Shaping Sense: The Paramaterial Phantasy

Just another site

Category: Early Modern Senses

The World Turned Upside Down: Revolutions in the Microcosm and Macrocosm, and the Crystalline Humor in the Three Eyes of Early Modern Optical Anatomy. Part Two.

The World Turned Upside Down: Revolutions in the Microcosm and Macrocosm and the Crystalline Humor in the Three Eyes of Early Modern Optical Anatomy

Part II. The Revolution of the Eye and De-centering the Eye’s Sovereign

In the first section, I discussed Andre du Laurens’ extended metaphorical treatment of the eye’s structure. There, du Laurens represents the crystalline humor as the “sovereign” of the domain of the eye and as a Herculean figure heroically standing between the external and internal lights. Du Laurens’ metaphorical elaborations reflect and illuminate the importance with which theorists of vision and optical anatomists already attributed to the eye and its structure. The metaphors highlight the emphasis elsewhere on the organization of the eye and the early modern tendency to see correspondences and hierarchies within the structure of nature and the human body. Such popular discourses additionally shaped the understanding of the eye in elite discourses, locking the two in interpenetrating chains of influence.

In the elaborate chains of correspondences slowly eroding yet still powerfully influential in the early modern period, similarities in structure, resemblance, and appearance or in relationships or connections bespoke real rather than simply metaphorical chains of signification. In bestiaries, the appearance or form of an animal bespoke some of its hidden vertues. In herbals, a plant resembling a sexual organ could possess the real power to affect the sexual organs. In a psychophysiological model, the “black bile” of melancholy was or caused “black” thoughts and, in some, delusions of dark shapes. In anatomy, the circular and square figures found in the human form represented the most perfect shapes within the created world. In optical anatomy, the eye’s shape and structure resembled and reflected the structure and order of the cosmos.

Du Laurens sees the image of political authority in the eyes’ structure, and, in this section, I will turn to the eye’s resemblance to the cosmos. As the corporeal world and its light were proper objects in the eyes, its shape, order, and structure and its similarity to the shape, order, and structure of the world carried with it a powerful set of correspondences that shaped the sense of sense.

It is interesting that the revolutions in both theories of the microcosmic eye and theories of the macrocosm occur at roughly the same time and through the influence of Johannes Kepler. Following his contribution to the science of each, there would be revolutions in each that de-centered the central component within both systems. Kepler is probably best known for his contribution to the radical revolution in early modern science that, when elaborated and built upon, overturned the Ptolemaic conception of cosmography. Kepler challenged the Ptolemaic model and defended and elaborated upon the work of Nicholaus Copernicus of nearly a century before. The eventual adoption of the Copernican system with the earth no longer situated at the center of the cosmos de-centered the Earth and its inhabitants within the frame of the universe.

The world turned upside down: A man whose eyes have been turned inward from Bartisch.

The world turned upside down: A man whose eyes have been turned inward from Bartisch.

Less discussed, however, is the revolution Kepler accomplishes in his optical anatomy, which, I argue, remains linked to, and might prove more important than, his role in creating a revolution of the heavens. Discussed lesser still are the changes occurring from roughly 1543 to 1619 of optical anatomy itself. Kepler plays a role in revolutions in both the macrocosm and the microcosm. These dual revolutions and their relationship with the elaborate systems of correspondences in pre-scientific eras that linked microcosm to macrocosm, give me occasion to return to the structure of the Galenic eye and the mediate early modern eye.

The spherical shape of the eye and the placement or near placement of the crystalline humor in its center makes the eye a prime candidate for analogical relationships between the microcosm of the eye and the macrocosm. Such a correspondence did not escape the notice of Helkiah Crooke, who, although he challenges vision’s position as the superior sense, draws on Galen to describe the beautiful structure of the eye, explaining that the primacy of vision might depend, in part, on its shape as well as upon its being a microcosm. Crooke says,

[Galen,] being a man of great and profound knowledge, … considered that the Eye was the true Microcosme or Little world in respect of their exact roundnesse and revolutions: wherein besides the Membranes which I dare boldly call the seaven Spheres of Heaven, there be also the foure Elements found. (Crooke [652][i]).

The “exact roundnesse and revolutions” of the eyes commend them not only as reflections of the macrocosm’s perfection, but also, by virtue of that correspondence, speak to the “excellencie” and nobility of the sense of sight. Crooke notes in an earlier section devoted to the “admirable proportion of [man’s] parts” and the human body as a microcosm that

in this proportion of his parts, you shall finde both a circular figure, which is of all other the most perfect; and also the square, which in the rest of the creatures you shall not observe. (Crooke 6).

In this description of Virtuvian man, Crooke notes that the circle and sphere are “the most perfect” shapes. In many descriptions of the Galenic eye, the perfectly spherical eye and the perfectly centered and spherical crystalline humor bespeak the eye’s importance and grandeur. In emphasizing the human eye’s perfectly spherical shape, Crooke follows both the Galenic eye and the mediate early modern eye’s emphasis on the perfectly orbicular shape. Jest as the heavens in a geocentric Ptolemaic system consisted in concentric perfect spheres, the structure of the eye follows that postulated heavenly structure.

In the passage quoted above, one catches another reflection of the macrocosm in the microcosm of the eye. Crooke mentions two more aspects of optical anatomy which argue that the eye is a microcosm within the body. First, he mentions that seven “Membranes” or coats resemble and reflect the “seven Spheres of Heaven,” and, second, that the eye contains “foure Elements.” In the first, the microcosm of the eye includes seven concentric spheres which resemble the Ptolemaic macrocosm. While Crooke does not go on to make such an explicit connection, taking his description one step further, places the crystalline humor in a position that corresponds to the Earth in this Ptolemaic structure of the microcosm, placed at its very center.[ii]

The crystalline humor or lens, when mapped onto this model, occupies the position of the Earth. Such an analogy reveals an interesting aspect of the eyes’ organization in Galenic, and even in the mediate, early modern eyes. The crystalline humor, thought to receive “impressions” or “actualize” the species of external objects, in effect, recreates the visual world within its substance.[iii] The eye not only stands at the center of the microcosm of the eye like the Earth, but also recreates or manufactures simulacra of the world and its objects. I will return to develop the paramaterial aspects of Crooke’s and others’ discussion of the “matter” acquired by the external senses in more detail in a later post.

Second, the microcosmic eye, according to Crooke, contains the four elements of the macrocosm. Crooke rhetorically asks after declaring that there is “Fire” in the eye, that

there is Aire who will denie which understands with what plenty of spirits they do abound? As for Water, who doth not see it in the Eye doth prove himself more blind then a beetle, all the other parts we will liken to the Earth. (Crooke [652]).

According to Crooke, the eye not only reflects the cosmos in its shape and structure, but also in its elemental constitution. Such a description further links the world of the eye to the universe as a whole, analogically confirming that both the eye and the cosmos reflect the majesty of a divine creator. As such, even though Crooke elsewhere shows evidence of post-Colombo ocular anatomy, where the crystalline humor did not occupy the exact center of the eye, and, although he declares touch rather than sight the predominant sense, Crooke still solidifies the eye’s representation as a smaller microcosm nestled within the larger microcosm of the body analogically connected to the macrocosm.

The corporeal eye, with the corporeal world, its objects, and its corporeal light as its objects, conforms to the nature and structure of that world. While I will not go into Crooke’s discussion of the visible species in this essay, I will say that his description also reflects how the eye received or “actualized” mimetic quasi-material, or, as I call them, paramaterial objects that recreated the visible world within the orb of the eye. Even if one does not accept my characterization of the visible and sensible species as paramaterial, the eye still not only reflects the nature of the visible world but also creates mimetic copies of the world upon which it looked.

Such relationships and associations extend beyond the discourses of anatomy and science. Drawing on the same analogical links, university wit Thomas Tomkis gives a similar speech to his character Visus, or vision, in Lingua or Combat of the Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority.[iv] In Tomkis’ play from the early seventeenth century, the tongue demands to be included as an addition to the five external senses, and disrupts the traditional hierarchy of the external senses by trying to convince the ruler Common Sense that she should not only be considered as a sense but also should sit atop the hierarchy. When called before Common Sense and Phantastes to explain his superiority over the other senses, Visus includes, among other things, his stately residences and their situations in the head, saying,

Under the fore-head of mount Cephalon,
That over-peeres the coast of Microcosme,
All in the shaddowe of two pleasant groves,
Stand my two mansion houses, both as round
As the cleare heavens, both twins as like each other:
As starre to starre, which the vulger sort,
For their resplendent composition,
Are named the bright eyes of mount Cephalon:
With oure faire roomes those lodgings are contrived,
Foure goodly roomes in forme most sphericall,
Closing each other like the heavenly orbes. (Tomkis G2 verso).

