- From the Royal to the Republican Body: Incorporating the Political in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France, and The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe
The centrality of the body to the study of early modern Europe across the disciplines is amply demonstrated by these two anthologies. Both books emphasize the inseparability of the personal and the political; they show how the physicality of the body, an object of unprecedented scrutiny in the early modern era, was constantly mediated through political and social understandings. Taken together, the two books also demonstrate how well interdisciplinary research is working of late. Although Melzer and Norberg’s collection features essays primarily by scholars of the performing arts and historians, and Hillman and Mazzio’s volume mainly features specialists in English literature, both sets of authors apply their methodologies with the purpose of bringing historical moment and cultural product into a dynamic continuum.
The principal contention of The Body in Parts, set forth by the editors in their introduction, is that the advance of empiricism and rationalism in natural philosophy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries produced an intense literary focus upon the body’s separate parts. Shifting their sights away from the mystical totality of the Medieval Christian body, early modern writers, like anatomists, probed and pondered the diverse structures of the body as a collection of objects by turns fascinating, troubling, and revelatory. With great historical sensitivity, and an appropriate measure of wit, the editors have arranged the essays around these provocative parts; thus the reader is treated to inquiries into—among other systems and members—the joints, the tongue, the nerves, the anus, the breast, the belly, the brain, and the hand. A central theme throughout the essays is an analysis of the tension between the mystical and the empirical in the early modern body; how to make moral and theological sense of the physical mechanics that empirical science was beginning to reveal preoccupies many of the writers under study. The anthology’s main purpose is to explore the metaphorical expressions of this ongoing struggle with bodily interpretation. In taking seriously those aspects of early modern natural philosophy that our own era has abandoned [End Page 462] as false or supernatural, The Body in Parts complements a current trend in the history of science that has replaced the “master narrative” of the Scientific Revolution as progress toward truth with a more contextually focused consideration of the problems and conflicts as perceived by the early modern seekers themselves.
The editors’ decision to focus upon the written text as metaphor for bodily understanding finds ample justification in the early modern literature itself, in which we find frequent analogies between the parts of the body and parts of speech, and between the task of the anatomist and the task of an inquiring reader. In her essay on joints, Marjorie Garber notes the natural philosopher Helkiah Crooke’s use of the terms “syntax” and “articulation” to characterize the “coagmentation of the bones” and the connective action of the joints in his Microcosmographia, A Description of the Body of Man of 1615. This “language of joints,” as Garber shows, is in turn brandished by certain Shakespearean characters specifically to challenge the “logic of bodily coherence and obedience” (34–5). Even more pointedly somatic was the emphasis upon the tongue as an agent of good or evil through speech and, by implication, through writing; as analyzed by Carla Mazzio, the preoccupation with the moral performance of the tongue emerges from diverse texts as well as from emblems and even from the “tongue-headdress” of women’s fashion. Jeffrey Masten, who questions in his essay the significance of the anus (or “fundament”) in an era preoccupied with bodily openings, observes the analogy between body and book made by the anatomist...