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  • Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection
  • Paula De Vos
Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection. By Katharine Park. New York: Zone Books, 2006. Pp. 304. $36.95 (cloth).

In this work Katharine Park traces the origins of human dissection and the growing importance of the study of anatomy in northern Italy between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. Although Italy has long been recognized as a center for the development of anatomy and Park examines in some detail aspects of the sixteenth-century work of Andreas Vesalius, who is considered the "father" of this field, Park's book is anything but another addition to a well-established narrative of the history of anatomy. This narrative has focused on human dissections carried out in university amphitheaters for medical students, in which mainly male bodies—the corpses of executed criminals—underwent shameful public dissection by male professionals in order to instruct male students. Park's approach, however, veers far and wide from the halls of the university and the published medical texts usually employed to tell this story. Instead, she began research into the origins of dissection by focusing on medieval Italian devotional and funerary practices using an impressive range of innovative and varied sources, including records of canonization procedures and devotional practices, contemporary images and mythology, diaries, letters, and medical treatises as well as records of medical diagnosis. Through judicial use of these sources Park is able to see "what was hidden in plain sight": the nonmedical understanding of the body in this period and the fact that most dissections took place well outside the context of formal medical education. Rather, Park finds that the opening of bodies occurred on an increasingly regular basis between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries for the embalming of potential saints, for autopsy, and [End Page 351] for fetal excision. These dissections stood in stark contrast to those of the public university setting in several ways: they began several centuries before the publication of Vesalius's seminal work, and they were for the most part private affairs often requested by the families themselves to which no sense of shame was attached. Perhaps the most important difference, however, is that these dissections took place almost exclusively on female bodies, and in this way Park reached the startling conclusion that women and the opening of women's bodies are central to the history of anatomy. Not only were women's bodies opened much more regularly than men's, but the uterus proved to be the central organ to understand in human anatomy: whereas men's bodies were considered normative and thus already known, women's bodies and the uterus in particular came to symbolize the internal "secrets" of the body—and the key to the mysteries of generation—that dissection would reveal. Through her innovative approach Park has therefore been able to piece together a heretofore hidden history that turns the traditional narrative of the history of anatomy—and indeed the history of medieval and early modern medicine generally—on its head.

Park organizes the five chapters of the book around a series of case studies that all involve dissection in some way. Chapter 1 opens dramatically with the story of the dissection in 1308 of the corpse of Chiara de Montefalco, a female religious who was renowned for her piety and asceticism and whose body was opened and entrails subsequently examined for physical signs of her holiness. The fact that these signs were found—the most important of which was a crucifix on her heart—provided proof for her supporters that she should be canonized. The same was true for Margherita of Citta di Castello, whose body underwent examination in 1297 and was found to have three stones in her heart imprinted with various images. Park uses these two examples to demonstrate the importance of women's bodies in these "holy anatomies" (there were none performed on holy men at this time) and to set up two important themes that she builds upon in subsequent chapters. First, she notes the relative absence in these cases of a professional medical community. Although some physicians were present, the...


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