In Tomkis’ nesting metaphors, the eyes become a stately “round” manor containing four “goodly roomes” whose perfect sphericality reflect the perfect spheres of the heavens. While Tomkis’ Visus mentions only four rooms rather than seven and while he frames it through the metaphor of the house, he still asserts the structural relationship and analogical links between the eyes and the heavenly spheres.

As with Crooke’s later discussion of the eye’s structure, Tomkis’ Visus offers the eyes’ shape and structural resemblance to the macrocosm as testimony for his supremacy within a hierarchy of the senses. Again, like Crooke, Tomkis might be challenging the conventional understanding of the superiority of sight, but both still continue to underscore how important seeing the eye as a microcosm was during the period.

Again, we find the crystalline humor occupying the central position and represented as the seat of visual power. While Tomkis’ play situates the visual power in subjection to the powers of the internal senses, he also represents the crystalline humor as Visus’ seat, saying that the fourth and most central room is

… smallest, but passeth all the former,
In worth of matter built most sumptuously:
With walls transparent of pure Christaline.
This the soules mirrour and the bodies guide,
Loves Cabinet[,] bright beacons of the Realme,
Casements of light quiver of Cupids shafts:
Wherein I sit and immediatly receive,
The species of things corporeall,
Keeping continuall watch and centinell. (Tomkis G2 verso).

Central to the manor of the eye is the room of “pure Christaline” where Visus “sit[s] and immediatly receive[s]/ The species of things corporeall,” and here we possibly see again, as late as 1607, the model of the Galenic eye. While Tomkis might have been aware of Colombo’s corrections to this arrangement, he does not say so here. As I discussed in part one of this essay, even in texts that represent the mediate early modern eye, including Crooke’s own later Microcosmographia, the verbal descriptions of the mediate early modern eye and the Galenic eye were often spoken of in similar terms. This shows, I think, the power of the analogical relationships and significance of the systems of correspondences that deployed the concept of the microcosm to the figure of the eye, especially when it comes to popular culture even if Tomkis understands the eye as structured like the mediate early modern eye.

Tomkis’ play also dramatizes the connection to the internal senses and its reception of the species in what I am calling the paramaterial mind. While I can provide only a brief sketch here, I will be exploring the paramaterial sensory system more in future posts and provide lengthier sketches in my previous posts. Tomkis represents Visus as subservient to Common Sense, the ultimate seat of judging immediate perception and assembling the discrete species received by the external senses. It was also this system of the paramaterial that the retinal image would help eventually dismantle.

The optical revolution of Felix Platter and Johannes Kepler had already started by the time Thomas Tomkis wrote his play in 1607 and Helkiah Crooke first published his Microcosmographia in 1615. In 1583, Platter argued that the optic nerve was the seat of vision, and, in 1604, Kepler further developed some of Platter’s, achieving a broader acceptance of the retina and the retinal image as the most significant part of the eye. More work needs to be done to map out the lines of transmission of Kepler’s work on optics as it spread and affected optical anatomy, but what is certain is that Kepler’s theory ultimately contributed to a type of conceptual regicide of what André du Laurens previously declared the eye’s “sovereign,” the crystalline humor, and may have had consequences for the system of correspondences that seemed to require the microcosm of the eye’s conformity with and relationship to the macrocosm.

Platter likened the crystalline humor to a looking-glass that projected light upon the retinal screen, describing,

Primario, crystallinus humor, perspicillum est nervi visorii: at qante ipsum & pupilae formen collactus, species oculo illabentes veluti radios colligit, & in ambitum totius retiformis nervi diffundens, res majores ille, ut commodius eas perciperet, perspicilli penit nodo, representat. (Platter 187).

[Primarily the crystalline humor is the perspicillum (*looking glass) for the optic nerve, but as to the crystalline humor and the pupil, the visible species enters as a collection of rays, and diffuses itself on the whole of the retinal nerve, representing bigger things than the small glass represents.]

But Platter never elaborated upon or demonstrated the concept convincingly, and did not, publically and in print anyways, acknowledge that the retinal image would be inverted with respect to horizontal orientation and flipped with respect to the vertical.

This later development and acknowledgement would come with Kepler, who declares:

Visio igitur fit per picturam rei visibilis ad albam retinae & cauum parietem; & quae foris dextra sunt, ad sinistrum parietis larus, sinistra ad dextrum, supera ad inferum, infera ad superum depinguntur: viridia etiam colore viridi, & in universum res quaecunque suo colore intra pingitur; adeo ut, si possibile esset picturam illam in retina foras in lucem protracta permanere, remotis anterioribus, que illam efforma bant, hominiq; alicui sufficiens esset visus acies, is agniturus esset ipsissiman hemisphaerii figuram in tam angusto retine complexu. (Kepler 170).

[The vision then becomes a visible pictura on the white and curved retinal wall, and things which are outside on the right, are depicted on the left wall; left to right, upper to lower, lower to upper. Green colors appear green, and the whole thing, whatsoever its color, is depicted upon the retina, so that, if it were possible for a man to maintain the system’s light on the retina when removing the back of the eye, he would see a figure of the whole hemisphere remains in that small space of the retina.]

Unlike Platter, who described the crystalline humor as the “looking-glass” for the retina and placed the seat of judgment in the optic nerve but did not mention the retinal inversion, Kepler confronts this theory directly and publically in print after developing the theory of the retinal image more extensively than his predecessor. Displacing the crystalline humor itself was an intellectual insurrection, as was the previous trend in early modern optical anatomy that de-centered it within the eye, but acknowledging the retinal inversion began the revolution within the eye in earnest. Both moves, however, challenged not only prior medical authorities that considered the crystalline humor the eye’s sovereign, but also the cultural beliefs surrounding and shaping the sense of the eye and its structure.

Acknowledging that the eye did not see in the same way that either the visual plane laid out before the eye or as it was perceived in the mind that Kepler’s theory is profoundly revolutionary. Not only did such theories allow the retinal screen to usurp the position of primacy previously held by the crystalline humor, but they also turned the eye’s image upside down within the eye itself. The image within the eye, for the first time in recorded human history, was recognized as upside down. From the perspective of an early modern, the world (at least within the eye) no longer looked as it appeared. Revolutionary in both senses, Kepler challenged a fundamental way in which observers perceived and engaged with the world as a whole. I do not mean to suggest that Kepler’s singular genius emerged out of a historical vacuum, but I do want to suggest that the development of the very ability to recognize the inverted retinal image itself and its subsequent effects constituted a real radical shift and break with traditions of the past towards something new and modern even if it took some time for culture to recognize and realize those revolutionary consequences.

The retinal image, itself revolutionary in its movement towards a modern understanding of vision, also had other revolutionary consequences that would only reveal their full effects once the quasi-Aristotelian system of the paramaterial sensory system and mind were altered and abandoned. Whereas previously the crystalline humor received the visible species of corporeal things, transmitting them through the “spirits” to the inner senses and the brain, the retinal wall would eventually become an opaque wall that blocked the paramaterial transmission of these species. The species survived the retinal image and inversion, but, I argue, also challenged some of the conventional popular associations and its traditional theorization. The sensible species and especially the intellectual species persisted in some form until they disappeared into something like the Lockean Idea.

Kepler himself famously chose not to follow the visual image, species, or, as he calls it, pictura as it entered the human brain and mind, saying,

Visionem fieri dico, cum totius hemisphaerii mundani, quod est ante oculum, & amplius paulo, idolum statuitur ad album subrufum retinae cauae superficiei parietam. Quomodo idolum seu pictura haec spiritibus visoriis, qui resident in retina & in neruo, conjungatur, & utrum per spiritus intro in cerebri cauernas, ad animae seu facultatis visoriae tribunal sistatur,an facultas visoria, ceu quaestor ab Anima datus, e cerebri praetorio foras in ipsum neruum visorium & retinam, ceu as inferiora subsellia descendens, idolo huic procededat obuiam, hoc inquam Physicis relinquo disputandum. Nam Opticorum armatura non procedit longius, quam ad hunc usq; opacum parientem, qui primus quidem in oculo occurrit. (Kepler 168).

