Negotiating the seventeenth century female reproductive body through the printed matrix

I am reaching into the past – into a past which is not my own – stumbling through unfamiliar words, and images. I am looking for traces of familiarity with which to orient my self. As I reach, and search, I am conscious of a tension, the lens through which I negotiate the historical object - my present embodied self.                                                                                   

Personal journal: 5th of July 2017

 

The mechanical process of printing and conceptualisations of the womb were curiously linked in the English early modern period. The etymology of the word ‘matrix’ witnesses a convergence of meanings. From the fourteenth century it is associated with the womb, or uterus, it is also rooted in the Old French ‘matrice,’ (womb), the Latin ‘matrix’ (pregnant animal) and the late Latin ‘mater’ (original source and mother). Intertwined within the history of the word ‘matrix’ are ideas of gendered reproduction; of a source, site or carrier and matter which is produced from that site. Within printmaking terminology the plate (metal, wood, lino) is also a matrix, the base from which multiple generations of print can be made [1]. Mechanical printing emerged as a significant medium, as historian Elizabeth L. Eisenstein writes “unknown anywhere in Europe before the mid-fifteenth century, printers’ workshops would be found in every important municipal center by 1500.” [2] The workings of the world, and specifically the human body were theorized, investigated, recorded, and printed as texts and images.

Printed midwifery texts in the seventeenth century often detailed diverse areas, including anatomical descriptions of reproductive organs, cases of monstrous births, methods for determining the sex of a foetus and marital guidance. The generative ‘matrix’ in midwifery texts converged with socio-cultural anxieties of gendered power relations, and more specifically questions of how much men and women each biologically contributed in producing offspring. While bodies were opened and investigated anatomically throughout this period, processes of conception were still shrouded in mystery. Aristotle’s Masterpiece (by an anonymous author) writes that there is,

“nothing more powerful than the imagination of the mother; for if she conceives in her mind, or do by chance fasten her eyes upon any object, and imprint it in her memory, the child in its outward parts frequently has some representation thereof…” [3]

Conceptually the author is describing a process similar to printmaking – the matrix used to ‘imprint’ a similitude, and the author or maker is the mother. The excerpt is followed by the author’s suggestion for a husband (perhaps indicating an implied male readership) to keep his wife’s eyes fastened on his face, and his face only. Within this text female agency in reproduction is cast as something potentially powerful that must be controlled and monitored within the marital bed. Textual and image-based representations of the womb in the seventeenth were highly symbolic. Biblical, agricultural and craft based metaphors were often drawn on to elucidate the ‘secret’ interior workings of the female reproductive body to a broader society.

It is here that I focus my lens and sharpen my lino tools - an exploration of the recording of female reproductive bodies in English seventeenth century printed midwifery texts. And it is here where I return, and return again - how does this inform my practice? How do I interact, through words and making, with historical textual and image-based representations? These questions mark an ongoing inquiry and tussle – this is no linear path but instead a meandering along branching vein-like paths.

The human body is the physical, material form in which we engage, interact with and receive the world. A complex shifting network of phenomena, including physical actors, textual and image-based materials, and sociocultural experiences, mediate individual understandings of embodiment. Robert Barret in 1699 wrote, “we are all fruit of the womb, and the whole world is govern’d by its fertile product.” [4] The seventeenth century womb, and woman, is intertwined with the perpetuation of human life, and more specifically the extension of a family line. Understandings of how the womb functioned were active, being made and un-made. While such understandings were informed by earlier medical beliefs (including writing by Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen, three heavy weights in the ancient and classical world), they were also in conversation with contemporary societal practices including, moral behaviour guides, religious doctrine, and legal systems. The womb was actively linked to a specific purpose - offspring. Women’s bodily and reproductive choices transcend from the personal to the social, political and legislative. The womb is an embodied site of contestation.

* * *

Today women’s bodily choices are still legislated, controlled, politicised and critiqued. Furthermore the effects of racial, economic and gender inequality impact the lives of women. The following links are just a small beginning for further reading.

Tasmania’s only abortion clinic closes: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-01-13/tasmanias-only-abortion-clinic-closes/9325194

Countries where abortion currently illegal: http://uk.businessinsider.com/countries-strictest-abortion-laws-2016-12/?r=AU&IR=T/#el-salvador-has-a-complete-ban-on-abortions-and-the-strictest-reproductive-rights-laws-in-the-world-1

Gendered and racial inequality in American healthcare: https://www.npr.org/2017/12/07/568948782/black-mothers-keep-dying-after-giving-birth-shalon-irvings-story-explains-why

* * *

Sitting at my computer writing this piece, I distractedly typed the word ‘womb’ into Google Image search. While this is admittedly not a particularly academic approach, it is how I access images on a daily basis. This search revealed that popular online visual representations of the womb are predominately labelled stylised diagrams. The diagrams are either; a disembodied reproductive system floating on a blank background, or, a side view of a woman’s body with the interior made visible, revealing the positions of reproductive organs, often including a foetus. The diagrams are coloured with pinks and deeps reds. The colouring simultaneously evokes fleshy, bodily states, while also presenting an ordered image where each colour sits isolated, in its specific demarcated area. The womb here is not changing, seeping or embodied. These diagrams visually present a normative medical notion of the womb, which renders the lived, complex and diverse experiences of the womb invisible. Representation, and specifically visual representation is powerful. It can inform, clarify, systematise and in doing so reinforce or foster normative hierarchies (for example the western medicalization of the body). Is the default mode of representing the human body, and its interior, a western medical system? What does it mean for an individual, and specifically a woman, seeking images of the female reproductive body through online search engines to predominately return medicalised diagrams? How does this inform one’s relationship with their body?

