The Male Understanding of Female Bodies in Antiquity

Female voices are underrepresented or non-existent in writing regarding medicine and anatomy in antiquity. Female patients were not the same way we are today. They were not addressed by their name; sometimes they weren’t even addressed at all, but rather interactions were with their guardians. Can you imagine not being told what was going on with your body? Medical recordings and procedures were often performed with a family’s image and reputation at the forefront rather than considering the patient’s wishes, as the main priority. Informed consent? Forget it.
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Different doctors in antiquity agreed on certain fundamental beliefs of the female body. Before we jump into the five main areas these doctors expounded on, I’ll give you a breakdown of the five doctors I will be referring to so you can keep up.

The Hippocratics (5th century BCE) are the writings of different doctors in the Classical Period of Greek Antiquity, that together form the Hippocratic Corpus. These writings projected a standard of proportions, which female bodies did not exemplify or adhere to. Despite Aristotle (384-322 BC) not being a doctor, but rather a philosopher he did not hesitate to disagree with some key points of the Hippocratics, which were at times extreme. Herophilus (280 BCE-225 BCE), a doctor in the Hellenistic period, agreed with Aristotle on his pertinent medical views that were later argued by Soranus in the Roman Period. Galen, on the other hand, practiced in the Roman Period. He made inferences from the animal body to those of humans, and he is a prominent figure in ancient medicine.

Body

In a land far far away (AKA Antiquity) Aristotle pronounced that women (such as his wife) were inferior to men. Why, you may ask. Well, he did so on the rationale that women possessed less teeth than men. His rationale being empirically tested of course, because he definitely counted the number of teeth in a woman’s mouth. Oh, Aristotle! Aristotle even stated that women were the inferior sex on a physical basis, as male bodies housed more heat. In the Roman Period, however, Galen wasn’t as concerned with female inferiority based on the number of teeth in their mouths but rather the inability to grow a beard or have a penis. Really? Yes…really. Even in the 2000s beard glory or beard obsession began emerging at musical festivals such as Osheaga. Yet this has not led men of the 21st century to view women as inferior for not being able to grow such stylish, sought after facial hair. We don’t want it. As Karen Horney  proposed women today do not experience penis envy but men feel womb envy. Regardless if anyone of either sex holds specific types of envy I’m pretty confident women in antiquity and still to this day do not envy or feel inadequate not having a penis. We possess greater things such as the ability to nurture a fetus in our bodies for nine months and birth it into the world and other anatomical feature, that these men failed to distinguish in antiquity. Wow.
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Menstruation

Throughout Antiquity, ancient doctors and philosophers hypothesized about menstruation. Some of their beliefs still hold up today. Surprised? Well, these men thought that menstruation synchronized to the lunar cycle, and that their periods varied based on flow and duration. Facts, ladies, facts. Hippocrates expected women to bleed excess amounts of blood as result of exuding less energy than men. Therefore, it was believed a heavy flow was due to surplus of nutrients that were left in a woman’s body as result of minor exertions (work wise) compared to men who exerted lots. What about lazy men Hippocrates? Why didn’t they bleed?

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Aristotle stated the coldest time of month corresponded to the moon cycle at which females menstruated. Aristotle went as far as describing menstruation as dreadful and a source of stress. Despite that time of month being associated with increased hunger, disparate emotions, and discomfort I wouldn’t go nearly so far as to qualify it as a source of stress. What qualifies? Wanting chocolate, subsequent laughing then crying because you laughed, yeah perhaps that’s a little more accurate but hey, I’m just female and not an ancient philosopher. Aristotle also believed that the area around a woman’s heart expanded and contracted at puberty, which he believed to be correlated to menstruation. Herophilus, however, disagreed and believed menstruation could lead to women catching illnesses. Uh-huh.

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Views of Women and their Roles in Reproduction

Men being the sole contributor, or prominent force in reproduction and procreation in antiquity was a common notion believed by many, but not by all. Aristotle, was one of these believers who believed that males were responsible for procreation alone and menstruation provided sustenance for the fetus throughout gestation. Hmm, that doesn’t add up. Yet, Herophilus stood by Aristotle’s medical contribution and agreed that men alone were responsible for reproduction. Agreed? Yes, but don’t worry, Soranus came along in the Roman Period and argued with Aristotle and Herophiulus’s viewpoint that it was only men who contributed to reproduction. Soranus really stepped up with that argument. Unfortunately one step forward led him to taking another step back. Soranus went on to state that infertile women possessed greater health due to their bodies more closely resembling that of a man. Seriously? I doubt that, but let’s just say the boys dropped the ball on that one.
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Diseases: The Wandering Womb and Uterine Prolapse

Yes, you read that right, and I know it’s a little mind boggling. Hippocrates described the wandering womb to be moving in the body in search of moisture from other organs. The most commonly believed treatment to solve the wandering womb was intercourse, leaving women’s sexuality once again, in the hands of men. Aristotle, on the other hand did not agree with the Hippocratic notion of the wandering womb. He stated that the uterus/womb was immovable. Thank you, Aristotle.

