'Early modern generation and marvellous conceptions in the anatomist Thomas Bartholin's (1616-1680) unusual observations'. Ms Signe Nipper Nielsen (Cambridge University)
Sponsored by the Northern Centre for the History of Medicine supported by the Wellcome Trust
17th century medicine and natural philosophy took a deep interest in human generation. This also applied to anatomist and natural historian Thomas Bartholin (1616-1680), professor at the University of Copenhagen. In his natural observations he was mainly preoccupied with the extraordinary and curious, and in his many cases concerning human procreation, the unpredictable and strange aspects of the processes of generation and the playfulness and creativity of nature stood out. Bartholin reported on women who gave birth to hens’ eggs, rat-like creatures, strange monstrous births and fleshy masses taking the shape of trees, bizarre faces, mushrooms and toads. Animals or animal-like images were also reported to breed in men’s bodies, and a foetus had ostensibly been pregnant with another foetus. It is these transgressions of categories together with the confines of the human body that I will explore in this paper. The products of generation in the 17th century were thought to be able to take entirely different and unpredictable shapes and cross the boundaries between humans and animals, the different natural kingdoms, the sexes and the inside and outside. This continuous crossing of boundaries must be understood together with the early modern concept of Nature. Nature was transformative; it was ingenious, playful and volatile and inclined towards generating one thing out of another. These were essential principles in early modern natural history and Bartholin’s investigations in Nature were no exception. When he compared the unborn child with a walnut, when he let a girl be fathered by a dog, or a goat give birth to a human being, categories were obstructed and Nature’s playfulness accentuated.
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