gender history

Aristotle in the Sex Shop and Activism in the Academy: Notes from the Joint Atlantic Seminar in the History of Medicine

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Four enormous, dead doctors were present at the opening of the 2017 Joint Atlantic Seminar in the History of Medicine. Convened in Johns Hopkins University’s Welch Medical Library, the room was dominated by a canvas of mammoth proportions, a group portrait by John Singer Sargent of the four founders of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. William Welch, known in his lifetime as “the dean of American medicine” (and the library’s namesake). Dr. William Halsted, “the father of modern surgery.” Dr. Sir William Osler, “the father of modern medicine.” And Dr. Howard Kelly, who established the modern field of gynecology.

1905 Professors Welch, Halsted, Osler and Kelly (aka The Four Doctors) oil on canvas 298.6 x 213.3 cm Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore MD

John Singer Sargent, Professors Welch, Halsted, Osler, and Kelly (1905)

Beneath the gazes of this august quartet, graduate students and faculty from across the United States and the United Kingdom gathered for the fifteenth iteration of the Seminar. This year, the program’s theme was “Truth, Power, and Objectivity,” explored in thirteen papers ranging from medical testimony before the Goan Inquisition to the mental impact of First World War bombing raids, from Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Health Week to the emergence of Chinese traditional medicine. It would not do justice to the papers or their authors to cover them all in a post; instead I shall concentrate on the two opening sessions: the keynote lecture by Mary E. Fissell and a faculty panel with Nathaniel Comfort, Gianna Pomata, and Graham Mooney (all of Johns Hopkins University).

I confess to some surprise at the title of Fissell’s talk, “Aristotle’s Masterpiece and the Re-Making of Kinship, 1820–1860.” Fissell is known as an early modernist, her major publications exploring gender, reproduction, and medicine in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. Her current project, however, is a cultural history of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, a book on sexuality and childbirth first published in 1684 and still being sold in London sex shops in the 1930s. The Masterpiece was distinguished by its discussion of the sexual act itself, and its consideration (and copious illustrations) of so-called “monstrous births.” It was, in Fissell’s words, a “howling success,” seeing an average of one edition a year for 250 years, on both sides of the Atlantic.

It should be explained that there is very little Aristotle in Aristotle’s Masterpiece. In early modern Europe, the Greek philosopher was regarded as the classical authority on childbirth and sex, and so offered a suitably distinguished peg on which to hang the text. This allowed for a neat trick of bibliography: when the Masterpiece was bound together with other (spurious) works, like Aristotle’s Problems, the spine might be stamped with the innocuous (indeed impressive) title “Aristotle’s Works.”

st-john-the-baptist-el-greco-c-1600

El Greco, John the Baptist (c.1600)

At the heart of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, Fissell argued, was genealogy: how reproduction—“generation,” in early modern terms—occurred and how the traits of parents related to those of their offspring. This genealogy is unstable, the transmission of traits open to influences of all kinds, notably the “maternal imagination.” The birth of a baby covered in hair, for example, could be explained by the pregnant mother’s devotion to an image of John the Baptist clad in skins. Fissell brilliantly drew out the subversive possibilities of the Masterpiece, as when it “advised” women that adultery might be hidden by imagining one’s husband during the sex act, thus ensuring that the child would look like him. Central though family resemblance is to reproduction, it is “a vexed sign,” with “several jokers in every deck,” because women’s bodies are mysterious and have the power to disrupt lineage.

Fissell principally considered the Masterpiece’s fortunes in the mid-nineteenth-century Anglophone world, as the unstable generation it depicted clashed with contemporary assumptions about heredity. Here she framed her efforts as a “footnote” to Charles Rosenberg’s seminal essay, “The Bitter Fruit: Heredity, Disease, and Social Thought in Nineteenth-Century America,” which traced how discourses of heredity pervaded all branches of science and medicine in this period. George Combe’s Constitution of Man (1828), an exposition of the supposedly rigid natural laws governing heredity (with a tilt toward self-discipline and self-improvement), was the fourth-bestselling book of the period (after the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Robinson Crusoe). Other hereditarian works sketched out the gendered roles of reproduction—what children inherited from their mothers versus from their fathers—and the possibilities for human action (proper parenting, self-control) for modulating genealogy. Wildly popular manuals for courtship and marriage advised young people on the formation of proper unions and the production of healthy children, in terms shot through with racial and class prejudices (though not yet solidified into eugenics as we understand that term).

