‘[P]rophane fidlers’: Medical Paratexts and Indecent Readers in Early Modern England

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The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw an enormous proliferation of printed vernacular texts that discussed and illustrated the female reproductive organs. These gynaecological and obstetrical texts, which included midwifery manuals as well as sections in large anatomical works, inflamed moral outrage (even within the medical establishment) and were stigmatized as forms of pornography. While literary, social and medical historians have addressed the relationship between medical and erotic literature in the early modern period, little has been written on the significance of book history to such discussions. In particular, paratexts (not only title-pages, dedications and prefaces, but also readers’ annotations) can tell us much about the connections between the rhetorical or ‘literary’ qualities of these books and their material life during publication and reading processes.

Focusing on Helkiah Crooke’s anatomical work Mikrokosmographia; or a Description of the Body of Man (1615, 1616, 1618, 1631, 1651) and its ‘portable’ octavo epitome Somatographia Anthropine (1616, 1634) as a case study, this article combines archival work with analysis of rhetoric and illustrations to examine the ways in which paratexts negotiated anxieties attendant upon publishing women’s ‘secrets’ in early modern England. I consider how prefatory writers – not just authors but also translators and publishers – justified the publications to ‘legitimate readers’ (modest women and medical professionals) and admonished the intrusiveness of ‘illegitimate readers’ (laymen). These writers employed rhetorical strategies which, while explicitly establishing the publications’ legitimacy, fetishized the books as marketable erotic objects, making them more attractive to consumers driven by prurient curiosity. Through bibliographical analysis of a wide range of copies based in the UK, the USA and Canada, I draw comparisons between the implied readers constructed by medical paratexts and the actual readers (both male and female) who produced their own.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMedical Paratexts from Medieval to Modern
Subtitle of host publicationDissecting the Page
EditorsDiane Scott, Hannah Tweed
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan Ltd.
Number of pages27
Publication statusPublished - 2018

Publication series

NamePalgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine

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