[I say vision is accomplished, when the whole hemisphere of the world which is before the eye, and bit more, an idolum stands on the curved, reddish-white retinal wall. How the idolum or pictura joins the visual spirits, which reside in the retina and the optic nerve, and whether it is made to appear before the soul and the tribunal of the visual faculty by the spirits in the brain’s caverns, or whether the visual faculty, like a magistrate sent by the soul, descends to the lower court to meet the idolum, I leave to the dispute of physicists. For the opticians’ troops do not advance beyond this first opaque wall met with in the eye.]

Kepler refuses to proceed past the retinal screen, halting his inquiry once he follows the path of light through the lens and onto the rear surface of the eye. Not only does Kepler offer the first explication of the real image formed on the retinal screen, but he also interposes an “opaque wall” between the eye and a perceiver in a way not previously in place in earlier theories of the crystalline humor. Whereas before the images received or formed by the crystalline humor found their way into the inner senses through mediating spirits through to the gatekeeper of the sensus communis, the pictura here seems stuck on the rear wall of the eye.

This additional barrier that strengthens the boundary between the eye and the mind started with Vesalius’ observation that the optic nerve was not hollow. While Kepler gives a nod to the quasi-Aristotelian model of perception in the second half of this passage, it is my contention that the interposed retinal wall further fractured earlier popular theories of sensation and perception. Additionally, I think this wall between the eye and the mind takes part in a general and much broader transition from a paramaterial mind and “selfe” to more of a perimaterial sense of the modern self. In brief, I mean the transition from a less bounded and insular “selfe” towards a less permeable and porous modern self.

As I discussed earlier in my sections on Crooke and Tomkis, even with the revolutionary potential of Kepler’s retinal inversion, the change to popular understandings of vision emerged very slowly, and it was not until Scheiner in 1619 that a representation of the modern eye appeared in print. Just as the Galenic eye might have popularly survived Colombo’s corrective to Vesalius’ optical anatomy, the belief in the centrality of the crystalline humor survived, at least for some time, beyond Kepler. While creating more public controversy, the transition from a Ptolemaic universe to a Copernican one also took some time. While the revolutions in the microcosm and the macrocosm had begun by the first quarter of the sixteenth century, they were far from accomplished or won.

I will now return to several more examples which conjoin the microcosmic eye to the macrocosm in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth. By viewing their symbolic and, perhaps, real connections, we may begin to understand how their fates were aligned in the dual revolutions that overturned previous explanatory models of each, and might partially help explain why both revolutions were roughly historically congruent.

The microcosmic eye like the one found in Tomkis and Crooke uncomplicatedly reflected the majesty and order found in the macrocosm. Pierre La Primaudaye’s The French Academie contains yet another comparison of the microcosm to the macrocosm and the eye’s position within that order. La Primaudaye says,

We have yet another point to bee noted touching their situation, which causeth a certaine proportion and agreement to bee betweene the heavens and the head, and between the eyes of the great and little world, and those of the body and soule. … For this cause, as God hath placed the sunne, moone, and all the rest of the lights above named, and the eyes that are created to receive light from them, and to be that in man who is the little world, which the sunne, moone, and other lights of heaven are in this great universal world. Therefore as much as the eyes are as it were the images of these goodly bodies and celestiall glasses, they occupie the highest place in this body of the world, whereof they are as it were the eyes, to give it light on every side. For this cause also the eyes are more fierie, and have more agreement with the nature of fire, then any other member that belongeth to the corporall senses. … In all these things we see a goodly harmony and agreement betweene the great and the little world, the like whereof wee shall also finde betweene the worlde and the spirituall heaven, whose sunne and light is God, and betweene the eyes of the soule and of the minde. (La Primaudaye 77-78).

In La Primaudaye’s analogy, the eyes represent not the earth but the celestial sphere of the heavens within the microcosm of the body. The eyes receive the light of the world, but also serve as the light of the body. He goes on to suggest that the eyes’ close proximity to the inner senses and especially to reason also confirms their connection to both spiritual as well as bodily light. At the same time, he also notes a distinction between the fleshly or bodily eye and the eyes of the mind and soul by comparing the bodily eye and its received light to the corporeal world and the physical sun to the spiritual heaven whose sun and light is God. La Primaudaye links the corporeal eye to the spiritual or intellectual eye and the corporeal world and light to the divine world and light through a chain of signification and correspondence.

The anagogical significance shines through earlier in La Primaudaye’s discussion of vision when he talks about the special role the bodily, fleshly, or corporeal eye plays in acquiring knowledge and in understanding the divine. He says that the eyes’ “nature approacheth nearer to the nature of the soule and spirit, then any other, by reason of the similitude and agreement that is betweene them,” and proceeds to detail their function in natural and spiritual knowledge and understanding, saying,

…They are given to man chiefly to guide and leade him to the knowledge of God, by the contemplation of his goodly works, which appeare principally in the heavens and in al the order thereof, and whereof we can have no true knowledge & instruction be any other sence but by the eies. For without them who could have noted the divers course and motions of the celestiall bodies? … It is the first Mistresse that provoked men forward to the studie and searching out of science and wisedome. For the sight is ingendered admiration and wondering at things that are seene: and this admiration causeth men afterward to consider more seriously of things … In the end they come to the studie of science and wisedome, which is the knowledge of supernaturall light, namely of the light of the minde, unto which, science and doctrine is as light to the eye, so that it contemplateth and useth by that, as the eye seeth by light. (La Primaudaye 68-69).

The associations and interrelations of the bodily eye and the intellectual eye, and the corporeal light and the light of God were fairly conventional at least since Augustine, and their deployment in both analogical and anagogical systems underscores the conventional parallels and relationships established between them. While distinguished from one another, conventional theories connected the two and helped theorists explain the frisson and connection between the corporeal and spiritual worlds.

Many popular discussions of the superiority of the eye also proclaim that its primary Godly purpose was to acquire knowledge of the world. In this, many stressed the heavens as the best object one’s eyes could focus on to inspire heavenly thoughts and greater contemplations. In his Nosce Teipsum, John Davies, for example, plays with the conventional association with looking to the heavens as leading to knowledge when he describes that

These Mirrors take into their litle space
The formes of Moone and Sunne, and every Starre,
Of every Body, and of every place,
Which with the worlds wide Armes embraced are.
Yet their best object, and their noblest use,
Hereafter in another world will bee,
When God in them shall heavenly light infuse,
That face to face they may their Maker see.
Here are they guides, which do the Body leade;
Which else would stumble in eternall night;
Here in this world they do much knowledge reade,
And are the Casements which admit most light. (Davies 42).

Davies suggests that true knowledge and a true light will not come to the eyes until after death, but he also associates the corporeal light of the world with knowledge suggesting that that corporeal light, as in La Primaudaye, can lead to contemplation of higher things.

Science, including astronomy and anatomy, derives from the wonder generated by the corporeal eye, leading a perceiver from the physical sensation, to contemplation of the natural world, to a contemplation of God’s magnificence. It was the searching eyes of astronomers and anatomists that would soon challenge the conceptions of both the microcosmic eye and the macrocosm.

This returns me to the Augustine notion of three eyes with which I opened this post. While Augustine established three types of eye (the bodily eye, the spiritual eye, and the intellectual eye), all three converge and are mediated by what I call the paramaterial Phantasy in many sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century theories of sensation, perception, and cognition. While La Primaudaye too distinguishes the bodily eye and corporeal light from the spiritual eye and heavenly light, both reflect and resemble one another, interlocking them in a theoretical system and conceptual order that represented them as interrelated and mutually informing. It was the second eye, which, according to Augustine, was the eye of the spirit, but which according to many early modern variations was the eye of the mind, the Phantasy which was often thought to mediate the relationship between the external senses and the intellect and soul.

