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Eroticism and Obstetric Texts

Anatomy and eroticism have a longstanding relationship, especially in regards to the female form.  While this is very apparent in the large anatomical atlases such as Charles Estienne's, authors of obstetric texts were also very aware of the erotic possibilities of their subject matter.  This is particularly noticeable in how they dealt with illustration in their works. 

Obstetric texts first appeared in print in 1513, with the publication of Eucharius Rösslin’s Der Rosengarten.  The only images in Rösslin’s text were a series of uterues containing rather large free-floating fetuses, a convention that was probably inherited from earlier manuscripts.  This became a standard feature of obstetric texts throughout the early modern period.  As anatomical knowledge proliferated and the need for illustration became more important, the texts began to include depictions of female torsos that were opened to reveal the reproductive system. These larger figures were often reminiscent of the nudes seen in Renaissance art, blurring the line between science and aesthetics.

 

Some authors of obsetetric texts were ambivalent about the use of illustrations in their texts. The treatise written by Francis Mauriceau, a noted French obstetrician, was unusual for its inclusion of an illustration showing the female genitals in situ (still labeled as "the parts of shame"); however, Hugh Chamberlen omitted this image from his 1673 English translation because, “here and there a passage might offend a chaste English Eye."  Edmund Chapman’s 1733 treatise includes no illustrations whatsoever.  His reason for this is that anatomical figures of the female body, “serve to raise and encourage impure thoughts in the Reader’s mind, rather than to convey any real Instruction," and were therefore unncessary. 

  

From the late 18th century onward, however, illustrations of the genital area itself started to become more prominent.  Some of this is due to the influence of William Smellie’s Sett of Anatomical Tables, which was first published in 1754.  This atlas included both a detailed depiction of the external genitalia, something that Smellie felt had been sorely lacking in previous obstetric publications, and an illustration of the baby crowning.  These same images were reproduced obstetric texts well into the 19th century, and similar images that showed the vaginal region during childbirth also began to appear.

Anatomical illustrations can say just as much about the society they're produced in as they do about the human body.  What do modern anatomical illustrations say about us?

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