Secrets of Women

We need to talk about this book by Professor Katharine Park. It’s called Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation and the Origins of Human Dissection.

Image from Amazon.com
Image from Amazon.com

And it is phenomenal. It’s definitely an academic book, but Park has the amazing ability to write academic prose in a wonderfully readable way. In this book, Park explores the transition from the medieval to the early modern eras and the practice of human dissection, often in monastic settings and always in Northern Italy. She also disproves the old notion that people in the medieval era weren’t slicing and dicing. This is before the huge revival of anatomies in the academic sphere and the Vesalian revolution. What’s more, she focuses her efforts on the dissection of women, and often holy women, and how these differed from the usual anatomies.

Um... lady parts?
Um… lady parts?

I should back up. Context. During this time, male medical practitioners had a bit of trouble understanding lady parts and the female contribution to generation – labeling things of this nature the “secrets of women”. This part of ancient, and later medieval and early modern, medicine has always intrigued me, as the female anatomy is one of the few areas that remained mysterious, magical and almost illogical. Ideas like the wandering womb (which we still need to talk about) help to illustrate this… this… wonder, maybe? that male medical writers had in regards to the female body. Heck, even some of the imagery of the uterus was just an internal penis (talk about writing what you know…) Park explores this idea and with it issues of gender through case studies of anatomies on women. I don’t want to give too much away. I will tell you that this book is award winning – taking the History of Science Society Rossiter Prize in 2007 and the American Association for the History of Medicine Welch Medal in 2009. And I can’t emphasize enough how wonderfully readable this incredibly well-researched monograph is (IMHO). Just promise me you’ll read it, okay? Also: there are lots of pictures. I know you like pictures.


Picture is from Thomas Lacquer, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greek to Freud (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 39. Side note: I should probably read this book sometime, too!

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One thought on “Secrets of Women

  1. You should definitely read Lacquer! Making Sex is a great read and has aged well; it’s still a really important book in terms of gender history. (I know it’s not that old, but sometimes academic books are quickly trumped, but this one isn’t.)

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