Wednesday, February 11, 2009
"The fruit which it [the gallows] produces,
Doth seldom serve for profitable uses:
Except the skillful Surgeon’s industry
Do make Dissection of Anatomy…
That what it bears, are dead commodities."
--John Taylor, “The Description of Tyburn” (1630)
You know, I did my thesis on the social and political place of the dead/executed body in early modern society--specifically in Jacobean drama and printed materials. I discussed the anatomy theaters at length, so I'm going to learn you up good about this so you get the joke:
A body’s use in an anatomy lesson was frequently the final chapter of a tragedy that began at the public gallows. In 1540, Henry VIII allowed the Barber-Surgeons’ Company access to four corpses of executed criminals each year, and in 1565 Elizabeth did the same for the College of Physicians. By 1583, Physicians’ Hall began hosting official anatomy lectures that could be attended with a special invitation, and the same practice soon followed at the Barbers-Surgeons’ Company. Initially, the public anatomies were held in the large hall of the company, and temporary seating was built to accommodate the growing number of spectators. The gory spectacle that the viewers confronted was reminiscent of both public executions and the bloodier aspects Jacobean theater (so of course it was super popular).
The lectures were held four times a year, undoubtedly occurring after the quarterly assizes but also creating the equivalent of an “anatomy season” when bodies were available. The anatomical subject was at the center of a set of commercial relations that defined the body of the criminal as a consumable object, inspiring John Taylor’s characterization of the bodies at the gallows as “dead commodities.” There was a lot of corpse-stealing going on as well (but in the name of SCIENCE! Don't feel bad about it).
Anyway, there was a problem with the whole "desecration of a corpse" thing that the medical schools appeased by only dissecting criminals (who were lost causes anyway). Issue: circumvented! Take that, church!
Would you like to read further on this? Probably you do!:
Jonathan Sawday’s The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body explores the connections between the new science of anatomy, a curiosity about the workings of the human body, and the poetic and rhetorical tropes associated with discovery. Hillary M. Nunn’s recent study, Staging Anatomies: Dissection and Tragedy in Early Stuart Drama, builds on Sawday’s assertions, and approaches the issue of anatomy’s influence on the early Stuart stage. She traces the role of public dissection in London’s anatomy theaters and the representations of dissected bodies on stage. These studies provide insight into the way the body of a criminal was viewed.
Now you know...and knowing is half the battle.