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2 - Blending Bodies in Classical Greek Medicine

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2020

Allison Surtees
Affiliation:
University of Winnipeg, Canada
Jennifer Dyer
Affiliation:
Memorial University of Newfoundland
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Summary

In his influential book Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1992), Thomas Laqueur posited that the binary sexual classifications of male and female are relatively recent concepts in the Western world. In antiquity, females were imagined as imperfect versions of males; female genitalia, key markers of sex, were reductively envisioned to be inverted versions of male sexual organs. The product, Laqueur argues, was a ‘one-sex body’ model. This claim has been successfully critiqued by Helen King (2013b), who has pointed out, among other problems, Laqueur's reliance upon the relatively late physician Galen (second century ad) when examining ancient material. King argues instead that both one-sexed and dual-sexed concepts of the body have existed concurrently since antiquity.

The purpose of this paper is to examine how classical Greek physicians, in their attempts to create workable models of both one-sexed and dual-sexed bodies, produced spaces for sexual classifications to be complicated. For them, the internal body was a complex mass of vaguely understood parts, and physicians often obscured sexual distinctions to simplify their models. As well, following versions of the humoral theory, physicians tended to emphasise physiology over anatomy to a greater extent than in modern Western medicine. They envisioned the body primarily as a receptacle for fluids. Hidden beneath its surface were parts for production and storage of fluids, and channels for fluid transportation. Much excellent scholarly attention has been paid to how male physicians developed theories and techniques to control, regulate and subordinate the female body. Physicians’ principal justification for this was a perceived overabundance of fluid in the female body, a result of the womb, relative to the male body (see for example, Hanson 1992; Dean-Jones 1994; King 1998). I am especially interested here, though, in exploring how an emphasis on bodily fluids in medical theories encouraged physicians to imagine sex, and along with it gender, as a process of blending. Although the presence of male or female genitalia could be binary anatomical indicators of sex, different types and quantities of fluids determined where an individual existed between these extremes. These differences ultimately affected one's physical state and behaviour.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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