It is in this space where navigating historical printed wombs, and reflecting on current womb-diagrams through the making of inky, layered printed works opens the potential for poetic, varied and embodied negotiations of the female reproductive body. This is also the persistent sticky point – how do I move-make beyond the medicalised bodily interior?

 Image: Studio study, IUD lino print inserted into an altered digital reproduction of Thomas Bartholin’s  Bartholinus Anatomy; made from the precepts of his father, and from the observations of all modern anatomists: together with his own …1688. Original viewed in Rare Books Collection at Adelaide University.

Image: Studio study, IUD lino print inserted into an altered digital reproduction of Thomas Bartholin’s Bartholinus Anatomy; made from the precepts of his father, and from the observations of all modern anatomists: together with his own…1688. Original viewed in Rare Books Collection at Adelaide University.

 Image: Historical research journal, study from Thomas Chamberlayne,  The compleat midvvife’s practice enlarged , (London: Printed for Nath. Brooke at the Angel in Cornhill, 1659). Accessed via Early English Books Online, National Library of Australia, 2017.

Image: Historical research journal, study from Thomas Chamberlayne, The compleat midvvife’s practice enlarged, (London: Printed for Nath. Brooke at the Angel in Cornhill, 1659). Accessed via Early English Books Online, National Library of Australia, 2017.

The printed bodies sit side-by-side, hanging on the wall. They are a repeated form, originating from a single 1.6-meter long matrix. These bodies are without heads and feet; they are dislocated, disrupted and unsettling. The carved lines converge to evoke a model, or template, where a sense of aliveness, or individuality is removed. The mapped-body lines and shapes draw one’s attention to the methods by which the human body is ordered and dissected anatomically, through language, and sociocultural practices. How the body is represented and conceptualised matters. While I am conscious of this as I carve and print, my body is also feeling its way through inking the matrix, arms extending and stretching to work with reacting colours and incidental marks. I often do not know where I am going in the studio; this sense of embarking into an unknown is both exhilarating and unsettling. It is through messy material experimentation and an attempt to look at historical sources with fresh, critical eyes that I plot my course into the inky unknown.

 Image: Installation view,  Body studies , lino on glassine, hosho, and canson cartridge, dimensions variable, 2017

Image: Installation view, Body studies, lino on glassine, hosho, and canson cartridge, dimensions variable, 2017

 Image:  Womb-body study,  lino print and pen, 2017

Image: Womb-body study, lino print and pen, 2017

I am carrying the reproductions. Layers of paper separate the interior-exterior; they confuse these boundaries. My body is made in paper-flesh layers that seep; they bleed into one another. And each month my insides swirl and flow, they flow out into the world.

I am holding the prints, pieces of paper layered, slathered with ink. They traverse mapped surfaces, imagined interiors and re-interpreted historical motifs in an attempt to draw together the seventeenth century representations of the female reproductive body and present, autoethnographic embodied self [5]. And in this attempt I repeat, the process of inking lino blocks opening muscle-memory pathways. I print and re-print. I misprint and fail, and on occasion I draw closer to something that resonates.  

Personal journal: 5th September 2017


Angelica Harris-Faull, born 1993, is a maker, thinker, and writer from Adelaide, South Australia. Harris-Faull is a current PhD candidate at the University of South Australia, researching the womb as a site of socio-political contestation, in response to 17th century representations of the female reproductive body. She holds a Bachelor of Visual Art, specialising in printmaking from the University of South Australia and First Class Honours from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Harris-Faull has been awarded an Ian Potter Cultural Trust grant and a Helpmann Academy grant. She has undertaken anatomical sculpture courses at the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford and drawing residencies in La Specola, Italy, and the Gordon Museum of Pathology, London. Her work is investigates the anatomical body, the emotions of the body, the medicalization of women’s bodily experiences and socio-political, and cultural understandings of contemporary and historical women’s reproductive bodies. Angelica Harris-Faull has exhibited in Australia, and in the Philippines.


[1] Walter Chamberlain, The Thames and Hudson Manual of Etching and Engraving, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1972).

[2] Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, (second edition), (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 14. The mechanically printed word emerged in Europe in approximately 1454, as Johannes Gutenberg developed a structure capable of holding inked movable type which could be pressed, or printed into surfaces. Gutenberg’s press is predated by Chinese developments in hand-printable woodblocks.
For further reading see: The Broadview Introduction to Book History, Michelle Levy, Tom Mole (Ontaria; Broadview Press, 2017).

[3] Anonymous, Aristotle’s Masterpiece, (London: Printed for J. How, 1684) See images 14 to 16. Accessed via Early English Books Online, National Library of Australia.

[4] Robert Barret, A Companion for Midwives, Child bearing women, and nurses (London; Printed for Tho. Ax, Blue Ball, Duck Lane, 1699) 59. Accessed via Early English Books Online, National Library of Australia.

[5] I am positioned in, and also in critical reflection and observation of making and researching. Auto-ethnography, a process that “seeks to describe and systematically analyse (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno).” Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams, Arthur P. Bochner, “Autoethnography: An Overview,” Forum: Qualitative Social Research, Sozialforschung, Vol. 12, No.1, Art. 10, 2010. Accessed 1/2/2018, http://www.qualitative- research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095