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The female body in the Middle Ages


The body is a capital data, both for us today, but also in history: it allows us to understand certain human behaviors, and to explain them. The female body is all the more complicated to approach as it responds to a marked lack of sources, or rather to speeches that are above all the work of men themselves. For the purposes of this article, it is an attempt to paint a comprehensive - and somewhat generalist - picture of conception of the female body in the Middle Ages.

The theoretical and scholarly discourse on the body of the woman in the middle ages draws on two traditions. In the Scriptures, which will make it possible to build a rather religious discourse, but also in the practice of medicine, of ancient and Arab inspiration - from the 1100s and the 12th century - which truly developed a particular conception of the female body, both centered on a form of praxis and of poiesis, action and production, in the Aristotelian sense of the term.

These two currents will converge on the one hand to read the female body according to the referent of the male body, and on the other hand to lay down the principle of a subordination, an incompleteness, an imperfection of the female body by relation to the male body.

At the source: the imperfection of the female body in the Scriptures

Two founding texts exist from the outset, which truly constitute two major referents which animate the medieval discourse concerning the Scriptures : the Genesis, taken from the Old Testament, as well as the first Christian exegesis made on the Genesis by Saint Paul. Initially, it is a question of being interested in the discourse proposed by the Old Testament on the woman, which continues until Saint Paul of Tarsus, in the 1st century of our era, and well beyond still.

In the vocabulary itself, one can detect an obvious dependence of the woman, since she has " taken from a man ": First because it comes from its coast, from" side Adam, but mostly because she was made from a piece of man. In addition, Latin qualifies the woman as " virago ", While the man is" vir ": The very etymological origin of the term" virago Comes from its male referent. In reality, the woman was created according to the male standard, no pun intended; this extraction supposes a subordination, since Adam asks for help, feeling alone, in need of an "auxiliary".

For example, medieval iconography makes Adam the one who gives birth to Eve, who comes out by her side. Perfection of nature, according to medieval people, is sealed by the articulation that theologians make between the two creation stories, intended to constitute only one. This peculiarity ends up leading to a form of incompleteness of nature in the woman, an imperfection of her anatomy.

The woman is an "image of image", since she was created from the man, who himself was made in the image of God. Compared to the possible meaning of the first story, we are witnessing a real ontological downgrading, which bears on the feminine essence, on the nature of woman. Here, things are immediately much more tragic concerning the fate of women, since it is no longer simply a question of any hierarchical subordination vis-à-vis the man, but rather a marked estrangement from the feminine nature and essence of the figure of God: we enter into a discourse of nature, which freezes the feminine nature as being more distant from God - in his creation - than man.

Saint Paul of Tarsus and the female body

The Epistles of Saint Paul of Tarsus predate Gospels, and are the earliest texts that historians have in terms of theology. Saint Paul makes the man-woman couple the basis of the whole Christian cell: both come from God, and his complement, both in their will and in their action (s). For example, Paul regularly recalls the obligations a husband owes to his wife; there is reciprocity - which does not mean equality, however! Here you have to be very careful: Saint Paul is directly inspired by the Old Testament; he should not be made one of the forerunners of gender equality. In reality, the relation is clearly asymmetrical, comes directly from its interpretation and its reading of the Genesis. Even though men should love their wives - as much as they love themselves, however - being images of God, the bride is and remains the "thing" of the bridegroom.

Saint Paul emphasizes the principle of social subordination of women, built from and on the story of the Genesis - all this, of course, in an extremely pejorative speech vis-à-vis the female body. Saint Paul constantly seeks to make the connection between creation and original sin, and constructs Eve's responsibility for original sin by connecting it to the fact that she is of a nature derived from that of Adam. She was deceived first because she was of a second nature to Adam; Saint Paul is the first to make this junction between the responsibility of women in the history of original sin with a discourse on the feminine nature. Saint Paul, by an absolute genius, starts from a patent inferiority of the woman to retranspose it on the account of the original sin.

The medical discourse on women in the Middle Ages

All the High Middle Ages operate on the tradition of galenism, on the legacy of the corpus of Galen (which is itself taken from the corpus of Hippocrates), which can however be described as rigid. This galenic medicine was extended from the 11th century by the first translations from Arabic, and especially by those of Avicenna (Cf. Avicenna Cannon). In the 13th century, for example, the By animalibus of Aristotle is translated. These galenic and Aristotelian translations have a very mechanical reading of the body, even "hydraulic": bodily dynamisms are based on mood theory and on the " breaths ", the " pneuma ", Which circulate the moods inside the body and cause balances but also imbalances. For them, it is truly a "body machine", which functions like a mechanism.

In this very particular reading, the woman is perceived as a "hollow man", because the male-female relationship is built in a network of analogies. Moreover, this is one of the main principles of galenic medicine, in the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm, between man and the Universe, where the analogy is omnipresent. We are here in a system of interlocking and symmetry of the organs. The vagina is for example considered as an inverted penis; the clitoris is compared to the foreskin; the ovaries to the testes; the woman would also have a semen show; etc.

Another medical principle on the female body exists: it is that of the instability of female organs. The matrix, in particular, is not fixed in the body. Depending on its position in the body, it can have an influence on a woman's health, on her daily moods, on her character, etc. This is no more and no less than the medical basis of the hysteria, which began with the idea of ​​the "walking uterus"! In reality, a woman's center of gravity is determined in relation to sexuality.

In medical practice, as we can see from the sources, we see that doctors do not treat the female body differently from the male body. Nevertheless, the medical discourse poses an inferiority and an imperfection of the female body vis-à-vis that of the man, which is confirmed both in the principles laid down by the Old Testament, and in the speech of Saint Paul of Tarsus.

Bibliographical tracks

J. LE GOFF and N. TRUONG, A History of the Body at Middle Ages, Paris, Liana Levi, 2003.

J.-C. SCHMITT, The Body, the rites, the dreams, the time. Medieval anthropology essays, Paris, Gallimard, 2001.


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