‘Interpreting the Body’

Interpreting the Body in Early Modern Europe

guest post by P. Renée Baernstein

When does human life begin and end? Advances in contemporary medicine press on life’s boundaries, extending viable life further and further past earlier limits.  But science does little to help us grasp the human implications of these possibilities. When may we justly end a life at its dawn or twilight?  Does a non-viable human fetus have subjectivity, an imagination, a history?  We aren’t the first to debate these questions, and it’s instructive to look to how cultures of other times and places have done so.


It’s not true, for example, that the Catholic Church has always categorically opposed abortion, as it does today.  Some medieval church fathers, and many ancient Greek medical writers whose works were staples in the Christian middle ages, saw abortion on a sort of sliding scale. While women should be discouraged from ending unwanted pregnancies, they wrote, the crime was minimal early in the pregnancy.  Authorities should exercise mercy and understanding, and give penalties proportionate to the extent of fetal development. One reason they did so was that women could be legitimately ignorant of whether they were pregnant up to the last minute.  As  one jurist put it, the only real proof of a pregnancy was the baby. With that degree of uncertainty, the line between clearing a blocked womb and removing an embryo was practically invisible.


We can get up close and personal with these questions in an unusually well-documented case of an unexpected stillbirth in sixteenth-century Italy.  Did the young bride, Costanza Colonna, and her doctors know she was pregnant, or simply believe she had a mysterious swelling of the abdomen, as they claimed? Were the fasting, bloodletting, and purges her healers prescribed meant as abortifacients, or merely as methods for “clearing” a blocked womb?  The girl, her doctors, and the nuns who cared for her all wove their stories artfully in a series of interviews with clerical officials.  The transcript of their interviews survives in an out-of-the-way location, in the “miscellaneous” file of the archepiscopal archive in Milan.


The document itself is a hot mess. The 10-page, heavily corrected draft was never intended to be read – after authorities abruptly closed the case, the notary left the account unfinished. While his handwriting is generally clear, some pages bristle with corrections and deletions to the point of illegibility; sections are out of chronological order.  As my co-author John Christopoulos and I tried to wrinkle out the bodily experiences and perceptions of the young woman who knew herself to be pregnant only after the fact, we became convinced the transcript itself merited a closer look and a broader audience.  It is available here, in Italian and English.


If Costanza was telling the truth, what did it mean that she and her attendants were persuaded of her virginity?  Should we accord agency to her fetus? Churchmen and doctors scrutinized him fiercely after his death, but he was never recognized when he was alive. Here stands an intellectual system that offers a sliding scale of personhood to the fetus, and views the mother sometimes as ignorant vessel, sometimes as suspicious liar. All the while, through the document persists a thread of mercy and, equally powerful, of respectful uncertainty. These are not and have never been simple problems. Can the uncertainties of earlier times, as different as they are from ours, give us any insight into our own ethical dilemmas?   We think so.

Read the full article here

Leave a Reply