The fluidity of generation depicted in Aristotle’s Masterpiece became conspicuous against the background of this growing obsession with a law-like heredity. Take the birth of a black child to white parents. The Masterpiece explains that the mother was looking at a painting of a black man at the moment of conception; hereditarian thought identified a black ancestor some five generations back, the telltale trait slowly but inevitably revealing itself. Thus, although the text of the Masterpiece did not change much over its long career, its profile changed dramatically, because of the shifting bibliographic contexts in which it moved.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the contrasting worldviews of the Masterpiece and the marriage manuals spoke to the forms of familial life prevalent at different social strata. The more chaotic picture of the Masterpiece reflected the daily life of the working class, characterized by “contingent formations,” children born out of wedlock, wife sales, abandonment, and other kinds of “marital nonconformity.” The marriage manuals addressed themselves to upper-middle-class families, but did so in a distinctly aspirational mode. They warned, for example, against marrying cousins, precisely at a moment when well-to-do families were “kinship hot,” in David Warren Sabean’s words, favoring serial intermarriage among a few allied clans. This was a period, Fissell explained, in which “who and what counted as family was much more complex” and “contested.” The ambiguity—and power—of this issue manifested in almost every sphere, from the shifting guidelines for census-takers on how a “family” was defined, to novels centered on complex kinship networks, such as John Lang’s Will He Marry Her? (1858), to the flood of polemical literature surrounding a proposed law forbidding a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister—a debate involving many more people than could possibly have been affected by the legislation.

After a rich question-and-answer session, we shifted to the faculty panel, with Professors Comfort, Pomata, and Mooney asked to reflect on the theme of “Truth, Power, and Objectivity.” Comfort, a scholar of modern biology, began by discussing his work with oral histories—“creating a primary source as you go, and in most branches of history that’s considered cheating.” Here perfect objectivity is not necessarily helpful: “when you make yourself emotional availability to your subjects […] you can actually gain their trust in a way that you can’t otherwise.” Equally, Comfort encouraged the embrace of sources’ unreliability, suggesting that unreliability might itself be a source—the more unreliable a narrative is, the more interesting and the more indicative of something meant it becomes. He closed with the observation that different audiences required different approaches to history and to history-writing—it is not simply a question of tone or language, but of what kind of bond the scholar seeks to form.

Professor Pomata, a scholar of early modern medicine, insisted that moments of personal contact between scholar and subject were not the exclusive preserve of the modern historian: the same connections are possible, if in a more mediated fashion, for those working on earlier periods. In this interaction, respect is of the utmost importance. Pomata quoted a line from W. B. Yeats’s “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

As a historian of public health—which he characterized as an activist discipline—Mooney declared, “I’m not really interested in objectivity. […] I’m angry about what I see.” He spoke compellingly about the vital importance of that emotion, properly channeled toward productive ends. The historian possesses power: not simply as the person setting the terms of inquiry, but as a member of privileged institutions. In consequence, he called on scholars to undermine their own power, to make themselves uncomfortable.

The panel was intended to be open-ended and interactive, so these brief remarks quickly segued into questions from the floor. Asked about the relationship between scholarship and activism, Mooney insisted that passion, even anger, are essential, because they drive the scholar into the places where activism is needed—and cautioned that it is ultimately impossible to be the dispassionate observer we (think we) wish to be. With beautiful understatement, Pomata explained that she went to college in 1968, when “a lot was happening in the world.” Consequently, she conceived of scholarship as having to have some political meaning. Working on women’s history in the early 1970s, “just to do the scholarship was an activist task.” Privileging “honesty” over “objectivity,” she insisted that “scholarship—honest scholarship—and activism go together.” Comfort echoed much of this favorable account of activism, but noted that some venues are more appropriate for activism than others, and that there are different ways of being an activist.

Dealing with the horrific—eugenics was the example offered—requires, Mooney argued, both the rigor of a critical method and sensitive emotional work. Further, all three panelists emphasized crafting, and speaking in, one’s own voice, eschewing the temptation to imitate more prominent scholars and embracing the first person (and the subjectivity it marks). Voice, Comfort noted, isn’t natural, but something honed, and both he and Pomata recommended literature as an essential tool in this regard.

