Article Review: M. Fissell’s “Hairy Women and Naked Truths” (2003)

Oh, I apologize, Dear Reader! I realize it’s been a couple of days since I last posted. September has overwhelmed me already (seriously–I’m counting down the days until I go on vacation). I’m running tutorials for the first time (for a course on the history of evolutionary biology) and I underestimated the amount of prep work required. What this means is that all dissertation-related work has taken a backseat to all other projects and responsibilities: tutorials, working and organizing for two (!) conferences, writing an article, and reading for two reading groups. BUSY.

However, I’ve been thinking a lot about representations how it relates to bodies of knowledge. I recently read Mary E. Fissell’s (John Hopkins) “Hairy Women and Naked Truths: Gender and Politics of Knowledge in Aristotle’s Masterpiece” (William and Mary Quarterly LX (2003): 43-74) and was marveled on her notion of “vernacular epistemology”—or, how ordinary people understood knowledge and knowledge claims.

Fissell’s article focuses on the idea of knowledge being represented, preserved for interpretations by an audience. She looks at the frontispiece of various editions and reprints of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, which was first published in 1684 and was neither a masterpiece nor written by Aristotle. Rather, the treatises were guides for pregnancy arnd childbirth and were bestsellers during their times. The Masterpiece spanned numerous reprints and editions throughout the eighteenth century, and it was a grand competitor in a “crowded market” on the topic of childbirth and reproduction, and Masterpiece I was actually composed of two earlier works: Lemnius’ Secret Miracles of Nature, and the anonymous Complete Midwives Practice Enlarged. Masterpiece II (1697) included a (unauthorized) reprint of John Sadler’s A Sick Womans Private Looking Glass. Masterpiece III (1710) as well, included parts from earlier texts, including those in previous printings of the Masterpiece.

Fissell’s focus on the text derives from its questioning frontispiece, which illustrates two “monstrous” individuals: a hairy woman, and a black baby (born to white parents), and she analyzes the various shifts in representation that is produced with each edition and reprint of the Masterpiece. The original edition contains the hairy woman and black baby, both the result of the maternal imagination, and Fissell questions the paradoxical nature of the illustration: why would a book intended for pregnant women contain such an image of monstrosity on its front cover? She argues that it actually served to represent arguments about knowledge and secrecy, or “vernacular epistemology.” Thus, for Fissell, revealing the meaning of the image(s) would provide clues to histories of gender relations and natural knowledge.

As theories on gender relations shifted through the eighteenth century (from paternity towards maternity), as did the politics of popular knowledge, the images on the Masterpiece was cut to represent the shift. Masterpiece I was a standard account of conception, pregnancy, labour, delivery and newborn care, and also contained Lemnius’ prints and discussions on monstrosity, which tried to provide a naturalistic account for such malformations. Masterpiece II includes an image of a medical consultant, with a doctor, as Fissell notes the aim was to provide women information to discuss with their doctor, instead of having the book replace the doctor (which it actually was done). Masterpiece III, was different that the first two, its representations a combined attempt of both I and II, as it places the hair woman and the black baby in the learned man’s study, “poised at the threshold between nature and culture.” The elements portrayed in III reflect the philosopher “Aristotle” as a figure of learned culture, the hair woman an element of Nature, animality, savageness and lust – all measured in excess. The black baby also embodies elements of comparison: against “whiteness” or “fairness,” reflections on tensions of “race,” and even notions of heredity, as popular texts emphasized the “two-seeded model,” where both parents shaped the appearance of the offspring.

Fissell also notes that the relationship between “seeing” and “knowing” was well-represented in the text, and the binary relationships which recapitulates the vernacular epistemology of the book, as knowledge was sexualized, placed in political terms (paternity crisis), though nowhere in the text are the symbols of the images explained. She also notes that later editions of the Masterpiece replaced the hairy woman with a naked or half-clad one, who was to represent truth, beauty or nature, reflecting a transformation of society towards politeness, especially with a shift in gender relations and views on women’s sexuality in the eighteenth century. The philosopher as well, becomes subordinate to the nude woman, and as a reflection of politeness, the black child becomes white. The book’s representations, therefore, are used as a mirror-image of society and its cultural beliefs and values.

Fissell also published her book, Vernacular Bodies: The  Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2007).

I haven’t had a chance to read it, but it’s nicely sitting on my bookshelf and waiting for me to go through my reading list.

Latest Comments

  1. sbej says:

    I just read it myself a few weeks before reading this!

    I think it may be related to a migratory legend concerning the wild women, which has a strong sexual element and appears to also contain medical knowledge at least in one late 17th cen. Irish example with an interesting textual history.

    Article got me very excited, I hope to work further on the text in the coming weeks and see if I can establish a firm link between the image and the migratory legends I study.


  2. Jai Virdi says:

    That’s so interesting! I truly enjoyed the article and can’t wait to read the book. Have you read it?


  3. sbej says:

    No I was unaware of it but I will add it to the list. I very much enjoyed the article as well and look forward to reading more of her work.

    It was great you mentioned it as my knowledge of late 17th century medical issues is not good.


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