Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Kate Cregan, The Theatre of the Body: Staging Death and Embodying Life in Early-Modern London (Brepols, 2009)

Kate Cregan, The Theatre of the Body: Staging Death and Embodying Life in Early-Modern London. Turnhout: Brepols 2009. ISBN 978-2-503-52058-2. Xvi + 349 pp., 35 b/w ill. Hbk. EUR 70,00.

Reviewed by Peter Mitchell

[1] In The Theatre of the Body: Staging Death and Embodying Life in Early-Modern London, Kate Cregan explores the concept of ‘embodiment, or ‘the physical and mental experience of human existence’ (1) and the nature of the shifting understanding of this concept in the early modern period. The methodology, thesis, and even structure of this book are theoretically underpinned by the social theory developed by Paul James (2006), as Cregan examines ‘the abstraction of social and political life and a much broader series of understandings of embodiment’ (1) in one particular social formation. The book takes as its specific focus seventeenth-century London, in a significant study encompassing the period from the incorporation of the Worshipful Company of Barber-Surgeons (1540) to the staging of Edward Ravenscroft’s adaptation of a French farce as The Anatomist: or, The Sham Doctor (1696). Cregan is concerned with ‘how practices and subjectivities of modernity began to take hold within and across three fields of expertise’ (4), three concretely interconnected arenas in London:  the dramatic theatre of the playhouses, the anatomy theatre of the Barber-Surgeons, and the exercise of law in the city’s court houses.

[2] While the book’s sociological perspective and terminology can very occasionally feel intrusive, these do not distort its historical or theatrical subject. Importantly, Cregan is careful to avoid some of the confusions to which theoretically informed historicist readings of the past have sometimes led, as when the real suffering of criminal execution or public anatomization have been reduced to ‘merely another theatrical enactment of the power of the sovereign’ (33, 136). This said, there is a tendency on Cregan’s part to reduce the ambivalence and subtlety of Jacobean tragedy to a ‘matrix of associations’ (116), arising from the concrete interconnectedness of the ‘stages’ of the dramatic theatre and the law. This propensity not to recognise a more dramatic dynamic of subversion and containment in realist mimesis is most evident, perhaps, when Cregan discusses the attitude of John Webster’s The White Devil to its titular ‘anti-heroine’ Vittoria Corombona. There is a measured loss of critical sophistication in Cregan’s concern here with ‘what is most common and most public’, for her focussed reading of the play results not only in the legitimate omission of any discussion of the private coterie theatres, such as the Blackfriars, but it also involves reading the play in line with what is imagined, possibly erroneously, to have been its public reception.

[3]  Cregan’s account of abstraction involves ‘the “drawing away” or “lifting out” of social relations from being integrated through the immediate embodied presence of others’ (1-2). The ‘lifting out’ of abstraction apparently contradictorily brings about a reconstitution of embodiment as a material (ontological) as well as ideational (cognitive and epistemological) process. Cregan proposes that ‘medically’ abstracting the body in the early modern period involved ‘three intersecting processes’: codifying, anatomizing and imaging the body (2).

 [4]  Cregan is alert to the ways in which the processes of (re-)constitutive abstraction of embodiment may be analysed in the way in which ‘anatomy fragments the objects of its fascination to draw it together again in a newly unified whole’ (5). This reconstitution of the body occurs ‘at a more abstract level of representation’ (24), in anatomical discourse or illustration, with all the essential ‘gendered, cultural, gestural, and aesthetic codes that are present’ (97). These codes arguably ‘reflected back upon the spectator’ and helped to construct their ideas of embodiment (58).

[5] Cregan thereby recognises that the purpose of anatomy’s division of the parts was not merely for identification or enumeration, but to answer questions raised by the disposition of those parts in relation to each other and to the whole which is thereby in some sense reanimated; this at a time when the body was understood analogically and metaphorically within a language of the body politic, the world and the cosmos. This analysis is relevant in some measure to anatomical demonstrations in the Barber-Surgeons’ anatomy theatre and the point is elucidated by Cregan in her discussion of the anatomy portrait entitled The visceral lecture delivered by John Banister Aged 48, 1581, a painting which appears to depict a public anatomical dissection. A close reading of the painting provides parallels between the physical body and the body politic as the anatomist is compared to the sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I. Cregan asserts that ‘in declaiming over the mysteries of the body on the table Banister “brings it into being”, stakes out his territory, names and defines it, with the express warrant of the sovereign. Just as Elizabeth I lays her hand on the globe in the ‘Armada’ portrait and positions her feet on England in the ‘Ditchley’ portrait’ (22).