The second most common disease of women was uterine prolapse, similar to the principle of the wandering womb. Hippocrates believed that Prolapse involved the uterus getting lodged in the vagina. Daily occurrences such as sneezing were believed to further bring on this escape of the womb. Watch out ladies, a simple sneeze may have provoked your uterus to attempt escaping, resulting in a uterus lodged in different areas of your body. Achoo.

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Treatments

Two common forms of treatments for diseases in female bodies in antiquity were aromatherapy and sexual intercourse. Sex was viewed as a short-term treatment, which involved a man heating a women’s cold body via penetration. Attempts to re-position the womb commonly exposed a female to putrid or appealing smells to draw their uterus in specific directions. These scents were often put around the vagina or on the nose of the woman being treated. Sounds pleasant doesn’t it?nope.giphy

Ladder therapy involved hanging a woman upside down while affixed to the ladder. Ladder therapy was performed in cases of trying to relocate a woman’s uterus when it was believed to have moved down her vagina. Climb a ladder you say?

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While modern medicine has come a long way from views and interpretations of the female body in antiquity, some of their findings still hold true today, such as menstrual and lunar cycles coinciding. Females who cohabit experience synchronization of menstrual cycles. The uterus is, as Aristotle stated, immovable. Certain ancient terminology and findings regarding anatomy are still used in medical and daily practice today (regarding the urethra and the vagina). However, despite the entertaining and shocking beliefs of antiquity, a better understanding and representation of the female body has evolved. General treatment of female patients and treatments of uterine diseases are no longer practiced due to ethical issues, required consent, and modern science. Despite initially laughing and gasping at certain medical views while researching this, I find it truly remarkable, considering the few tools at the disposal of these doctors in antiquity, that they developed such elaborate explanations, treatises, and treatments.

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References

Boylan, M. (1986). Galen’s Conception Theory. Journal of the History of Biology, 19(1), 47-77. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4330958

Cilliers, Louise. “Facts and Fancies About Male and Female In Graeco-Roman Medical Theories.” Scholia: Studies in Classical Antiquity 15 (2006): 53-77. ProQuest. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.

Dean-Jones, L. (1989). Menstrual Bleeding according to the Hippocratics and Aristotle. Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), 119, 177-191. doi:10.2307/284268

Fantham, E., Foley, H. P., Kampen, N. B., Pomeroy, S. B., & Shapiro, H. A. 1995. Women in the classical world: image and text (Ch.6). Oxford University Press.
Faraone, C. A. (2011). Magical and medical approaches to the wandering womb in the ancient greek world. Classical Antiquity, 30(1), 1-32. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/CA.2011.30.1.1

Horowitz, M. (1976). Aristotle and Woman. Journal of the History of Biology, 9(2), 183-213. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4330651

King, H. (2001). Greek and Roman medicine (Ch.6). London: Bristol Classical Press.
King, H. (2002). Hippocrates’ woman: reading the female body in ancient Greece. Routledge.

Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Harvard University Press. Retrieved from: Google Books.
Lefkowitz, M. R., & Fant, M. B. (2005). Women’s life in Greece and Rome (Third ed.) (pp. 225-262). Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press. Lloyd, G. E. (Ed.). (1978). Hippocratic writings. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

MacLachlan, B. (2006). Voices from the Underworld: The Female Body Discussed in Two Dialogues. The Classical World, 99(4), 423-433. doi:10.2307/4353066

Pomeroy, S. B. (Ed.). (1991). Women’s History and Ancient History (pp.73-183. University of North Carolina Press.

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6 thoughts on “The Male Understanding of Female Bodies in Antiquity

  1. Ancient doctors also loved describing women as “leaky” which is a fun adjective to use. An interesting avenue to explore might be the theory of the humours, which was a common theory in the ancient world. The balance of the four humours, including blood, determined your health, and since women bled all the time, this had interesting implications for what ancient doctors thought was going on with women’s bodies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes they did! You’re right, and it was Aristotle who believed the body comprised four humours. Aristotle believed women were healthy when these four fluids in their bodies were balanced. I touched on this and other aspects of the male understanding of the female body in greater detail in my research paper. However, I decided to display my information in an engaging, concise, blog style format for the reader!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Really enjoyed the read, I found it really humorous when reading about the initial differences that led women to be inferior to men like the lack of teeth and that the menstrual cycles are stress related. overall well written and extremely enjoyable to read. Great work!

    Liked by 1 person

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