Jonathan Sawday. The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture. London: Routledge, 1995. 327 pp.
Mary Bly
Washington University at St Louis

Bly, Mary. "Review of The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996): 14.1-6 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/02-1/rev_bly1.html>.

  1. Jonathan Sawday's The Body Emblazoned is a fascinating, learned and intelligent investigation of the culture of dissection in early modern Europe. The book is daunting in its scope: the author discusses astutely, and with accurate scholarship, Vesalius, Rembrandt and Donne; the Royal Society, the Theatres of Anatomy, the 1832 Anatomy Act and its predecessor, the Murder Act of 1752; recorded executions, corpse-thefts and the development of scientific imagery; Vasari, Du Bartes, Bacon; Descartes; Crashaw, Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare; the Bishop of London in 1614, Queen Elizabeth, Milton, Traherne; even the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage. He combines his impressive knowledge with a delicate and readable use of theory (he seems particularly informed by the work of Foucault, Freud and various feminists and new historicists).

  2. The core of Professor Sawday's argument is that there was a Renaissance culture of dissection, which was not sharply divided from the imaginative arts as it is in the twentieth century. People flocked to see dissections of executed criminals, whose corpses had been surreptitiously yanked from scaffolds, or wrestled away from waiting families. Early anatomists were seen as heroic explorers who acted to map the body and harness its organs, creating a language of investigation clearly echoed in poetry. One of Sawday's primary focuses is the work of John Donne, and Donne, with his anxious, celebratory, misogynistic attitude towards his own enfeebled body and his mistress' shapely one, gives Sawday a forum for some of the best analysis in this book. For example, Donne's colonizing ethic translates the female body into a regime of ownership, in a direct parallel to the anatomist Vesalius' attitude towards a dissected female corpse.

  3. Sawday's thesis is that the early modern fascination with dissection led to a shift in thinking and speaking about the body itself. In the early Renaissance, investigation of the body could not be separated from analysis of its sensibility or its soul. This dualism was gradually replaced by an image of the body as a machine: "Forged into a working machine, the mechanical body appeared fundamentally different . . . . [The body as a machine] silently operated according to the laws of mechanics . . . entirely divorced from the world of the speaking and thinking subject" (29). Such a mechanical body has little to do with a "soul." Liberated from theology, the body loses its ability to stand as an image of government or rebellion, whereas it had earlier been seen as the "ultimate guarantee of a hierarchical arrangement of society" (130).

  4. Sawday concludes with an assertion that, by the late seventeenth century, the body had become "the locus of a confrontation between two radically different conceptions of the natural world," the new rationalism, which sought to reject extravagant metaphors and describe the body's "usefulness," and the old intellectual order, which sought to give the body spiritual significance (231). He concludes with a look at two rebellious writers, Margaret Cavendish and Thomas Traherne, both of whom fought a losing battle against the division between poetry and science, if for different reasons: "From henceforth, poetry, or the world of the human imagination, which had once seemed perfectly harmonious with the discourse of reason, was held to exist as an entirely separate area of enquiry" (265). Professor Sawday is right, of course: one rarely finds premed students warming the seats of creative writing classes, and if they do, they have no aims to reproduce their cadaverous experiments in blank verse or rhymed couplets. But one can think of exceptions (Gertrude Stein, with her experience in dissecting brains, her near medical degree, and her interest in versifying the physiology of the brain is a good example).

  5. A large part of Sawday's book describes the complexity of the confrontation between new and old science, particularly as it appears in the "imaginative arts," as he calls them. The term allows him to look not only at poetry and prose, but also at architecture, design and painting, including Rembrandt's several dissection paintings. Chapter Seven, "The Realm of Anatomia: Dissecting People," discusses the blason, that curious Renaissance vogue for emblazoning female bodies, in an effort to relate the popular poetic genre to the similarly avid thirst for dissected corpses. The comparison is fascinating and clearly relevant to some degree, especially, perhaps, in terms of Donne's poetry. Using the work of Eve Sedgwick and Nancy Vickers, Sawday argues that the blason should be seen as a form of aggressive competition between male poets, not as a celebration of female beauty. But the link between this argument and anatomy theatres is not wholly convincing. Sawday argues that "anatomy theatres, second only to playhouses as sites of large-scale public performances, provided the perfect stage upon which clever and ambitious men could demonstrate their skill" (212). I see several problems with this suggestion. The career of anatomists in the period does not easily compare with those of the majority of blasonneurs, even granted that the court was the center of preferment for both groups. Inigo Jones' Theatre of Anatomy, designed in 1636, may well have been a popular resort, but there is little evidence for attendance, whereas records indicate that courtiers attended the theater up to five times a week. Moreover, in an anatomy theatre presumably only one person performed at a time; in the private theatres, performance (and thus ambitious possibilities) extended well beyond the players to the courtiers sitting on the stage and in the boxes.

  6. The Body Emblazoned is so varied and complex in its interwoven arguments that I am acutely aware of doing it little justice. It deserves to be read widely, perhaps even in Renaissance core classes. Jonathan Sawday's fusion of wide-ranging scholarship with thoughtful analysis of poetry, art and cultural material will be useful to all students of the Renaissance. Interestingly, the complicated relation between body and self/soul which Sawday demonstrates to have been, in some sense, born in the sixteenth century, is still with us. In other words, we have not moved completely into the arena of the mechanical body, but some three hundred years later still hover between the two versions. On March 13 of this year, an ex-boy scout leader killed sixteen children in Dunblane Primary School gym. A few weeks later, the papers reported that the gym was to be razed, and the murderer's body cremated. As Sawday points out, the mechanistic body did not resolve our fascinated taboo regarding the body itself. He aptly concludes that the reconstitution of the body in new forms of discourse has done nothing to banish our fear of our own bodies' interiors, nor, it would seem, our fear of the bodies of criminals.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at EMLS@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS)
(May 1, 1996)