[6] Cregan claims that ‘the more that the body was drawn into abstracted fields of endeavour, the more the unmediated blood-and-guts physicality of individual bodies was asserted’ (2). To illustrate this, Cregan discusses William Cowper’s Anatomy of Humane Bodies (1698), which contains the appropriated plates of Govard Bidloo’s Anatomia humani corporis (1685), wherein a clear shift away from the artistic conception of the anatomic norm, a tradition which extended from Vesalius to Casserio, has occurred. This is not to suggest that ‘the body was for the first time revealed in its unmediated reality’, and Cregan certainly makes no such claim.  Rather, Cregan cites the observations of Paul James to illustrate how ‘as the dominant social form became more abstract, we became more and more obsessed by making the content more palpable, more embodied, more “real”’ (3). Indeed, Cregan implicitly combines her understanding of abstraction with the view of Francis Barker (1984), in that however necessary anatomy may have found it to isolate the body for analytic purposes, anatomy does not become an extra-historical residue but remains ‘a relation in a system of liaisons which are material, discursive, psychic, sexual, but without stop or centre’. On this view the emergent ideology of the real body-as-referent, which in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was expressed in terms of the machine metaphor even as literal objectivity was claimed, merely conceals the body’s ontological function as ‘the site of an operation of power, of an exercise of meaning’.[1]

[7] These historically developing processes of abstraction and power are differentiated along gender lines, and this is clearly demonstrated by Cregan’s analysis of the graphic transition from the penitent Eve figure in Juan Valverde de Hamusco, through this same figure’s sexually suggestive reworking in Andreas Laurentius, to the analysis of the graphic anatomy of female sexuality in William Cowper’s Anatomy of Humane Bodies. In the latter text, abstractions of typical feminine embodiment, once thought to be spiritually inherent, become (re)solidified and objectified in modern embodied subjectivity as though they are biologically fixed and empirically verifiable in individualised female cadavers. As Cregan explains, anatomical plates that circulated in England in the early seventeenth century are more about gender which, as Thomas Laqueur (1992) has argued, was regarded as ontologically real. Cregan’s analysis demonstrates clearly that the preoccupation of these illustrations ‘with the conventions of what it is to be masculine or feminine is as socially and politically potent as any assertion of what it was to be “naturally” male or female in the eighteenth century’ (99).

[8] Moreover female embodied subjectivity is said to have undergone a parallel process of abstraction in the anatomy theatre, the dramatic stage, and the Sessions House of the Old Bailey, and in this change ‘feminine criminality’ or moral corruption ‘is objectified (lifted away) from the lived reality of the accused’ or dissected; ‘rationalized as normative in a changed register of moral understanding; and resolidified as natural traits in the body of the female felon’ or stage anti-heroine (280). Cregan’s analysis of the ways in which the biblically and socially ascribed roles of femininity can be seen to have become naturalised as traits of females is highlighted by her case study of Elizabeth Malson, a woman sentenced to be executed at the Old Bailey Sessions of 17 January 1676/77 and whose body was used as an anatomical subject. This exemplifies the cumulative persuasiveness of this book’s central arguments and the subtle analysis of which Cregan is consistently capable (179-83). Equally significant is Cregan’s identification of the sexual Restoration stage types or identities of the rake, the fop, and the Molly as they appear in the anatomical plates of John Browne’s A Compleat Treatise of the Muscles (1681) (201-217).

