she ties the two tales together, King returns again to the markers of sex. What is it that makes a woman a woman? Or a man? Even Galen’s one-sex model is not as simple as it first appears. Rather, King’s extensive research reveals a much more fluid history, where different models of the body existed simultaneously and possibly on a spectrum wider still.

King’s work does, at many points, contradict Laqueur, but at no time does it set itself up as antagonistic to it. In many respects she agrees, particularly with Laqueur’s point that what was “seen” depended much more on expectation than anatomy. However, where Making Sex relied heavily on a smaller selection of sources, and these occasionally out of context, King widens the scope of source material for a richer and more meaningful engagement. Applying specific labels—either one-sex or two-sex—“obscures the complexity of the different interest groups, readers and tellers,” whereas our consideration of cultural and chronological specificity allows us to engage not just with meaning, but with meaning-making.

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