Something is Rotten in Helkiah Crooke’s Gendered Representation of the Nose
In his Microcosmographia, Helkiah Crooke, drawing upon and adapting Placentinus, takes issue with the traditional hierarchy of the external senses in the opening gambit of book eight’s “Dilucidation or Exposition of the Controuersies belonging to the Senses.” Whereas it was common practice in early modern anatomy and natural philosophy to account vision the “noblest sense,” Crooke reverses the standard hierarchy and declare the superiority of touch. I will have more to say about Crooke’s rearrangement of the hierarchy and of his description of the external and internal senses later, but wanted to share an unusual passage from the description of the sense of smell. While the position of the sense of smell does not change in Crooke’s reversed hierarchy, it is the only sense which is provided with extended examples or histories to explain its position within the hierarchy.
In a passage marginally noted as “The nose doth much beautifie the face,” Crooke includes the following odd anecdote:
The beauty that is added to the face of man by this organ of smelling (wee meane the Nose) is very great, I will giue you a pregnant instance therof in an example or two worth our remembrance. First, of a yong man who being adiudged to be hanged and the executioner at hand, a certaine maide suborned by his friends and quaintly dressed and set out, goes vnto the Iudges and makes supplication for his life, requiring him for her husband, well; she ouercame the Iudges: This done, the guilty yong man being set at liberty and coming from the gallowes vnto the maide attired and dressed in such costly ornaments, he presently cast his eye vppon her Nose which indeed was very deformed, and instantly cries out that he had rather haue beene hanged then freed vppon condition of vndergoing so deformed a choyce in his Matrimony. (650).
The joke hinges upon the fact that death is superior to marriage to a woman with a deformed nose, no matter how costly her attire, but one wonders (from within the logic of the joke) whether the judges released the man not because of the maid’s supplication, but rather for the fact that marriage to one with such a deformed nose proved a punishment. The attention to both the dress and to the shape of the maid’s nose genders the importance Crooke grants to the olfactory organ.
The gendered implications become more apparent with Crooke’s second extended example. While the section briefly mentions other examples found in Horace and Virgil, Crooke’s second extended “history” reads:
It also a very memorable example, (for we may mingle things thus holy with prophane) which we reade in our English Chronicles concerning one Ebba an Abbesse in a certaine Nunry, who cut of her own Nose & the Noses of her Nuns, that being so deformed they might auoyd the hateful lust of the Danes; taking it for granted that the Nose was the chief ornament of the face.
As with the previous example, the nose gains significance in a gendered way since female beauty and desirability depends upon a well shaped or, at the very least, existing nose. Through Crooke’s emphasis, the “chief ornament of the face” appears chiefly important to the ornamentation of the female face.
Crooke additionally notes that
hence it was that in antient time, when they would put any man to great disgrace and ignominy, or disappoint them of all hope of attaining to any degree of honour, or the gouernement of a State; they cut off their Eares and Noses. Yea those which had such deformed Noses were neither admitted to any Priestly function nor Imperiall office.
While he does turn towards the importance of a man’s nose, his specific extended examples focus their attention on the beauty of women and the offices held by men. Women’s bodies are used to describe the importance of the nose a chief ornament of beauty, whereas, for men, the loss of a nose signifies and displays a loss of honor.
Two things stand out in Crooke’s description of the nose’s importance. The first is that, in this section at least, only the nose’s position within the hierarchy requires support through extended examples, and, second, that those extended examples and histories are gendered. Needless to say, something is rotten in Crooke’s gendered representation of the olfactory organ.
Crooke, Helkiah. Mikrokosmographia a Description of the Body of Man. [London]: Printed by William Iaggard. 1615. Early English Books Online.