Carnival incarnate: maternal bodies in medieval and early modern literature

Thumbnail Image
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
University of Alabama Libraries

The female body has long been a contested site of conflict between the sexes, and it has been manipulated, unmade, and reformed many times since the earliest physicians first theorized a model of human anatomy. Common knowledge surrounding the female form, especially its role in reproduction, remained fairly consistent from the Classical period into the sixteenth century, when Early Modern anatomists started chipping away at Galen’s one-sex model. With new medical knowledge came new ways of looking at and understanding the female body and its experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation, but the metaphors that depended upon the outdated model lingered on, despite and sometimes in opposition to medical advances. In this dissertation, I argue that the literature from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance responds to a variety of social changes by exaggerating, satirizing, and abstracting the female form as it was once believed to be. Specifically, I suggest that the printing press (controlled by men) roughly coincided with the "professionalization" of obstetrics (when male physicians overtook female midwives) and with the Protestant Reformation (when Christianity lost its matriarch in the absence of Marian idolatry) to produce a surge of masculine control over female bodies, which was itself fueled by the outdated Classical model that had established women as natural, naturally inferior monsters. Thus, the metaphors that surround women in the Early Modern period are often highly politicized and deliberately anachronistic.

Electronic Thesis or Dissertation
English literature, Gender studies