BMCR 2000.07.20

Hippocrates’ Woman. Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece

, Hippocrates' Woman. Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. 322. $27.99 (pb).

This book offers Helen King’s solid work over the years on Hippocratic gynaecology and its projections, reinventions and uses in later history. Material from nine of its eleven chapters has been published before and is presented here in a revised form. However, the chapters have a sustained uniformity which legitimates publication in book form.

Hippocrates’ Woman is based on two apparently simple historiographical principles. First, a commitment to read the intellectual productions of a historical culture on their own terms; second, a commitment to understand how those productions evolved through the interpretation of later cultures. The complexity of this work lies in the combination of both principles, as well as in the impressive array of sources in which it is grounded. Helen King uses the tools of philology, anthropology, sociology and the social history of medicine critically to produce a history of the emergence of gynaecology from ancient myth to Victorian medicine. Modern practitioners of this medical speciality define it as “devoted to women’s reproductive potential, with obstetrics focused on the realisation of that potential” (p.1). However, as this book amply demonstrates, the Hippocratic construction of the female body was by no means restricted to the presence in women of particular organs, but was physiologically based on a wet and spongy nature which constituted every piece of their flesh.

Chapter 1, “Constructing the body: the inside story”, provides an introductory overview to the key concepts of Hippocratic gynaecology. The Hippocratic gynaikeia is linked with Hesiod’s canonical myth of the origins of women as a late arrival and a separate ‘race’: Pandora, the bitch-mind and the womb-jar. She, as symbol of female difference, makes gynaecology necessary to the Hippocratic enterprise. Chapter 2, “Deceitful bodies, speaking bodies”, presents the two-sided implications of the myth for women’s medicine. Pandora combines in herself the features ascribed to the parthenos, the immature girl, with those of the gynê, the mature woman, and fails to match her ‘inside’ with her ‘outside’. Deceit is constructed as a feminine trait and the good healer as a male iatros who needs to read bodies truthfully and who knows how to pursue those readings. But the ability of the female Hippocratic body to deceive varies according to women’s experience in perceiving their own bodily deceits and in transmitting them properly to the healer. The female body, however deceitful, possesses specific speaking traits particularly useful not simply for reading but for curing the body: menstruation and the vaginal orifice. Nonetheless, other orifices that the male body shares with the female were also functionally linked to female difference. In chapter 3, “The Daughter of Leonidas. Reading case histories”, King shows the affinity between the nostrils and the vagina in women, as well as the Hippocratic visions of the functions of the loss of blood in females. Approaching the Hippocratic corpus as a single body of medical knowledge, instead of as a multi-authored set of separated texts, places apparently different appreciations of nosebleeding in women in their general physiological framework and makes them coherent.

Chapters 4 and 5, “Blood and the godesses” and “Asklepios and Women’s Healing”, seek to place Hippocratic gynaecology in its mythical and religious contexts. The physiological analogy between menstrual and sacrificial blood is linked to ancient Greek society’s vision of women as victims, as the shedding objects of ritual; bleeding is therefore not just a necessary sign of health in mature women but a bodily inscription of their sacrificial role in society that surfaces during menarche. By approaching ancient Greek materials historically and anthropologically, King questions the reasons which lead to the historiographical image of women as particularly prone to turn to religious healing. She presents a comparative analysis of what those different healing systems offered either to a patient or to whoever took the responsibility for seeking a patient’s cure, particularly in dealing with suffering and blame.

Chapter 6, “What does medicine mean? The pain of being human”, and 7, “Reading the past through the present. Drugs and contraception in Hippocratic medicine”, continue to insist on how expectations regarding pain and the cure of disease rely on culture. While making a plea that we understand the use of narrative and the search for meaning regarding pain historically, King establishes the important ancient distinction between women’s necessary and excessive pain during the childbirth process. The same plea is applied to contraception and abortion. King argues against the heuristic historiographical potential of twentieth century pharmacological methods which try to test the efficacy of Hippocratic birth control drugs and gives no credit to claims for ancient women’s knowledge of effective plant-based contraceptives. Instead, she proposes an interpretation that looks at the male texts as the expression of dominant modes of birth control within the ancient culture’s widespread fear of women.

Chapter 8, “Gender and the healing role”, discusses how modern images of the gender division of medical labour cannot be applied to ancient medicine without fundamentally distorting ancient Greek medical visions of the all-encompassing role of the iatros over his male patients. Contrary to modern beliefs, female attendants — those called nurses in the biomedical system — had no role in Hippocratic definitions of medicine; women were feared as unable to control themselves, which made them potentially dangerous for men, particularly at the time of illness when they would be most vulnerable to women’s lack of self-control. But King does acknowledge that a male Hippocratic healer could have needed to resort to household women to perform, under his control, certain procedures to implement his treatment and that the situation could have been different for women patients. In Chapter 9, “Imaginary midwives”, King faces the problem of identifying women’s medical practices in ancient Greece and Rome, and what the tecnical ancient labels ( maia, iatreousa, iatromaia, omphalêtomos, akestris, medica, obstetrix) might have meant to their users. No homogenous image of the world of women practitioners emerges either from the classical texts (other than the paucity of midwives in the Hippocratic corpus) or from medical and non-medical texts of the post-classical ancient period; but women providers of healthcare to other women (including in childbirth) were not unknown in ancient Greece and Rome. In this context, King analyzes Agnodike’s story by Hyginus, the most well-known of the ancient “imaginary midwives”, as well as its many and diverse uses in the history of medicine from the sixteenth century on.

The last two chapters offer a detailed analysis of early modern and modern constructions of female diseases whose clinical descriptions are presented, through a legitimazing strategy, as dated in the Hippocratic past. King demonstrates through close philological and contextual analysis how these conceptualizations are based socio-symbolically upon dominant notions of sexual difference and intellectually either upon the Latin reinterpretations of Hippocrates through the lens of Galenic medicine or upon nineteenth century medical labelling, as happens with hysteria. Chapter 10, “Green sickness. Hippocrates, Galen and the origins of the ‘disease of virgins'”, brilliantly discusses the descriptions of green sickness/chlorosis from the early sixteenth century, when it was first described, to its end as a disease in the early twentieth century. Chapter 11, “Once upon a text: Hysteria from Hippocrates”, convincingly challenges the claim that hysteria labels the same medical condition through more than two millenia, and also demonstrates that the diagnosis of hysteria does not date from the Hippocratic corpus.

Hippocrates’ Woman stands as an ambitious and successful book. Ambition has intrinsic risks, and thoughtful readers may find some pitfalls in this wide interdisciplinary enterprise. With the exception of the chapter on hysteria, where the medieval period is covered, comparative historical materials from the middle ages are not systematically used, whereas those regarding the early modern period are; the historiography of the middle ages could have proved useful, particularly to address the problems involving the assessment of women’s medical practices. A reader acquainted with women’s studies might be left looking for a conceptual distinction between ancient culture and ancient patriarchal ideology. This non-differentiation works in favour of some of King’s conclusions by denying the capacity of ancient male texts to express and encode any tension between men’s and women’s agency in the domain of health care.

In sum, Hippocrates’ Woman is an important book which will be of great interest to scholars and students in classics, the history of medicine and women’s studies.