Throughout, the three panelists concurred in urging collaborative, interdisciplinary work, founded upon respect for other knowledges and humility—which, Comfort insightfully observed, is born of confidence in one’s own abilities. Asking the right questions is crucial, the key to unlocking the stories of the oppressed and marginalized within sources created by those in power. Visual sources have the potential to express things inexpressible in words—Comfort cited a photograph that wonderfully captured the shy, retiring nature of Dr. Barton Childs—but must be used, not mere illustrations. The question about visual sources was the last of the evening, and Professor Pomata had the last word. Her final comment offers the perfect summation of the creativity, dedication, and intellectual ferment on display in Baltimore that weekend: “we are artists, don’t forget that.”

Writing the History of University Coeducation

by Emily Rutherford

When Yung In Chae told me that she was going to Nancy Malkiel’s book talk, I begged her to cover it for the blog. After all, my dissertation is a new, comprehensive history of coeducation in British universities, and as I was writing my prospectus Malkiel helped to put coeducation back into historians’ headlines. As Yung In’s account shows, Malkiel’s weighty tome restores some important things that have been missing in previous histories of university coeducation: attention to the intricacy of the politics through which institutions negotiated coeducation (and an emphasis on politics as a series of negotiations between individuals, often obeying only the logic of unintended consequences), and attention to the men who were already part of single-sex institutions and considered whether to admit women to them. Histories of coeducation usually focus on the ideas and experiences of women who sought access to the institutions, whether as teachers or as students. But that tends to imply a binary where women were progressives who supported coeducation and men were reactionaries who opposed it. As Malkiel shows—and as we might know from thinking about other questions of gender and politics like women’s suffrage—it just doesn’t work like that.

Malkiel’s book strikes me as a compelling history of gender relations at a specific set of universities at a particular moment—the 1960s and ’70s, which we all might point to as a key period in which gender norms and relations between men and women came under pressure on both sides of the Atlantic. But we should be wary, I think, of regarding it as the history of coeducation (Malkiel isn’t suggesting this, but I think that’s how some people might read it—not least when glancing at the book’s cover and seeing the subtitle, “The Struggle for Coeducation”). Malkiel’s story is an Ivy League one, and I’m not sure that it can help us to understand what coeducation looked like at less selective universities whose internal politics were less dominated by admissions policy; at universities in other countries (like the UK) which existed in nationally specific contexts for institutional structure and cultural norms surrounding gender; or in terms of questions other than the co-residence of students. Some of Malkiel’s cases are unusual universities like Princeton and Dartmouth which admitted women very late in the game, but others are about the problem of co-residency: merging men’s and women’s institutions like Harvard and Radcliffe that already essentially shared a campus and many resources and administrative structures, or gender-integrating the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and thus meaning that men and women students would live alongside each other. But at these institutions, as at other, less elite universities, student life was already significantly coeducational: men and women had some, though not all, teaching in common; they joined mixed extracurricular organizations; they socialized together—though this was limited by curfews and parietal rules, which in 1960s style became the focus of student activism around gender relations. Women teachers and administrators faced other, historically specific challenges about how to be taken seriously, or how to balance a career and marriage. Those who opposed coeducation and sought to support single-sex institutions did so—as Malkiel shows—in ways specific to the political and social context of the 1960s.