Not everyone had faith in the powers of the bodily eye and its corporeal light, however. In some theological accounts, the bodily or fleshly eye can lead one into spiritual blindness. The implication lies behind the passage from the La Primaudaye quotation above but the relationship remains one widely repeated in the early modern period. George Hakewill, English Calvinist theologian, argues that the bodily eye can lead to spiritual blindness and sin. Hakewill’s Vanitie of the Eye details many spiritual diseases resulting from the bodily eye, criticizing those who overly commend it, saying,

Though manie and singular bee the commendations of the nature and frame of the eie, & the use of it in the ordinary course of life bee no lesse diverse then excellent as wel for profit as delight, yet the dangerous abuses which arise from it not rightly guided, are so generall, and almost inseparable, that it may justly grow to a disputable question whither wee should more regard the benefit of nature in the one, or the hazard of grace and vertue in the other. (Hakewill 1).

For someone like Hakewill, the bodily eye leads to spiritual corruption in the form of lust, greed, envy, and other sins dependent upon or having their origin in vision. Later, when listing the diseases incident to the eye, he includes, “those which are many times imparted from the distemper of the braine (with which the eie holdes a marvelous correspondence)” (Hakewill 93). Because of the psychophysiological model of the embodied mind, the distempered brain can affect the eye, and the unruly eye can distemper the brain, and both, to some extent, can undermine the soul. It is this conjunction that I attempt to explore in my work on the paramaterial Phantasy.

Even La Primaudaye, who valorizes sight and champions its role in the production of knowledge of the world and of God elsewhere in the same book, cautions against the power of the corporeal eye. While I will expand upon this idea in later posts, the bodily, mental, and spiritual eyes converge in a much more ominous way in a later passage from The French Academie. La Primaudaye cautions people about the types of objects and images their bodily eyes receive. Like Hakewill later, La Primaudaye warns,

let us beware that we feede them not with the sight profane and dishonest things, least they serve to poyson the minde and soule, whereas they ought to become messengers, to declare unto it honest & healthful things. For he that doth otherwise is worthy to have, not onely his bodily eyes put out, & pluckt out of his head but also the eyes of his minde, that so he be may blinde both in body & soule, as it commonly falleth out to many. (La Primaudaye 79).

The three eyes are related through the reference to “poyson,” as the bodily sights are said to “poyson the minde and soule.” While metaphorical, the interrelation of the bodily, mental, and spiritual eyes exceeds metaphor in the way in which many of the references to them explain sensation, perception, and cognition. Just as the corporeal eye could lead to divine contemplation and the illumination of divine light as we saw in my previous example from La Primaudaye, he additionally argues that the bodily eye could also lead to bodily and spiritual corruption.

In addition to the mental and spiritual consequences resulting from a corrupt bodily eye as we have seen in La Primaudaye and Hakewill, still others challenged the type of knowledge the corporeal eye could acquire. The philosophical skeptics, even before Descartes, questioned the knowledge humans could gain through the bodily senses. For them, the eye along with the other bodily senses could not provide certitude or verify judgment. It is my contention that while sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century philosophical skepticism resembles the later seventeenth century developments as one sees with Descartes, those earlier skeptical movements and arguments were expressed through a quasi-Aristotelian and Galenic understanding of the sensitive soul. The developments in optical anatomy might have shifted the epistemological horizons even as they deployed tropes available at least since the time of Sextus Empiricus. Skeptics often challenged the paramaterial nature of the mind and its objects, emphasizing enclosure and the individual in what I call a perimaterial system. (See my previous post on philosophical skepticism here, and my sketch of the paramaterial and perimaterial here).

The eye as microcosm survived the challenge Colombo offered when correcting the situation of the crystalline humor within the eye. This process of de-centering the eye’s long-standing sovereign and seat of the visual power happened over the course of the time period from roughly 1543 to 1619, and although it would take much longer before its full effects were felt, the revolutionary potential of such a change in optical anatomy should be recognized. Later philosophers like René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and George Berkley were still grappling with some of the ramifications of the real image within the eye well into the eighteenth century.

Part of this new approach to physiology was to split the function of the eye from the broader understanding of “vision,” and refusing to speculate beyond the mechanical processes that occurred within the eye. Kepler declared that the mental processing of sensory data was beyond the scope of his argument, and as David C. Lindberg puts it “optics, [Kepler] argues, ceases with the formation of the picture on the retina, and what happens after that is somebody else’s business.” Lindberg suggestively notes,

It is perhaps significant that Kepler employed the term pictura in discussing the inverted retinal image, for this is the first genuine instance in the history of a real optical image within the eye—a picture, having an existence independent of the observer, formed by the focusing of all available rays on the surface. (Lindberg 202).

What Lindberg lauds as the first “real optical image within the eye” also points towards the extinction of another form of “image” within the eye that “had an existence” that was not “independent of the observer,” and, as I will argue, the extinction of images within the mind of that observer that resembled the world it represented. While not, according to Lindberg, a “real optical image within the eye” the previous image within the eye was something more, a product of an eye that depended upon the living eye of an observer that was thought to have more contact with the external world, and, even more importantly, perceived that world with the same orientation as perceived by the mind through images that resembled their objects.

Altering that previous arrangement, not only in the process of de-centering the crystalline humor but also in the Keplerian revolution that made the lens subservient to the retina and its retinal image, might challenge the important system of correspondences established between the eye and the macrocosm. This might partially help explain Vesalius’ misrepresentation of the crystalline humor as well as the continued reiterations of the mediate early modern eye in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. While we have no reason to doubt Colombo’s criticism of Vesalius’ dependence upon the animal eyes for his optical anatomy, and while incredibly speculative on my part, it is possible that the importance assigned to the central placement of the crystalline humor colored Vesalius’ perception of his optical anatomy. The anatomist, coming to the eye with cultural constructions and an a priori understanding of the eye’s function, found his perception of the eye shaped such constructions, not allowing him to see what was before his own eyes.

What is less speculative is that variations of the Galenic eye persisted to a degree well after Vesalius’ mistake was registered and noted and that those depicting the mediate early modern eye often did so through descriptions developed out of the earlier model. One wonders why early modern optical anatomists did not develop a modern representation of the eye until 1619 with the lens positioned just behind the pupil and towards the very front of the eye and without representing the whole of the eye as a perfect sphere. In this, I am more convinced that the a priori system of correspondences which structured the perception of the eye distorted its position because of the stress on the microcosmic structure of the eye as well as upon the centrality of the crystalline humor in the process of vision.

As I discussed in the conclusion of part one of this essay, I believe these popular beliefs and cultural constructions shaped discourses on ocular anatomy, which were, in turn, shaped by them. The system of correspondences and the emphasis on the eye as a microcosm reflected the shape, order, and majesty of the macrocosm. Historically congruous, the de-centering of the microcosmic eye and the de-centering of the Earth within the macrocosm historically emerge together to challenge long-standing authorities and chains of significance. The changes to optical anatomy might not have faced the same type of outrage as the reorganization of the cosmos, but it would profoundly shape and influence subsequent thinkers and their theories of sensation, perception, and cognition.

The system of correspondences, an a priori system of interconnections between world and cosmos, part and whole, slowly decayed under the developing power of a posteriori experimental science. At the same time, those systems of correspondences did not quickly or easily relinquish their hold on the understanding of the world and of the human body even as the new scientific gaze loosened their grip. It was precisely this power of mental Idols which Francis Bacon hoped to eradicate from his New Science because their influence could shape and distort an understanding of the world (see my previous post on Bacon’s Idols here). Even before Bacon, Vesalius attempted to correct the undue influence of classical thought on an understanding of the body, but, for whatever reason, his own work fails in the case of his representation of the eye. Those cultural constructions shaped and informed the development of the New Science even as that New Science attempted to strip knowledge of those very classical and cultural accretions from their perception of reality.

Just as the Copernican revolution would metaphorically turn the world upside down, the Keplerian discovery of the retinal image literally turned the world upside down with respect to the eye. Somewhat displaced from the center of the eye’s orb, the lens, in Kepler’s formulation, played a subservient role to the retinal screen, upon which visible reality was projected. The images within the eye no longer “impressed” themselves on the crystalline humor or bore the same orientation as objects in the external world or as they appeared in the mind of a perceiver, and were, instead, projected upon a curved surface and flipped with respect to vertical and horizontal orientations. Once this explanation eventually replaced the theories which declared the crystalline humor the seat of vision, the image within the eye no longer matched the visual field or the way in which the visual field appeared within the mind. I will return to these ideas more extensively in later posts, but want to say now that this new understanding radically split sensation from perception and, arguably, had ramifications for both the development of mind-body dualism, philosophical skepticism, and formation of the modern self.

