The Pregnant Body
Looking at the images featured in Corpus, there is a clear imbalance that leads one to question: what about the female body?
A vast majority of the surviving images in medieval medical manuscripts show the male body, whereas the female body is almost exclusively shown in images that addressed women's health, such as pregnancy. Katherine Park has written extensively on the medieval perception of the female body in the Middle Ages, arguing that its anatomical significance derives from its classification as the ‘non-generic body’ opposite the generic male body.
M. H. Green, 'From “Diseases of Women” to “Secrets of Women”: The Transformation of Gynaecological Literature in the Later Middle Ages', Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 30:1 (Winter 2000), pp. 5-39.
K. Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation and the Origins of Human Dissection (New York, 2006)
Often shown near the 'wound man', this figure is often referred to as the 'disease woman'. Roughly twelve representations (identified by Monica Green) of the disease woman exist, all of which date from the 15th and 16th centuries. Although similar in pose to the squatting figures of the simple systems of the body, the internal anatomy clearly shows the figure to be pregnant.
Rachel Wertheim's blog post on the disease woman offers an insightful overview of the texts that accompany the image type: 'Unlike most medical illustrations of the Middle Ages, the disease woman does not appear to have been derived from a written medical treatise, but instead seems to have generated its own text, particular to each image. With the female body serving as a generic framework, the ‘disease woman’ may have functioned as a practical reference, or ‘crib sheet’, on the pathology and physiology of the pregnant female body.'
While these diagrams have often been misunderstood to show how the foetus develops in the womb, they were in fact intended to demonstrate the different ways in which the foetus could malpresent in birth.
The images may have originated in a Greek text called the Gynaikeia (‘Gynaecology’), written by Soranus of Ephesus in the late 1st or early 2nd century CE. Soranus's name was virtually unknown in the medieval West, but his work came to western Europe through Latin translations, the most influential of which was made by Muscio around 500 AD. Many feotus-in-utero diagrams are therefore found with Muscio's translation (the Gynaecia) and texts that were derived from it. From the 16th century, the images are found incorporated into entirely different texts on generation and reproduction, most popularly in the Rosengarten (‘The Birth of Mankind’) by Eucharius Rösslin.
For more on the background of these images, including a comprehensive list of the manuscripts in which they survive, see the work of Monica Green available on her academia.edu page.