But my dissertation research suggests that lasting arguments about co-residency that persisted into the 1960s—and ultimately resulted in the coeducation of hold-out institutions like Princeton and Dartmouth—were the product of an earlier series of conflicts in universities over coeducation and gender relations more broadly, whose unsatisfactory resolution in some institutions set up the conflicts Malkiel discusses. Let’s take the British case, which is not perfectly parallel to the US case but is the focus of my research. My dissertation starts in the 1860s, when there were nine universities in Great Britain but none admitted women. The university sector, like the middle class, exploded in the nineteenth century, and as this happened, the wives, sisters, and daughters of a newly professionalized class of university teachers campaigned for greater educational opportunities for middle-class women. In the late 1870s, Bristol and London became the first universities to admit women to degrees, and activists founded the first women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, though they were not yet recognized by the universities. By 1930, there were seventeen universities in Britain as well as many colleges, all except Cambridge granting women degrees. Cambridge would not admit women to the BA until 1948, and as Malkiel shows the Oxford and Cambridge colleges wouldn’t coeducate until the 1970s. Indeed, higher education did not become a mass system as in the US until the period following the 1963 Robbins Report, and national numbers of women undergraduates did not equal men until the higher education system was restructured in 1992. But it’s already possible to see that a definition of coeducation focused not on co-residency but on women’s admission to the BA nationally, and on the first women on university campuses—as teachers, as students, and also as servants or as the family members or friends of men academics—changes the periodization of the story of coeducation, placing the focal point somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century and taking into account the social and cultural changes wrought by significant factors within British history such as massive urbanization or the First World War. Of course, it’s not just about the BA, and the cultural aspects of this shift in norms surrounding gender relations in Britain are an important part of the story—as middle-class men and women (particularly young men and women) found themselves confronting the new social experience of being friends with each other, an experience which many found perplexing and awkward, but which the more liberal sought out regardless of whether they were educated at the same institutions or whether there were curfews and other regulations governing the ways they could meet each other. University administrators had to confront the same questions among their own generation, while also making decisions about institutional priorities: should accommodation be built for women students? should it look different from the accommodation offered to men students? should women be allowed into the library or laboratory or student union? should they be renovated to include women’s restrooms? how would these projects be funded? would philanthropists disgruntled by change pull their donations? These were questions universities faced in the 1920s as much as in the 1960s—or today.

I’m still early in my research, but one focus of my inquiries is those who opposed coeducation. They haven’t been given as much attention as those who fought for it—but what did they perceive to be the stakes of the question? What did they think they stood to lose? Who were they, and how did they make their claims? I already know that they included both men and women, and that while many of them were garden-variety small-c conservatives, not all of them were. I also know that for many, homoeroticism played an important role in how they explained the distinctive value of single-sex education. By 1920, the battle over women being admitted to the BA was over at all British institutions except Cambridge, but these opponents put up a strong fight. They help to show that coeducation wasn’t foreordained in a teleology of progress, but was the outcome of certain compromises and negotiations between factions, whose precise workings varied institutionally. Yet the opponents also were in many respects successful. After their institutions admitted women to the BA, they carved out spaces in which particular forms of single-sex sociability could continue. The Oxbridge collegiate system enabled this, but it also happened through single-sex student organizations (and persists, it might be noted, in universities that today have vibrant fraternity and sorority cultures), many of which were sponsored and fostered by faculty, alumni, or donors who had a stake in the preservation of single-sex spaces. Coeducation is often viewed as a process that ended when women were admitted to the BA. But even after this formal constitutional change, single-sex spaces persisted: colleges, residence halls, extracurricular organizations, informal bars to women’s academic employment, and personal choices about whom teachers and students sought to work, study, and socialize alongside. Understanding how this happened in the period from, say, 1860 to 1945 helps to explain the causes and conditions of the period on which Malkiel’s work focuses, whose origins were as much in the unresolved conflicts of the earlier period of coeducation as they were in the gender and sexuality foment of the 1960s. I suspect, too, that there may be longer-lasting legacies, which continue to structure the politics and culture of gender in the universities in which we work today.

Let the Right Women In

by guest contributor Yung In Chae

When professional troll James Delingpole recently bemoaned in the Spectator the demise of “a real Oxbridge education” at the hands of misguided social justice initiatives, professional classicist Mary Beard ended her response with the following postscript: “… when I quickly scanned the first link I was sent and saw the phrase ‘sterile, conformist monoculture’ applied to Oxbridge, I assumed that you were referring to what Oxbridge was like when it was a blokeish public school monoculture before the women and the others were ‘let in’! Whoops.”

Beard implies that there is a sterile, conformist Oxbridge to react against, but that it’s not the one Delingpole is thinking of—and that it exists more in the past than the present. So what is this “blokeish public school monoculture” that Beard references, and how did it fade? If we wish to restore the context that Delingpole so sorely lacks, with a view to understanding why his tantrum is not only plain wrong but also founded on troubling premises, this strikes me as an important missing piece of the puzzle. We can do so with relative ease, thanks to a book whose title has a poetic resonance with Beard’s ironic comment that women were “let in”: Keep the Damned Women Out: The Struggle for Coeducation (2016) by Nancy Weiss Malkiel, Professor of History Emeritus and former Dean of the College at Princeton University.