While I agree to some extent with David C. Lindberg that Kepler’s theory “at bottom … remained solidly upon a medieval foundation,” I do believe that the retinal image offered a revolutionary change with respect to a person’s theorized orientation with the world despite this medieval foundation. While the full extent of the revolutionary implications would take some time to affect broader cultural shifts, the very fact that Kepler recognized and proposed an image within the eye neither conforms directly to the visual field before it nor to perception as experienced in the mind already took a revolution to see the retinal image as even a possibility. Kepler’s retinal image, of course, finally dethroned the crystalline humor as the seat of vision, but, even before this, anatomists challenged the notion that the crystalline humor occupied the physical center of the eye.[v] In this development, anatomies of the eye moved the crystalline humor from its place of prominence at the center of vision to a de-centered place.

The revolution of the eye involved in unseating the crystalline humor as the centralized power of the human eye, but it also literally de-centered the seat altogether. I cannot help but think this moment of de-centering within the microcosm of the eye itself prefigured and paved the way for radical re-envisioning and restructuring the macrocosm. I also cannot help but think that Kepler’s discovery of the retinal image and the consequent displacing of the crystalline humor combined with the Copernican revolution also helped dismantle the importance of the a priori system of correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm altogether. While I will return in a later post to discuss the emergent tensions between the paramaterial and the perimaterial and the type of philosophical skepticism that was available in the period preceding the real image’s influence upon the sensory system, systems of cognition, and the sense of “selfe,” I must for now, like Kepler, stop at the “opaque wall” of the retinal screen.

Works Cited

Banister, John. The Historie of Man. London 1578. (The English Experience 122). Amsterdam: Da Capo Press, 1969.

Bartisch, George. [Opthalmodouleia] Das ist Augendienst. Dresden: durch Matthes Stockel, 1583.

Clark, Stuart. Vanities of the Eye. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Colombo, Realdus. De re Anatomica libri XV. Paris: Apud Andream Wechelum, sub Pegaso, in vico Bellouaco, 1562.

Crombie, A.C. “The Mechanistic Hypothesis and the Scientific Study of Vision.” Science, Optics, and Music in Medieval and Early Modern Thought. London: The Hambledon Press, 1990. 175-254?

Crooke, Helkiah. Mikrokosmographia. A Description of the Body of Man. [London]: William Iaggard, 1615.

Davies, John. Nosce Teipsum. London: Richard Field for John Standish, 1599.

Descartes, Rene. Selected Philosophical Writings. New York: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Du Laurens, Andreas Richard Surphlet translation. A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight: Of Melancholike Diseases; of Rheums, and of Old age. London: Felix Kingston for Ralph Jacson, 1599.

Guillemeau, Jacques. A Worthy Treatise of the Eyes contayning the knowlege and cure of one hundred and thirteen dieseases, incident unto them. London, 1587.

Hakewill, George. The Vanitie of the Eie. Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1608.

Kepler, Johannes. Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena, Quibus Astronomiae Pars Optica Traditur. Francofvrti: Apud Claudium Marnium & Haeredes Ioannis Aubrli, 1604.

Lindberg, David C. Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Paré, Ambroise. The workes of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey translated out of Latine and compared with. London: Th[omas] Cotes and R[obert] Young, 1634.

Park, David. The Fire Within the Eye. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1997.

Platter, Felix. De Corporis Humani Structura et Usu. Libri III. Basil: Per Ambrosium Frob., 1583.

Scheiner, Christopher. Oculus Hoc Est: Fundamentum Opticum. Apud Danielem Agricolam, 1619.

Spruit, Leen. Species Intelligibilis: From Perception to Knowledge. Volume Two: Renaissance Controversies, Later Scholasticism, and the Elimination of the Intelligible Species in Modern Philosophy. New York: Brill, 1995.

Summers, David. Vision, Reflection, & Desire in Western Painting. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Tachau, Katherine H. Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham. Optics, Epistemology, and the Foundation of Semantics. Amsterdam: Brill, 1988.

Tomkis, Thomas. Lingua, or the Combat of the Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority. London: G. Eld for Simon Waterson, 1607.

Vesalius, Andreas. De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Venice: Apud Franciscum Franciscium & Joannem Criegher, 1568.

[i] Misnumbered as page 646 in the 1615 edition.

[ii]It should be noted that there was some controversy regarding the number of membranes of the eye. While Galen, Vesalius, Crooke and others affirm there were seven membranes, others, like Realdus Colombo, John Banister following him, and others affirmed there were only six.

[iii] I argue that in the pre-Keplerian system of vision that I call paramaterial, these species, including the species acquired by the other senses and re-conjoined by the common sense, retain some theoretical connection between them and their external object originals in many popular discussions, but, even aside from my arguments about the paramaterial, the crystalline humor receives or creates simulacra of external objects.

[iv] While this play has received critical attention spearheaded by the ever insightful Patricia Parker and Carla Mazzio, no one, to my knowledge, has yet discussed the importance of Tomkis’ Visus, Common Sense, and Phantastes. I will discuss Tomkis’ representation of Common Sense and Phantastes in a separate post as they pertain to the paramaterial Phantasy.

[v] I should note that I also think the development of linear perspective in the visual arts probably contributed to the discovery of the retinal image. I would like to talk more about this as an influence on its development but have not yet done the reading necessary to make such a claim at this time. Additionally, the ultimate assertion by Descartes and others that the eye works like a camera obscura reveals that it too made an important contribution to the recognition of the retinal image.


The World Turned Upside Down: Revolutions in the Microcosm and Macrocosm, and the Crystalline Humor in the Three Eyes of Early Modern Optical Anatomy. Part One.

The World Turned Upside Down: Revolutions in the Microcosm and Macrocosm and the Crystalline Humor in the Three Eyes of Early Modern Optical Anatomy

Part I. The Three Fleshly Eyes of Early Modern Optical Anatomy

Augustine famously discusses the three eyes of a perceiver. He details that, first, there is the eye of the flesh. Second, there is the eye of the spirit. And third, there is an eye of the intellect. All three eyes converge and interact to constitute sensation and perception’s interrelation with thought. The fleshly, bodily, and corporeal eye, consisting of the bodily organ, experiences the physical vision of things present before it. The spiritual eye, consisting of the faculty of the mind responsible for internal vision, mentally imagines or reconstructs things not immediately present before the corporeal eye. The intellectual eye, consisting of the Christian as well as spiritual soul, attends to knowledge acquired by the other eyes and also to spiritual matters and God. While all three of Augustine’s eyes have a bearing on early modern understandings of vision, for this post, I will focus on three very different eyes in early modern optical anatomy.[i]

The three eyes that I will discuss in this essay are all bodily eyes. Representations of the bodily eye, responsible for sensation and, in many theories, for perception, underwent a major shift during the course of the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth. The changes in ocular anatomy from 1543 to 1619 occurred at an alarming rate as anatomists turned their eyes from classical authorities and dissected non-human animal eyes to the eyes of the human animal. It is possible to debate the elite science’s sphere of influence upon popular beliefs and cultural practices, and while new theories of vision and models from optical anatomy took a long time to establish themselves in scientific and popular thought, it is my contention that they led to fundamentally different theories of a perceiver’s relationship with the world and to themselves. The eye, like the heavens to which it was often compared, became a conflicted space that underwent a radical theoretical reorientation and reconfiguration by the early seventeenth century.

In a period when natural philosophers found reflections of the divine ordering and structure of the universe, the macrocosm, in the body, the microcosm, and even in its parts, the conceptual framework often depended upon analogical and anagogical thinking that read similarity as a bearer of genuine connection. Astronomers and anatomists challenged the traditional ordering of both the macrocosm and the microcosm of the eye from the mid-sixteenth century and developed new models by the early seventeenth.

The German polymath, Johannes Kepler, played a key role in the revolutions in both the macrocosm and the microcosm. Perhaps most famous for his contributions to astronomy when he defended and elaborated upon Nicholas Copernicus’ hypothesis that the universe revolved, not around the earth, but rather around the sun, Kepler made important contributions to theoretically reorganizing the structure of the cosmos, and his work helped replace a Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe with a Copernican heliocentric one.

