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The Collation

Reading Anatomy Texts Like Poetry (and why we should do it more often)


Thomas Bartholin, Bartholinus anatomy (London, 1668), page 76. Folger B977, image from Luna.


When we look at this page from Thomas Bartholin’s 1668 anatomy text (Folger B977), it’s easy to think of it as an objective document. We imagine we are seeing “data” about the womb and clitoris gathered by the anatomist during the dissection process. Reading science books, even old ones, this is the prevailing pattern, and one that scientists themselves continue to cultivate. As evolutionary biologist and feminist scholar Banu Subramaniam outlines in Ghost Stories for Darwin (2014), scientific theories are often “rendered ‘objective’ with epistemic purity and claims to political and value neutrality” (10).

But if we read scientific texts with the same set of close reading and analytical tools we use for literature, we start to see something different. In my in-progress book on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century women poets and anatomy, I’m trying to read the anatomy texts like I’m reading the poetry. In other words, I’m reading the science books formally as I draw out how they do their knowledge-building work.

Scholars working on the intersections of literature and science urge us to recognize science books as cultural objects, written from a specific perspective and with particular goals in mind. That means asking questions about how scientific knowledge has been curated and to what end. Analyzing anatomy texts for my book, I’m asking questions like: how do the anatomist and artist organize illustrations on a page, and how does that organization manage our understanding of a particular body part? What rhetorical strategies does the anatomist use to explain the knowledge on offer? Are certain metaphors foregrounded, repeated, or dismissed? What is the relationship between marginal notes and main text? What is the book’s first anatomical plate (or illustrated page) and what does it reveal about the anatomist’s approach to the science of the body?

Bartholin again


For example, if we return to Bartholin’s page on the womb and clitoris, there are many different components that deserve attention. Visually, the page is divided quite dramatically. The illustration table stands out on the upper right corner, with a slight angle and darker background color than the rest of the page. The table’s fuzzy border divides it from the text to its left and bottom. The text that serves as an index to the table (titled, “The FIGURES Explained.”) is bounded by the table’s border, and then further divided into two columns by a short vertical line. The spacing of those columns is then echoed in the text at the bottom fifth of the page (set apart with a horizontal line), which is what we would consider the main text—Bartholin’s prose description of his anatomical study. We see even more division among the various page components when we account for: the header (marked with parallel border lines and containing page number, book number, chapter title, and chapter number); the tucked marginal reference to Table XXVIII at the bottom right; the blank vertical and horizontal spaces between columns and at the page’s borders; and the organization of the illustration table itself into seven distinct figures.

A lot of decisions have been made about how the knowledge of the womb and clitoris on this page should be presented. The page’s visual hierarchy, or what some scholars would call its “graphic profile,” does important work as we read it. This book is the product of many hands and minds—Bartholin, his unnamed illustrator, the printer (John Streater), as well as physicians Nicholas Culpepper and Abdiah Cole, listed as publishers on the title page—and this network of male anatomists, physicians, and bookmakers, led by Bartholin, wanted us to look at the dissected womb and clitoris right away. They placed the illustration table prominently in the upper center-right of the page and printed the index starting in a thin column to its left to guide our study of the illustrations. We are meant to study image and text simultaneously, so the anatomist’s words frame our understanding of the dissected images. Knowledge of the dissected womb and clitoris is, importantly, surrounded and bounded by the male anatomist’s authority.

There is much more to say here about the content of the text itself (the presumption that greets us, for instance, in the opening explanation that these are body parts of both “virgins” and “deflowered” women), but let’s stay focused on the visual impact and turn briefly to the illustrations themselves.

The order of the figures in the illustration table does not align with the sequence of the text index. Figure 1 is the largest, central illustration in the table, but it is flanked by Figures 6 and 7. To study the illustrations alongside the anatomist’s index, our eyes have to move down, around, and across the page (as I’ve tried to illustrate here with my crudely-drawn arrows).

Close-up of illustration table on the womb and clitoris from Thomas Bartholin’s Bartholinus anatomy (page 76). Arrows indicate the order in which the index directs us to study the illustrations.