On October 31, 2016, I went to a talk in honor of Keep the Damned Women Out at the Institute of Historical Research in London. It was appropriate that the event took place on Halloween, because, as I learned from Malkiel that evening, the main actors—with the exception of Mary Ingraham Bunting of Radcliffe College, yes, all men—found the prospect of women infiltrating male educational spaces very scary indeed. The book itself is no less intimidating: fire-engine red and, at almost seven hundred pages, as thick as my thumb is long. On the cover, the title stands out in large font and harsh invective, the heartwarming contribution of a Dartmouth alumnus who wrote in 1970 to the Chair of the Board of Trustees: “For God’s sake, for Dartmouth’s sake, and for everyone’s sake, keep the damned women out.”

“And he could not have been more typical in his sentiments,” Malkiel commented before pointing out more instances of thinly veiled contempt, rife among the elite institutions that form the core of her book—elite institutions, she clarified, because that’s where the story is. (She added in response to a post-lecture question that the most elite of the elite were especially slow to change because if you’ve been doing things a particular way for centuries to great success, you think, don’t fix what isn’t broken.) Some choice quotes from my own alma mater, Princeton, include a description of coeducation as a “death wish” and concern that women would “dilute Princeton’s sturdy masculinity.” We even see prudent consideration of finances: “A good old-fashioned whorehouse would be considerably more efficient, and much, much cheaper.”

Then how, in the face of such outrage, did the damned women sneak in? Something Malkiel made clear upfront was that admitting the women had little to do with educating them. In fact, women had little to do with the story at all. This story, like so many other stories, was about men: their interests, actions, and even their defeats (in the struggle against coeducation). Furthermore, coeducation was not the mission of men who had “drunk the social justice Kool-Aid,” as Delingpole would say. That is, coeducation did not happen because of “a high-minded moral commitment,” but because “it was in the strategic self-interest of all-male institutions.” This was true in both the United States and the United Kingdom, Malkiel added.

But let us examine the two places separately for a moment in order to tease out what such strategic self-interest entailed, exactly. In the late 1960s, the top American schools began to see declining application numbers and yield rates, as men decided that they no longer wanted to attend single-sex institutions. Harvard, for example, started pulling students away from Princeton and Yale because it had Radcliffe up the street, when previously the three had been neck-and-neck. It became clear that women were key to attracting and retaining the “best boys.”

Women played “the instrumental role of improving the educational experience of men,” so their own educational experiences were, unsurprisingly, less than ideal. One Dartmouth oceanographer included pictures of naked women when presenting a list of sea creatures. The Chair of Yale’s History department responded to a request for a women’s history course by saying that that would be like teaching the history of dogs. Again at Dartmouth, the song “Our Cohogs” (cohog being a derogatory term for coeds) won a fraternity-wide songwriting competition, and afterwards the judge, the Dean of the College, joined the winners in performing ten verses of sexual insults.

Around this time, there was a wave of social change, including the civil rights movement (incidentally, Malkiel’s last book to have the word “struggle” in the title was Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights), the anti-war movement, and the women’s movement, the effects of which were felt in Europe as well. The composition of student bodies started to shift, as universities admitted more state-educated students, students from lower-income backgrounds, Catholic and Jewish students, and African-American students. Women were the natural next step. Men and women were also voting and protesting together, so it began to seem strange that they should not be educated together.

In the UK, Oxford’s and Cambridge’s prestige made the “best boys” problem less likely. Nevertheless, they found themselves competing for talent with newly-founded universities, which had modern approaches to education and no history of gender segregation. (Keep in mind that by the 1970s, Oxbridge had been educating women for about a century at separate women’s colleges, even though mixed colleges were a novelty.) Simultaneously, there was a push to triple student bodies through broader recruitment at state schools. At that point it felt silly to draw the diversity line at women.

Competition within the same university was another consideration. The first colleges in Oxbridge to admit women were generally not the most prestigious, richest ones, and they did so partly to climb the league tables. Indeed, women’s colleges sat at the top of the tables at the time, and coeducation was a way to steal not only the top women students but also the accomplished men who wanted to be educated with them.

In the British case, unlike its American counterpart, the faculty played the largest role in implementing coeducation, with the Fellows of Churchill College, Cambridge even overriding the objects of the Master, noted antifeminist Sir William Hawthorne. (As Lawrence Goldman, the Director of the IHR, noted in Q&A, you have a much smaller number of men making the decisions at each college, and they were all in residence and thus continuously interacting with each other.) And in contrast to the horror stories from the Ivy League, we have no evidence of women being harassed or asked for the “woman’s point of view” at Oxbridge—which, of course, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Overall, the process of integration seems to have gone smoothly, and women continued to do well.