[9] Cregan ties into her own arguments about embodied subjectivity those made previously by Samuel Edgerton and Katherine Park about attitudes to judicial execution and dissection and how these attitudes might be related to the conventions of anatomical illustration. In Renaissance Italy particularly, ‘the criminal paid public atonement for sin, as Christ had “for all our sins”, therefore there is a logic to illustrations drawn from the example of dissected criminal bodies being depicted in the style of religious martyrs’ (76). Cregan dismisses the idea put forward by Sawday that these illustrations might ‘express an evasion of a cultural taboo against the opening of bodies’ (98). Her judgement that anatomical dissection of criminal cadavers before the eighteenth century was perceived as simply ‘unremarkable’ (26, 103) is in clear disagreement with those who have emphasised the ambivalence and anthropological problems encountered and those who have argued that these problems were partly offset by the solemn ceremony and ritual of public anatomical demonstration and by the iconography of illustration (See Ferrari (1987) and Sawday (1995)).

[10] Interestingly, Cregan cites the lack of extant evidence in archival and published records as validation that the Barber-Surgeons did not encounter resistance to their procuring of bodies from the gallows until quite late in the seventeenth-century (193-94).  Despite being issued with a warrant at their incorporation to receive four bodies annually from the gallows, this warrant was not enshrined in English law until it was formally affirmed by Queen Elizabeth in 1560. Cregan is careful to argue that ‘anatomical dissection was not conceived of as an extension of retributive justice in England until the eighteenth century’ (13) and that the ‘odious connection’ ‘made between the judgement of the court and the practices of the Barber-Surgeons’ may only have begun around 1690 when dissection appears to have been substituted for a sentence of drawing and quartering in the case of Thomas Castle (287). But the connection became unavoidable after 1752 when the public anatomical dissection became the legally required punishment of an executed murderer.

[11] Moreover, Cregan explains how towards the end of the seventeenth century, an increase both in the number of anatomies performed and of professional competition with private anatomists (who appear in Ravenscroft’s aforementioned play) for suitable criminal cadavers, coincided with the emergence into dominance of a conception of a body as simultaneously (paradoxically) more codified or abstracted and more particularized and ‘individualized’ (rather than an archetypal criminal), and therefore with valued subjectivity (26, 138). This phenomenon appears to have been reflected by the entries for dissected persons from the Barber-Surgeons’ Hall in the burial records of the Parish of St Olaves. The increase in popular unease and fear of being dissected alive resonates through Ravenscroft’s play which Cregan argues may have intensified that unrest.

[12] Cregan scrupulously and carefully presents the conclusions of research undertaken by others in fields adjoining her own, but she does not explore the possible implications of representing criminal dissection in sixteenth-century martyrological anatomical illustrations as injurious or mortal yet also redemptive, for a cultural and perhaps popular understanding of early modern anatomy as both injurious and efficacious. For the historian of anatomy, this is an unfortunate consequence of what is otherwise a considerable merit of the book; that is, its tightly maintained focus on the abstraction and constitution of (gendered) embodiment. But it is not merely that significant cultural meanings and associations of anatomy are omitted by this focus; there seems also to be an impact on the evaluation of anatomical knowledge itself. Statements about the ‘truth’ being ‘clearly […] revealed to barber-surgical apprentices by the evidence of the body on the anatomy table’ (102) echo uncritically an early modern sense or rhetoric of anatomy as revelatory and of its potential to discover a body possessed of its own meanings.

[13]  Cregan’s study is not concerned with anatomy as subalternated to natural philosophy or its historical relation to theology, but with its public demonstration in the context of a perceived relation to surgery. In this context, Cregan has provided credible evidence for which texts were likely to have been in use at the Barber-Surgeons’ Company, even though no inventory of the library’s contents has been found to have survived. That the visceral lecture delivered by John Banister Aged 48, 1581 depicts Banister ‘reading on’ (and presumably translating) Realdo Colombo’s Latin De re anatomica does not necessarily present an insurmountable objection to Cregan’s argument that being in English ‘vastly increases the probability’ of books like Helkiah Crooke’s Microcosmographia (1615) and Alexander Read’s Somatographia anthropine (1616) of ‘being popular with the “unlatined” barber-surgical apprentices’ (64). The availability, and more importantly the authority, of vernacular alternatives to Latin texts had increased significantly by 1616, and both these books clearly seem to have been intended by their authors to be used during the Barber-Surgeons’ quarterly public dissections. But do we know whether the ‘latined’ physician ‘reading’ the lecture or the Master Barber-Surgeons would have been responsible for selecting a suitable text?

