Generative Bodies: Masculinity and Male Embodiment in Early Modern Medicine, 1450-1800
Young, Anna Caitlyn
This dissertation examines discussions of male bodies and male embodiment in early modern medical, pharmacological, and medico-legal texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Premodern medical texts described and constructed the physical quality of “maleness” in ways that differ radically from modern, genito-centric definitions of manhood, which tend to equate male sex identity primarily with the possession of a penis and testicles. Early modern medical texts especially tended to privilege the fluid and functional or “generative” aspects of maleness, more so than the presence of genital organs alone. Crucial male-specific characteristics included the presence and demonstration of humoral heat, the ability to generate semen, and the internal fluid contributions of three principal organs—the heart, liver, and brain—and three fluids—heat, wind, and moisture—as characteristics specific to male bodies and the physiology of male sexuality and reproduction. The centrality of reproductive ability and seminal balance as constitutive aspects of normative maleness caused early modern therapeutic writers to express significant concern about non-normative, non-generative male bodies, particularly in cases of male infertility, male impotence, and several other recognized male reproductive disorders. Because sixteenth-century physicians and surgeons believed that both male impotence and infertility resulted from deficiencies in the three organs and their respective fluids, early modern texts often tended to discuss male infertility and impotence interchangeably, as variations on a wide spectrum of possible fluid abilities and deficiencies. In cases of supposed magically-induced impotence, and in seventeenth-century legal cases involving allegations of male impotence, proof of male potency likewise centered on demonstrations of humoral heat and functional, fluid ability, rather than sexual ability alone. Finally, the project concludes by examining the decline of humoral heat and of the three organs as the primary explanatory framework for male embodiment in the late seventeenth century, to be replaced by models of male embodiment that focused more on the presence of external, “solid” organs of the body rather than internal reproductive processes.