“Are we there yet?” Malkiel asked toward the end of the talk. Clearly, issues remain: Gill Sutherland, a fellow emerita of Newnham College, Cambridge and a preeminent historian of education and women, happened to be in the audience, and she pointed out that a pyramid scheme still exists when it comes to women graduate students and faculty. And the mere fact that the Spectator gave Delingpole a soapbox shows that class, in addition to gender, persists as a problem. Nevertheless, Malkiel chose to end her talk on a confident note, saying that we’re “well on our way.” Are we where yet? Well on our way to what? Malkiel didn’t clarify. If anything, her copious research shows that coeducation was not one step on the road leading to A More Perfect University, but the result of complex, sometimes questionable decisions. The narrative is less about progress than it is about change.

Change does happen, and it can happen with such force that people forget things were ever any other way. Malkiel noted that at Cambridge and Oxford, respectively, Eric Ashby and Hrothgar Habakkuk assuaged some fears by saying that coeducation would be like the removal of the celibacy requirement for fellows a century earlier, which nobody gave a second thought about by the 1970s. But change hardly removes the traces of the past. As Goldman—who went to university during the final years of single-sex Cambridge—said in his introductory remarks, “You get so old, eventually they start writing history about your own experiences.” One day they’ll start writing history about yours.

Yung In Chae is the Associate Editor of Eidolon and an MPhil Candidate in Classics at the University of Cambridge, where she is a Gates Cambridge Scholar. Read more of her work here.

Cheek Rending, Bodies, and Rape in Medieval Castile, c. 1050-1300

by guest contributor Rachel Q. Welsh

In medieval Castile, between about 1050 and 1300, local municipal lawcodes, or fueros, looked to the body for proof of rape. These fueros provided detailed and practical sets of laws and privileges to newly founded or conquered towns before the advent of centralized royal law, and they were intended to encourage settlement and establish civic order on the expanding Castilian frontier. Although the fueros set harsh penalties for rape, a valid claim hinged on the woman’s own actions of public self-mutilation. In order to prove rape, a woman had to appear publicly within three days of the assault and rend her cheeks, tearing at her face with her fingernails until it bled. If the woman did not appear carpiendo y rascando, “tearing and scratching,” she was not to be believed, according to texts like the Fuero de Alba de Tormes.

Woman mourner, sacramentary of Ivrea, c. 1000, Northwest Italy. Biblioteca Capitplare d’Ivrea, codex 86, f. 199 verso. Miniatures reproduced in Luigi Magnani, Le miniature del sacramentario d'Ivrea e di altri codici Warmondiani. Codices ex Ecclesiasticis Italiae Bybliothecis Delecti, Phototypice Expressi (Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1934), tav. XXXVII.

Woman mourner, sacramentary of Ivrea, c. 1000, Northwest Italy. Biblioteca Capitplare d’Ivrea, codex 86, f. 199 verso. Miniatures reproduced in Luigi Magnani, Le miniature del sacramentario d’Ivrea e di altri codici Warmondiani. Codices ex Ecclesiasticis Italiae Bybliothecis Delecti, Phototypice Expressi (Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1934), tav. XXXVII.

image-2The physical action of cheek rending is not unique to these Iberian lawcodes, as it was also part of a larger Mediterranean practice of ritual mourning, in which mourners raised loud laments and tore their hair, faces, and clothing.
These self-mutilating actions were especially associated with women, however, and women’s mourning bodies were understood within a framework that linked bodily expressions of emotion with unrestrained sexuality and self-mutilation. For example, John Chrysostom suggested in a homily that women tore their bodies and clothing not to demonstrate grief, but to show their bodies and attract lovers. Because Iberian women tore their cheeks both as part of ritual mourning and as proof of rape, however, what little scholarship mentions cheek rending as proof usually explains it away in terms of grief and emotion: Distraught women tore their faces in grief at the shame and dishonor of rape. While this could explain why an individual woman might rend her cheeks, it does not explain why the legal system would require torn and bleeding cheeks as proof.