[14]  Cregan is an acute observer and insightful interpreter of Vesalian and post-Vesalian anatomical illustrations. Her thesis places very great emphasis on these illustrations in anatomy textbooks, rather than on the texts, but the value of the contribution of her book in this respect is truly estimable and can be exemplified by her analysis of the ‘anatomical palimpsest’ of Clopton Havers’ A Survey of the Microcosme (1695), which reworks the popular flap anatomies in Remmelin’s Catoptrum microcosmicum (1639). For Cregan’s thesis it is not merely incidental that Joseph Moxon’s 1675 revised and translated English edition was presented to the actress and mistress of King Charles II, Nell Gwyn. In tracing the various adaptations of these editions, Cregan highlights the manner in which ‘prior forms of abstraction linger but are in the process of being modified and written over, of losing their potency and fluency’ (231).

[15]  While having been absorbed by such (re-)interpretations of familiar anatomical images, this reader would like to suggest that one gesture in the plate labelled visio secunda in Remmelin’s Catoptrum microcosmicum (1639) may have been under-interpreted (119-20). The face of the male figure whom Cregan refers to as ‘an Adam’ exudes benevolence and serenity and does so because defeated beneath his left foot is death, represented by a memento mori symbol, the skull. It seems more than plausible that the gestural iconography of this microchristus figure bears a close doctrinal relationship to Paul’s exposition of the centrality to Christian faith of the doctrine of the resurrection in his first epistle to the Corinthians, where he refers to the time when Christ, the second Adam, shall have ‘put all enemies under his feet’, and ‘the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor. 15.25-26). In the visio tertia ‘an “Eve” stands with her foot on a skull’ and as in the previous image a serpent writhes within its cavities, though here the serpent is less subdued and carries the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (125). A banderol is inscribed with Genesis 3.4: ‘But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die.”’ The irony of this quotation in this anatomical illustration is noted by Cregan, but it is not diminished by the partial restitution suggested by the situation of the serpent and the skull under her foot, for the abstraction of embodiment involves an understanding of being simultaneously in the light of salvation as well as the shadow of the Fall.

[16]  Other than her entirely justified remark that the viscera are more subject to putrefaction than the rest of the body and ‘neither embalming nor cool storage were effective’ (295), Cregan provides little context for understanding the anatomical method or order employed by the Barber-Surgeons in their public dissections, in which she says, two lectures were devoted to each of the viscera, the myology, and the osteology of the body. Despite discussing clearly, accurately and at length the bibliographical entanglement of Thomas Vicary’s A Profitable Treatise of the Anatomy of Mans Bodie (1553) with the 1553 (second) edition of Thomas Gemini’s Compendiosa totius anatomie delineatio, Cregan does not comment on how the re-ordering of Vicary’s text by Nicholas Udall consisted of arranging it according to the method of discipline or necessity, a tripartite division according to the functions of the animal, vital and natural faculties in the head, thorax and abdomen respectively.  What precisely was the relationship between these two methods in the practice of the Barber-Surgeons?

[17]  The anatomical focus in this book is provided by the notion that the study of anatomy was a purpose on its own, which is, to ‘know thyself’ (147 et passim).  It is understandable that a concern with method may appear philosophical rather than sociological, but it is arguable that the order in which the anatomy of the body is demonstrated might have had a bearing on the reflexive understanding of ‘self’, for among the alternatives were the methods of dignity or nobility, which requires that the anatomy ‘shold begin with the brain, as with the most noble part’,[2] and that of Nature, which purports to emulate or replicate the creative ingenuity of Nature or God.[3]

University of Wales, Lampeter, May 2010


[1] Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body:  Essays on Subjection, (London Methuen) pp. 63-65. [back to text]

[2] Helkiah Crooke, Microcosmographia:  A Description of the Body of Man (London: William Jaggard, 1615); Alexander Read, Somatographia anthropine; or, A Description of the Body of Man (London:  William Jaggard, 1616), later revised and reprinted as The Manuall of the Anatomy or Dissection of the Body of Man. [back to text]

[3] See, for example, Andreas De Laguna, Anatomica methodus, seu de sectione humani corporis contemplation (1535), trans. in L.R. Lind, Studies in Pre-Vesalian Anatomy: Biography, Translations, Documents (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1975), p. 265. [back to text]


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