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1 Chapter 1 Introduction This book is about the recent shifts in knowledge and power that have profoundly transformed how women on the island of Rhodes perceive, make sense of, and manage their reproductive bodies and experiences. These shifts, which began soon after the end of World War II and took roughly a generation to complete, can be summed up in the term “medicalization.” Medicalization refers to the increasingly global process by which biomedicine has achieved the authority to redefine and treat an expanding array of individual life events and social problems as medical problems and ultimately to make exclusive claims over the body. Well into the middle of the twentieth century, the full range of Rhodian women’s reproductive concerns remained largely outside the purview of biomedical experts. Women relied on the long-standing body of knowledge and practices known as the iatrosophia, literally, “medical wisdom,” on the one hand, and on rituals improvised from the Greek Orthodox religious tradition on the other, to enhance and control their fertility, protect their pregnancies, successfully birth their babies, and navigate the hazards of the postpartum period . Every village on the island and every neighborhood in the capital city of Rhodes had at least one local midwife to whom women could turn for expert assistance in these matters. In the early 1990s, when I began this study, all the midwives had died or long since stopped practicing. By then, the specialized knowledge of the recent past, of which young women usually knew little or nothing, could be spliced together only from the recollections of their mothers and grandmothers. Such practices as women in their twenties and thirties might be aware of—the obligation of pregnant women to sample any food they happened to smell to prevent miscarriage and birthmarks, for instance—were liable to be dismissed as vlakies, “stupidities.” Or, less harshly but equally revealingly , they might be referred to by the loan words tabou and folklor. Either way, young women unmistakably signaled their distance from practices that, now hopelessly undermined, had come to be either seen as the irrational traces 2 Bodies of Knowledge of an earlier, benighted time or, at best, objectified and relegated to the realm of anthropology and folklore. As also hinted by the use of these terms, medicalization has succeeded not just by changing women’s behavior, but more fundamentally, by demoting and disallowing existing knowledge of the body and replacing it with new discourses based in biology and medicine (Duden 1991). Official efforts to eradicate local midwives and other practical healers, and along with them, the iatrosophia medical tradition in general, began almost as soon as the Greek nation achieved independence from Ottoman rule in 1828. Just six years later, a new regulatory institution, the Iatrosynedrio, was established to organize public health and administer medical examinations, issuing licenses only to those who succeeded in passing them (Korasidou 2002, 157–58). Rhodes, and the Dodecanese Island chain of which it is the major hub, remained part of the Ottoman Empire into the early twentieth century, passing through Italian hands before finally joining the Greek nation in 1947. Under the banner of its own modernizing mission, the Italian colonial government that ruled Rhodes between 1911 and 1944 waged a remarkably similar campaign to suppress local practitioners and replace them with certified, preferably Italiantrained , biomedical professionals. Still, on Rhodes as on the Greek mainland, such attempts at medical reform rarely reached beyond more than a sliver of the elite echelons of the population. Throughout Greece, the medicalization of reproduction and the realization of biomedical hegemony in general had to await fundamental changes in both institutional structures and the broader cultural logic of Greek society. Until then, women relied heavily—and in rural areas, almost exclusively—on what I refer to in this book as ethnogynecology and ethno-obstetrics and its specialist practitioners, the local midwives, to address a host of reproductive concerns, from the inability to conceive a child to breech presentations in childbirth. In the first half of this book, I offer the first comprehensive ethnographic description of this richly elaborated body of reproductive knowledge, which, as I will show, comprises a remarkably smooth braiding of three distinct strands: a secular ethnogynecology replete with parallels to humoral medicine as codified by Galen and the countless other medical theorists who followed his lead through the early modern period; an ethno-obstetrics with numerous parallels to the equally durable and influential obstetrical treatise of Soranus of Ephesus, who self-consciously...


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