At the level of the microcosm, Kepler made another important contribution to yet another revolution. Arguably the most important development of early modern physiology, his 1604 Astronomiae Pars Optica argued that the bodily eye’s lens focuses light and projects it onto the retinal screen at the back of the eye. The problem for Kepler and for theorists of vision and optics for some time following was that if the lens focuses the visual field and projects it upon the retina, the image within the eye would be inverted with respect to vertical orientation and flipped with respect to horizontal orientation. 

The importance of this revolution in the microcosm should not be understated. A. C. Crombie argues that Kepler’s discovery of the eyes’ function constitutes an achievement that rivals, if not surpasses, William Harvey’s discovery that the heart operates as a pump that circulated blood. Crombie argues that a theory of “mechanization” of the body preceded Harvey’s discovery and that this “mechanized” view of the body helped lead to Kepler’s revolution in optical anatomy.

Historian of vision, David C. Lindberg, challenges Crombie’s argument that Kepler was a revolutionary figure. Lindberg ultimately concludes that Kepler represents “the culminating figure in the perspectivist tradition,” “strenuously object[ing] to Crombie’s and Straker’s attempt to view him as a revolutionary figure who transformed visual theory by ‘mechanizing’ it” (Lindberg 207). While Lindberg objects to Crombie’s arguments, I do think Kepler’s theory of vision was revolutionary at its core. To me, the very idea of postulating an eye that did not see either as the visual field before it or as the mind perceived it was a revolutionary move that had the effect of turning the world upside down with respect to the eye. In order to understand the groundbreaking nature of Kepler’s revolution with respect to ocular anatomy, I will use this essay to explore the representations of ocular anatomy and the eye’s functioning preceding and immediately following Kepler’s.

Oddly enough, although cultural and literary critics and historians have extensively studied vision from the late medieval and early modern periods, no one, to my knowledge, yet theorizes the importance of the very profound differences between pre-modern and modern optical anatomy and the theories of vision to which they are bound. In pointing out this oversight, I am not only referring to critics who anachronistically refer to the retinal image in their discussions of pre-seventeenth-century literature and culture, but also to critics who discuss philosophical skepticism or the early modern sensorium without acknowledging the importance of the way contemporary theories of the senses and vision underwent profound changes in the early modern period.[ii]

Historians of science and historians of the senses, on the other hand, cover some of this ground, but their methods often promote and trace narratives of scientific progress that, in my opinion, have two major shortcomings when viewed from the perspective of a cultural and literary critic. The first shortcoming is that these histories of science often deploy a top-down approach that rarely turns to popular culture to explore how scientific developments and thoughts shape and are shaped by broader historical and cultural concerns and shifts. The second is that the focus on scientific progress leads to blind spots in their field of vision when they only study the major figures without attending to how popular and vernacular works describe the same processes.

Take Lindberg’s discussion of the retinal image, for example. In his discussion of Leonardo da Vinci’s unpublished journals that grapple with the notion of the possible inversion of the image within the eye, Lindberg says with subtle sarcasm, “one of Leonardo’s major preoccupations was with the actual path of rays through the eye. His chief concern was to get the rays to the visual power at the end of the optic nerve without inversion, for he must by all means guard against that absurdity” (Lindberg 166). The lengths to which Leonardo goes to try to right the inverted image makes perfect sense when you consider that proposing an inverted image within the eye would be an unthinkable absurdity. For most of human history, the image within the eye was thought to necessarily conform to the visual field before it and to the way in which it was perceived by the mind.

While Lindberg proves a valuable resource for the study of the history of theories of vision, and while he places our understanding of Kepler’s contributions within the framework of a long history of optics, situating him as tied to the medieval tradition, his work is also directed towards exposing the paths that lead to major discoveries rather than exploring the terrain of how such theories and discoveries shape and are shaped by popular culture. My hope is that by exploring those elite discourses alongside popular discourses, we can come to a better understanding about how vision and our sense of “seeing” is itself culturally contingent and shaped through discourse.

Perhaps the best recent work on early modern vision, the eye’s relationship to the inner senses, and the changes happening in both elite and popular discourses on the eye is Stuart Clark’s fascinating book, Vanities of the Eye. In conjunction with his earlier Thinking with Demons, Clark provides invaluable insight into early modern theories of perception and cognition that straddle the boundaries between elite and popular discourses, and between intellectual histories of vision and cultural criticism. In Vanities, Clark argues that vision was “derationalized” over the course of the seventeenth century, challenging the notion that understandings of the eye became more scientific and rational. Even Clark, though, does not really address the profound changes in optical anatomy from roughly the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries. It is my contention that the process of de-centering the power within the eye contributes to the process of “derationalizing” premodern conceptions of the eye and orders of vision.

This essay will address the potential revolutionary changes in optical anatomy from 1543 to 1619 in two parts. The first half of this essay maps the terrain of early modern optical anatomy. In this part, I argue that the early modern period had three different stages and models of the eye’s structure. The three early modern eyes I detail in this part trace the de-centering movement of the crystalline humor in theories of vision from its early placement at the very center of the eye to its position towards the front of the eye.

The second half of this essay details the associations established between the microcosm of the eye and the macrocosm. In this part, I argue that the developments I discuss in part one relate to changes in theories of the macrocosm. By exploring vernacular discussions of the crystalline humor and its position within the bodily eye, I show how those symbolic resemblances and correspondences in its de-centering prefigure and reflect the reconfiguration of the cosmos.

As I discuss briefly in a previous post, prior to Kepler and the ultimate acceptance of his theory of ocular anatomy, the lens itself did not focus and project light upon the rear surface of the eye, but, instead, was thought to be the “seat of vision.” This seat of vision, called the “crystalline humor,” received the impressions or species of external objects, transferring them, no matter if vision acquired those impressions through extramission or intromission[iii], to the inner senses. While I have discussed those “impressions,” the objects of sensation and perception, and the internal senses before and most likely will again, for now I want to focus on the ways in which the material organ itself underwent a broad historical shift from the mid-sixteenth century to the early seventeenth century.

The crystalline humor was thought of as the seat of vision. Its important position with respect to vision depended not only upon its function, but also upon its physical location within the organ of sight. At the center of a sphere, the crystalline humor occupied not only a central position within explanations of its function but also a central position within the physical eye itself. Early optical anatomies and theories of sight seemingly depended upon the notion that a physically central component reflected and manifested its nobility and centrality to functioning. Many early optical anatomies distorted the position and shape of the crystalline humor within the eye to make it conform more to the idea that it was the most important component of the eye. As with contemporary theories the macrocosm, the physically central position bore symbolic and real significance. Just as the earth stood at the center of the cosmos, the crystalline humor stood at the center of the eye.

The Galenic Eye and Vesalius

I will turn first to the model of the eye I will refer to as the “Galenic eye.” While its representation has the longest history, my visual example comes from the first widely printed work of early modern anatomy, Andreas Vesalius’ monumental De Humani Corporis Fabrica of 1543.

The eye as Vesalius represents it in his De Fabrica. This image from a Venetian 1568 edition, page 495.

The eye as Vesalius represents it in his De Fabrica. This image from a Venetian 1568 edition, page 495.

In Vesalius’ figure, we see the crystalline humor positioned at the exact center of the oracular orb. The shape, too, appears more spherical than it should when compared to the images of optical anatomy from a modern anatomy book, and I will compare this Galenic eye to the modern eye later in this post. First, however, I want to attend to Vesalius’ representation and its subsequent critics.

Vesalius famously took issue with anatomies that were based in the repetition of ancient authorities and upon the dissection of non-human animals instead of upon direct observation of human bodies. Despite his corrective to many classically based misunderstandings of human anatomy, Vesalius errs in his representation of the eye, conforming to a model of optical anatomy that placed the crystalline humor almost in the center of the eye.[iv] While the crystalline humor he positions at the eye’s center is not perfectly spherical, in previous and in many later descriptions of the crystalline humor, natural philosophers often referred to it as a sphere. While not perfectly spherical in the image above, many texts continued to describe the central position and spherical shape of the crystalline humor as evidence of its nobility and its central role in the process of vision well past criticisms of such representations.

In the first widely printed work of modern anatomy, Vesalius followed classical authority in placing what had long been considered the seat of vision directly at the center of the eye. The whole of ocular anatomy’s description of the eye placed the eye’s other parts in relation to the crystalline humor. Vesalius, and many other optical theorists and anatomists, emphasized the importance of the crystalline humor. It was not only physically positioned at the very center of the eye, but also the whole of the eye served its centralized power. The fluids which filled the eye provided the crystalline with “nutrition,” the eye’s coats and its spherical shape were designed to protect and enclose it, and the colors on the inside surface of the eye “refreshed” it. It would seem that the crystalline humor’s unassailable centrality to the eye’s function demanded that it remain physically as well as symbolically central to the organ of sight.         