In thinking about cheek rending as proof of rape, I propose that we think of it first as a real, physical action, not just as a ritual or cultural performance. The municipal fueros themselves are very practical legal codes, without overt ideological goals; they deal with everyday life on the Castilian frontier, and they regulate such mundane things as which days Jews and Christians could use the bathhouses or how bakers should be fined for heating their public bread ovens badly. The stipulations on rape and cheek rending should be read within this straightforward framework. The verbs used in Latin and Romance to refer to cheek rending—including rascar, grafinar, mesar, carpir, desfacer, cortar—signify real physical violence; the mourners scratch, rip, tear, cut, and strip their faces. The thirteenth-century Primera Crónica General describes women mourners as tearing and scratching their faces (tornandolas en sangre et en carne biva), stripping them back to blood and to open wounds. Alfonso X’s great royal legal code, Las Siete Partidas, condemns excessive mourning and refers to cheek rending as disfiguring. Moreover, it forbids priests from administering the sacraments to mourners until they had healed from the marks they had made on their faces. This suggests that cheek rending left real visible marks on mourners’ faces, that their bodies were literally marked, and possibly even scarred, with grief. Images of mourners rending their cheeks bear this out, as many show bloody red lines on the mourners’ faces. A medieval medical text on treatments for women, included in the Trotula collection, even describes an ointment which the women of Salerno used to treat the marks on their faces which they made in mourning for the dead (contra maculas in facie quas faciunt salernitane pro mortuis). If women tore their cheeks both in mourning and in rape, would widows and raped women then have the same facial marks or scars?

Scene of mourning at an honorable death, with women rending their cheeks, late 13th century Castile. From Cantiga 152, Cantigas de Santa Maria. Image reproduced in Heath Dillard, Daughters of the Reconquest: Women in Castilian Town Society, 1100-1300 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), plate 20.

Scene of mourning at an honorable death, with women rending their cheeks, late 13th century Castile. From Cantiga 152, Cantigas de Santa Maria. Image reproduced in Heath Dillard, Daughters of the Reconquest: Women in Castilian Town Society, 1100-1300 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), plate 20.

Because cheek rending was a bodily action performed through real, bleeding bodies, I further suggest that any examination of cheek rending as proof of rape should consider larger questions of how bodies, and especially women’s bodies, functioned before the law. Scholarship on emotion and gestures suggests that weeping was seen as a sign of sincerity, and cheek rending as proof of rape suggests a similar connection between outward appearance and internal mental state. The definition of rape in the fueros hinges on intent, consent, and believability, and in many fueros the cheek rending requirement falls under the heading “What woman should be believed concerning rape[?]” (Qual mugier deue seer creyda por forçada). Cheek rending might actually go further than just proving intention and sincerity, however, as many of these same towns also used the ordeal of hot-iron and the physical bodies of women to prove guilt or innocence. This ordeal was used only with women and only with women accused of certain kinds of bodily, secretive crimes, including poisoning, abortion, prostitution, and witchcraft. For these crimes, the law bypassed the woman’s testimony to access the truth directly from her body.

Mourners tearing their hair and faces in grief, c. 1295, Castile. 1 of 8 wooden panels originally in the chapel of San Andrés de Mahamud (Burgos). The Plañideros panels are currently in Sala 19 of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Cataluyna, in Barcelona, catalog numbers 004372-003, 004372-004, 004372-005, and 004372-006.

Mourners tearing their hair and faces in grief, c. 1295, Castile. 1 of 8 wooden panels originally in the chapel of San Andrés de Mahamud (Burgos). The Plañideros panels are currently in Sala 19 of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Cataluyna, in Barcelona, catalog numbers 004372-003, 004372-004, 004372-005, and 004372-006.

But why only women’s bodies? If men were dishonored, they proved their civil cases through character witnesses and testimony, not through self-mutilation and bleeding cheeks. I am only beginning sustained research, but I suspect that there’s something about the body itself, an understanding that bodies – and especially female bodies, which were seen as more material and less spiritual than male bodies – could somehow demonstrate truth. In cheek rending as proof of rape, women mark and even mutilate their bodies to make visible the internal violence and dishonor of rape; in ordeal, perhaps, the body speaks for itself.

Rachel Welsh is a doctoral candidate in Medieval History at New York University. Her dissertation focuses on ordeal and the use of the body as legal proof in medieval Iberia, and she is interested more broadly in medieval medical, theological, philosophical, and legal understandings of the body as a potential conduit of truth.