David Hillman and Carla Mazzio, eds. The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. pp.xxix+344. ISBN 0 415 91694 1.
Peter J. Smith
Nottingham Trent University

Smith, Peter J. "Review of The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.3 (January, 2000): 10.1-6 <URL:

  1. In 1697 Thomas Gibson's Anatomy of Humane Bodies Epitomized declared that a bodily part must "cohere with the whole.… It (with others) must serve to compleat or make up the whole…. It must partake of the life of the whole." The fifteen essays collected here deal, in their own ways, with very different bodily parts and inflect their examinations in various theoretical directions, but what animates all of them is the intention to explore "images of bodies epistemically though not biologically different from our own" (122). The volume's coherence though is threatened by the sheer variety of its contributions, and one is left pondering whether its ordering and internal organisation are equal to the contradictory impulses constituted by the pull of each. Particular bodily parts/essays are given an importance which threatens to eclipse the rest of the body/volume and thus to defy Gibson's maxim on their subjugation to the whole and their harmonious co-existence.

  2. David Hillman, for instance, proposes (in "Visceral Knowledge: Shakespeare, Skepticism, and the Interior of the Early Modern Body") that bodily interiority helps to make possible psychological interiority or subjectivity (though the jury is still out on the existence or otherwise of ideas of the self in the period). In "Mutilation and Meaning," on the other hand, Stephen Greenblatt demonstrates the essential nature of the bodily wound to both religious ritual and spiritual definition. Elsewhere, Katherine Rowe in "'Gods handy worke'" shows how the anatomist's hand itself, as it anatomises hands, functions as a synecdoche of God's creative stimulus -- a shorthand, as it were, for the "spiritual authority" (288) that inhabits the hand of the Creator. Scott Manning Stevens's chapter demonstrates this difficulty in centring the Renaissance body on one particular organ as he examines the struggle for authority between "Sacred Heart and Secular Brain." As the editors make clear in their introduction, there is a paradoxical duality between attachment and detachment: "if there is always a tension between part and whole, it is because neither can do without the other" (xxiii). The fragmentation of the early modern body and the struggle between its component parts is a glaring symptom of the post-modern condition, but if one is prepared to accept such a paradox and the manner in which it eludes the collection's attempts to marshal it (such as dividing the book into sections), many of these essays offer fascinating accounts of the meanings ascribed to disparate physical organs as well as the means by which their theorisation and subjection by philosophers, medical pioneers, anatomists, and religious authorities provides evidence of their cultural -- and sometimes even political -- significance.

  3. The variety of ways in which body parts signify and are signified is a common thread of several of these essays. Most obviously, Carla Mazzio's "Sins of the Tongue" suggestively proposes that the image of the disobedient, sometimes autonomous, tongue is "an anxious response to the unsettling dispersion of languages and identities in an increasingly textualized culture" (69). Again paradoxically, these representations, frequently apprehensive about the tongue's subversive capacities, point up "both the materiality and the metaphoricity of signification" (54). The tongue's propensity for semantic slippage is illustrated in Marjorie Garber's wry and entertaining "Out of Joint." She describes how during Katherine's English lesson in Henry V language "spins out of control" (36). It is no accident that the lesson involves the naming of bodily parts. Garber sees a kind of linguistic dissection taking place as the bodily features of which the French Princess attempts to speak are deformed into slang terms for genitals; she writes, "What is dislocated here is not only a word from its socket of meaning but the sense of language itself as firmly jointed and joint" (36).

  4. The connections between physicality and meaning are dwelt on by many of the contributions. As Gail Kern Paster explains in "Nervous Tension: Networks of Blood and Spirit in the Early Modern Body," "Because the physical and the social -- symptomatology and ideology -- shared a discursive environment, they worked to demonstrate each other's dominant truths" (111). Katherine Rowe illustrates how, "From rhetorical treatises to political theory, the hand symbolizes an apparently seamless continuity between the instrumental part and the person or power that it acts for" (298-9). Unsurprisingly, Menenius's allegory of the stomach's central role to the health of the body politic figures in several of the essays, notably Michael Schoenfeldt's lucid and disciplined "Fables of the Belly in Early Modern England" (in which he details the Edenic fart (Paradise Lost, IX. 1042-52) which this reviewer for one had never spotted). For Garber, such an ideological role is taken by the knee which she describes as "an important articulation of the physical body politic, especially if the physical body politic is male" (24). Clearly, as here, ideological readings of the body can be powerfully gendered.

  5. In the second section of the book, "Sexing the Part," the essays deal with the ways in which the body is theorised sexually. Jeffrey Masten asks "Is the Fundament a Grave?" discussing, among other texts, The Faerie Queene, Edward II, and Thomas Elyot's The Castel of Helth (1541). Finally his essay is reluctant to answer the question, opting instead for the series of endless regressions constituted by Bottom's Dream. In "Missing the Breast: Desire, Disease, and the Singular Effect of Amazons," Kathryn Schwarz emphasises the breast as a point of sexual difference in a period in which the theory of genital homology was still current: "the maternal breast is an inescapable site of difference" (147). Schwarz proposes that the Amazonian body was a locus of oppositional power: "both the present and the absent breast display an assertion of sexual agency and signify a violent escape from patriarchal structures of generation and desire" (159). Katharine Park discusses "The Rediscovery of the Clitoris: French Medicine and the Tribade, 1570-1620." The Greeks had labelled women with enlarged genitals tribades, but Park suggests that the phenomenon had passed out of circulation until "the middle decades of the sixteenth century [when] European anatomists rediscovered the clitoris through a rereading of the ancient Greek works, supplemented by their own anatomical researches on female cadavers" (173). She details the anxieties caused to a patriarchal society. For example, Jean Riolan's Anthropographia (sixth ed., 1650) notes the cruelty of clitoridectomy but adds that it is "perhaps not without its utility in this depraved period, when the modesty of virgins is easily overcome by gold, flattery, and licentiousness, and when virgins allow themselves to be conquered by either the weakness of their minds or an almost masculine jealousy" (184).

  6. The final part of the collection, "Parting Words," contains a single essay. Dealing with the representation of the foot in ballet, at the circus, and in the literature of early modern England, Peter Stallybrass attempts to demonstrate the explicitly seditious character of the cobbler as he appears at the outset of Julius Caesar, for example. However, the subsequent claim that shoemakers "were the leading popular philosophers and radical politicians of early modern Europe" (319) who "cobbled together new visions of the body politic" (321) is more ingenious than convincing. That Stallybrass's "Footnotes" comprise a series of separately numbered paragraphs -- variations on a theme rather than any coherent and sustained argument -- exemplifies the reservations over coherence raised by Thomas Gibson with which we began.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).