The figure in De Fabrica maintains the eye’s integrity and analogical link to the cosmos by placing the crystalline at the eye’s very center.  Like the earth at the center of the geocentric universe, the crystalline humor maintained its importance by that centrality[v]. The crystalline humor, analogically, and, often, anagogically, related to its object, the world itself, received likenesses of that world in the form of visual objects. 

Despite his placement of the crystalline humor, Vesalius made at least one important contribution with respect to ocular anatomy. The optic nerve, previously widely reported as hollow, turned out not to be hollow at all. Although the notion of the optic nerve as a conduit for vital spirits to transfer to and from the eye and the internal senses or wits persisted in dominant theories of visual perception, the change might have challenged the understanding that spirits carried the species or images into the inner recourses of the brain.[vi]

The Mediate Early Modern Eye

Vesalius’ distortion of ocular anatomy, however, did not go unrecognized for too long after the publication of his book. It was Vesalius’ possible successor at Padua and eventual rival, Realdo Colombo, who corrected Vesalius’ optical anatomy, pointing out and partially amending Vesalius’ error in Colombo’s only publication, the De Re Anatomica, published in 1559. Colombo claims that, like many of the errors Vesalius corrected based on classical anatomists’ dissection of animal bodies, Vesalius’ error derived from the anatomy of large animal eyes, most likely bovine, instead of human eyes. As Colombo puts it,

At aliorum animalium oculi non sunt undique orbiculares, sed vel oblique, vel depressi: neque id mirum est, cum hominis figura tanto interuallo a reliquis distet animantibus. Scito praeterea neminem ante me hominis oculum descripsisse, sed omnes beluinum oculum descripsere, magno & turpi errore, in quem ipse quoque Vesalius incidit, in eius universa pene formatione cum aliis Anatomicis deceptus. Quod verum, esse facile perspicies,si Galeni,vesalii, aliorumque Anatomicorum historiam de oculo cum nostra contuleris. & profecto non leviter hi homines accusandi sunt, Galenus praefertim,& post ipsum Vesalius, qui tantam rem, tam illustrem, tam optatam, tam negligenter scribendam putarent, beluinum oculum pro humano dissecates. (397).

[But the eyes in other animals are not perfectly orbicular, but are either oblique or depressed: it is not difficult to tell the difference of human eyes from the eyes of beasts. Know that no one else before me describes the human eye, but instead described the eye of a beast, and this is the great basis of Vesalius’ error. Vesalius fell into deception with the others of his training in Anatomy. That this is true, it is easy to see clearly, if Galen, Vesalius, and others compare their history of the anatomy of the eye to mine. Many prefer Galen [before] and Vesalius after him that they accept such a thing, so illustrious, so longed for, to be negligently written, taking a dissected beast’s eye for a human eye.][vii]

Colombo goes on to note other errors in Vesalius’ anatomy of the human eye, saying later,

Erroresque Vesalii in historia de oculo nullo negocio deprehendes … nam non modo in musculis & membranis, sed in humoribus quoque decipitur, & tota errat via, existimans cristallinum humorem in centro oculi exquisite situm esse. (405).

[Errors in Vesalius’ history of the eye are not difficult to find … for he is deceived not only in the muscles and membranes, but also in the humors, and he completely errs [in positioning] the crystalline humor in the eye’s center.]

Detailing Vesalius’ errors, Colombo notes that Vesalius’ most grievous concerns the placement of the crystalline humor at the very center of the eye.

While criticizing Vesalius for distorting human optical anatomy through animal dissection rather than human dissection, Colombo distorts the eye in his own way.  He maintains a largely spherical eye, and while he moves the crystalline humor towards the front of the organ, he does not place it just behind the pupil at the front of the eye. But despite not placing the crystalline where modern anatomists situate the lens and while maintaining its centrality in the perceptual process, Colombo de-centers the crystalline humor within the organ.[viii] Even once Colombo’s de-centered crystalline humor became the norm, popular anatomies continued to stress the importance of its centrality to the eye as well as the importance of its and the eye’s spherical shape.

Colombo’s observations led to a new model in early modern optical anatomy which I will refer to as the “mediate early modern eye.” My second image comes from the tables attached to the 1583 edition of Felix Platter’s De Corporis Humani Structura Et Usu.

The Mediate Eye represented in Platter's 1583 De Corporis. Table 49.

The Mediate Eye represented in Platter’s 1583 De Corporis. Table 49.

Felix Platter, who challenged theories of vision that argued the crystalline humor was the vision’s seat as early as 1583, follows Colombo in positioning the crystalline humor more towards the front of the eye. Platter was the first to argue that the crystalline humor was not the seat of vision, arguing instead for the primacy of the optic nerve and the retinal image. Kepler probably drew upon Platter’s description, but Platter did not, at least not in his text, discuss the inversion of the retinal image.  I will return to Platter’s contributions to the retinal image below, but, for now want to discuss the representations of the mediate early modern eye like his which were the most popular representations of optical anatomy from the mid-sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries.

What follows is a series of what I am calling the mediate early modern eye taken from popular vernacular anatomies printed in English from the sixteenth and early seventeenth century.


By far the most popular image of ocular anatomy, the mediate early modern eye persisted in various forms and copies. Most of the above examples represent copies or close approximations of one another, but George Bartisch’s 1583 German work on ophthalmology, Opthalmodouleia Das ist Augendienst, contains a flap anatomy of a very similar construction of the eye.


Bartisch’s figure shows a perfectly spherical eye, but also includes flaps that show the mediate positioning of the crystalline humor as well as by the aqueous humor before it and the vitreous humor behind it.

This mediate early modern eye is by far the most common in early modern anatomies from the late sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth. Not quite placed in its modern position just behind the pupil, but no longer positioned directly in the center of the eye, anatomists positioned the crystalline humor there for quite some time. What remains peculiar is that although most late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century anatomy books include representations of this mediate early modern eye, their descriptions often draw upon the Galenic eye even when they correct the errors found in the descriptions and representations of the eye like those found in Galen and Vesalius.

Even the printed version of Kepler’s manuscript conforms to the model established by this mediate early modern eye.

While not in Kepler's manuscript, the printed version included this image of the mediate eye.

While not in Kepler’s manuscript, the printed version included this image of the mediate eye.

While Kepler himself did not provide an illustration in his manuscript, this published text did include an image that resembles the ones I posted above. I will return later in this post and in subsequent posts to the importance of Kepler’s discovery of the retinal image, but it is important to note that the figure appearing in his 1604 Ad Vitellionem paralipomena Quibus Astronomiae pars optica traditur contains the image of the mediate early modern eye.

Despite the mediate early modern eye appearing in the printed version of his Paralipomena Kepler famously challenged the primacy of the crystalline humor, arguing instead for the importance of the retina and the retinal image. As he puts it,

Visionem fieri dico, cum totius hemisphaerii mundani, quod est ante oculum, & amplius paulo, idolum statuitur ad album subrufum retinae cauae superficiei parietam. (Kepler 168)

[I say vision is accomplished, when the whole hemisphere of the world and a bit more which is before the eye, an idolum is placed on the curved, reddish-white retinal wall.]

Unseating the crystalline humor’s primacy within the eye and in the process of vision, Kepler offers the retinal image in its stead. Before I discuss Kepler more extensively, however, I would like to turn to some early modern textual descriptions of the eye as they embody the tensions between the representations of the Galenic eye and the mediate early modern eye.

Even in texts which represent the mediate early modern eye, the verbal descriptions often draw upon the Galenic eye for the significance of the organ of sight. Despite acknowledging that the crystalline humor was not at the center of the eye or in the shape of a perfect sphere, later anatomical treatises often laud it for its centrality and spherical shape. In his 1578 The Historie of Man, John Banister does the same while simultaneously registering Colombo’ corrective contribution to ocular anatomy when he describes the crystalline humor as follows:

The second humor of the eye is Christalloides; or Christallinus, called so, for because it shineth like light, and in pure clearenes comparable to the christall. The place where it is sited is towardes the forepartes, almost in the centre of the eye, beyng amplected olf the hinder part with the vitrious humor, hauyng no other Membran interiacent or lyeng betwene: but before couered with Aranea. The figure of the christalline humor is round, but in the fore part depressed: where it respecteth the watrish humor, it is lyke the kynde of a pulse called a lentill. The substaunce, of this humor is somewhat hard. The vse therof is exiellent & most noble: beyng almost the principall member of sight, pleasaunt to be marked, and worthy to be knowen, not iniuriously therfore called the idole, or Image of seeing. (Banister 102).