While there are many potential reasons for this placement, I’ve been thinking about this illustration alongside other representations from the period that depict the womb as flower-like. The most explicit version of this is in a series of anatomy illustrations by Giulio Cesare Casseri and Adriaan van de Spiegel (1626). In this series of plates on the pregnant womb, Casseri and Spiegel represent the womb as a flower opening its petals to reveal a fetus inside.

The final plate in a series of anatomical illustrations on the pregnant womb, showing the womb’s petals opened to reveal the fetus inside. Giulio Cesare Casseri and Adriaan van de Spiegel, De formato foetu liber singularis (Padua, 1626). National Library of Medicine WZ 250 S755dh 1627. Public Domain Image.


We find another example in the famous title page of Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica (first published 1543, then expanded in 1555). In the revised version of the title page, the woman’s womb at the center of the illustration is pictured as a rosette, unfolding in layers for the gathered crowd.

Title page from Vesalius’s Fabrica, depicting a woman’s body with dissected uterus on the dissection table. Andreas Vesalius and Jan Stephan van Calcar (woodcut attributed to), De Humani Corporis Fabrica libri septem (Basel, 1543). British Museum 1895,1031.993. Creative Commons License granted by © The Trustees of the British Museum.


Returning to Bartholin’s page, we see a similar flower-like pattern in how the illustrations are arranged. The movement of our eyes as we track each figure along with the corresponding index mimics the rosette spiral pattern we see in these other contemporary images. The circular organization of the illustrations also echoes the circular shape of the woman’s womb represented in the table’s lower images. And, in a final gesture to circularity, the marginal note tucked in at the bottom right (“see Table XXVIII”) directs our eye back up to the illustrations at the top of the page.

Why is this close reading of an anatomy page useful? First, to return to my opening point, we miss a lot of really important information if we read texts like Bartholin’s as objective, factual information about early modern knowledge of the body. The history of science archive is not neutral or objective. When we bring literary analysis tools to bear on these texts, we can draw out how they function as representations and interpretations. We can better understand how they curate knowledge in a particular way, and how that knowledge curation serves political, social, and cultural ends.

Second, reading anatomy texts formally—like poetry—shows us that the history of science and book history have a lot to say to one another. History of science books have long been acknowledged as significant objects in the development of print (Vesalius’s Fabrica is the best example), but there’s more to it than that. We need to recognize how the book as a material object and the scientific information contained within it are working together to entrench certain kinds of knowledge. If we want to keep interrogating how we know what we know, and why we ask certain kinds of scientific questions, we need to recognize how a text and its apparatus are working together.

My book research this summer is being generously supported with a research fellowship from the Folger. Like the other fellows in the 2020-2021 cycle, it’s been challenging to get the work done (my proposed research travel has now been postponed until May 2022). But, instead of closing on that point, I want to close by noting the very particular, and exciting, structure of this fellowship. My research fellowship is a partnership between the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Wellcome Library (London, UK). This fellowship links the shared resources of a library best known for its literary collection and a library best known for its history of science collection—and that makes an important methodological statement for the field. It’s a statement that interdisciplinary work is valued. It’s an affirmation of the important ways literary and scientific works speak to each other. And, I also like to imagine, it’s a vote in support of reading science like poetry.


Thanks so much for this fascinating post. Your book will be most interesting.

My anatomy teachers in medical school didn’t say a word about Bartholin, when we were learning about his eponymous glands.

I was fortunate to have a pathology teacher who had a classical education in Germany and enjoyed chatting with me about the etymology of medical terms. By contrast, when I asked another teacher about the etymology of epistaxis (nosebleeds), she replied, “It’s usually caused by picking the nose” (she misheard me as asking about its etiology).

Richard Waugaman — July 13, 2021

Thanks for such an insightful blog. Your idea of reading anatomies as poetry is fantastic and opens up news avenues of reading and looking at early modern texts.

Jacqueline Reid-walsh — July 13, 2021