In Banister’s description of the eye, we see that he has corrected his optical anatomy in accordance with Colombo’s observations, but he also partly conforms to the notion that the crystalline humor lies more central to the eye and that it has a round shape though depressed on the forepart. Banister does acknowledge that the chrystalline humor only “almost” sits in the center of the eye, and notes that the lens is round but is “in the fore part depressed,” but the legacy built up around the crystalline humor’s centrality to the organ of sight remains strong in Banister’s description. Banister notes that the crystalline humor is “excellent & most noble” partly based on the notion that its centrality confirmed the nobility both of the humor and of vision in general.

Banister even refers directly to Colombo’s critique of Vesalius, translating Colombo’s attack almost verbatim. He says,

The fashion of the eyes in man is rounde: which if you marke well, you shall finde that nothyng elles in the body hath a direct rounde proportion. But in other creatures the eyes are not directly round, no, rather oblique or depressed. Neither is that marueilous, whilest the figure of man differeth from all other creatures in no small poynt. Neither more openly, then worthely, hath Realdus Collumbus reproued such as hitherto haue made description of the eyes, by frequentation of brutish Anathomies: which clearely he noteth in Galen, and after him Vesalius, whose skilfulnes in matters Anathomicall no man neglecteth: yet with no small negligence is he spotted in this point, since, so carelesly to write in a matter so great, excellent, and oft wished he blushed not. (Banister 102).

Again, Banister notes the spherical shape of the eye, going further to suggest that no other part of the body comes as close to the shape of a perfect sphere. It was the perfectly spherical shape and the crystalline humor’s centrality within it that reinforced and confirmed the eye’s connection to the macrocosm’s ordering of the heavenly spheres.

Similar to the English Banister, the same tension appears in popular works on the eye translated into English towards the end of the sixteenth century. The French physician Jacques Guillemeau, in the English translation of his One Hundred Thirteen Diseases of the Eye, describes the crystalline humor as follows:

His seat is in the middest between the waterish and glassie humor, not onlie ministring nourishment and moisture, and so preserving from drinesse, but also to helpe and preserve the same, and to moderate & appease the rage of spirites and colours, which might hurte it. The fashion of it is rounde, whiche more easily resisteth outward injuries: for this figure is hardlie hurt, because it hath no corners. It is true that the roundnesse of it is somewhat pressed and pinched before and behind, but so that therby it remaineth more sure and stedfast in the place, whiche was harde to bee done in a round figure. (Guillemeau Chapter 4).

Guillemeau does not include any illustrations, but his description appears to place the crystalline directly in the center of the eye like the Galenic eye. Even if Guillemeau is referring to the mediate early modern eye, his verbal description could give a potential reader the impression that the eye was arranged in accordance with the Galenic model. He, too, notes the centrality of the crystalline humor, providing an explanation as to why the seat of vision is not perfectly spherical.

Nearly every other work published in English on the anatomy of the eye I have found from the late sixteenth century into the early seventeenth century, when they include images, represent the mediate early modern eye, and, when they describe optical anatomy, describe the crystalline humor as the eye’s primary part, but also note its centric, or nearly centric, position within the orb of the eye. This includes works by Englishmen like John Banister, Helkiah Crooke and popular works translated from French into English like Pierre La Pimaudaye’s The French Academie, André du Laurens’ A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight: of Melancholike diseases; of Rheums, and of Old Age, Jacques Guillemeau’s A Worthy Treatise of the Eyes, and Ambroise Paré’s Workes among others.

The crystalline humor’s centrality to a spherical eye trailed clouds of significance. I will return to some of those elements below when I discuss the treatment of the eye as a microcosm, but here want to discuss one description that casts the crystalline humor’s position in heroic terms. In 1594, French physician André du Laurens first published his Discours de la conservation de la veue: des maladies meloncholiques des catarrhes, which the English Richard Surphlet soon translated. With good reason, I quote the beautiful 1599 Surphlet translation at length:

Loe thus all vailes, shadowes and covert being taken away, it is now time to make a plaine and open shew of the most precious jewell of the eye, that rich diamond, that beautiful christall, which is of more worth than all the pearles of the East. This is that icelike humour, which is the principall instrument of the sight, the soule of the eye, the inward spectacle: this is that humour which alone is altered by colours, & receiveth whatsoever formes the things that are to be seene. This is that chirstalline humour, which in more hardie wise then Hercules, dares to encounter two at once, namely, the outward and the inward light. This is that onely christalline humour, which all the other parts of the eye acknowledge their sovereigne, and themselves the vassals thereof: for the hornie tunicle doth the office of a glasse unto it: the apple, the office of a window: the grapelike coate is as a fayre flowering garden, to cheare and rejoyce the same after wearisome labout: the cobweblike coate serveth as lead to retaine such formes as are offered: the waterish humour as a warlike foreward, to intercept and breake off the first charge of the objects thereof, assaying all upon the sudden, and with headlong violence to make breach and entrance: The vitreous humour is his cooke, dressing and setting forth in most fit sort his daily repast: The nerve opticke, one of his ordinary messengers, carrying from the braine thereto, commandment and power to see, and conveying backe againe with all speede whatsoever hath been seene: The muscles are his loftie steedes and couragious courses, whereup being mounted it advanceth it selfe aloft, casteth it selfe alow, turneth it selfe on the right and left hand: and finally in every such sort, as seemeth best unto it selfe. In briefe, this is the principall part of the eye, which I intend to describe… (Du Laurens 34).

Du Laurens positions the crystalline humor, which he later states is “placed in the middest of the eye, as in his center, to the end it may equally and indifferently intertaine and admit of both the lights” (34), as a Herculean hero and sovereign of the eye. The whole of optical anatomy serves the crystalline humor as its master, and that master engages in a mythological epic battle between two different assailants, the outward and inner lights.

The centrality of the crystalline humor to the eye reaches a metaphorical apex in du Laurens’ description, and his wonderful elaboration also exposes how the crystalline humor was seen as a type of sovereign as well as how the physical arrangement of the space within the eye could take on analogical and significance. The physical centrality and the functional centrality of the crystalline humor are intertwined not only in du Laurens’ elaborate metaphorical riffing but also in the anatomical descriptions of the eye itself. The sovereign of the eye must be spherical and central to its kingdom. Kepler would play an important role in de-centering its power further and culminating in its regicide. Before that time, however, the crystalline humor, as in du Laurens’ description, ruled the eye from a centralized seat of visual power.

I will return to the significance of metaphors du Laurens deploys below, but, before I do, I first want to discuss the final early modern eye or, simply, the modern eye. It was not until 1619 with the publication of Jesuit Christoph Scheiner’s Oculus hoc est: Fundamentum opticum that an anatomically “correct” image of the eye was printed.

The modern eye from Scheiner in 1619. Page 17.

The modern eye from Scheiner in 1619. Page 17.

This crude figure of the eye more closely resembles the eye of modern anatomy.[ix] Here, we see an eye that is not a perfect sphere with a lens that is no longer close to being central to the organ. Clearly towards the forepart of the eye, the lens nestles just behind the pupil, focusing and reflecting light on the curved surface of the retina at the rear of the eye. As I mentioned above, even Kepler’s work contains an image of the eye that differs dramatically from modern representations.

Scheiner’s work on optics verified Platter’s and Kepler’s earlier contentions that the retina rather than the crystalline humor was the central component of the eye.[x] Not only did the retinal image now dominate optical theory, but also completed the de-centering and dethroning of the eye’s previous seat of power, the crystalline humor. From this point forward, in elite science at least, the formerly mighty crystalline humor was relegated to a subservient role with respect to the retina and its retinal image.  

One can see this modern representation of ocular anatomy in my final visual example which comes from René Descartes’ text, probably the single most recognizable image of early modern optical anatomy. In this image, we find an eye must closer to the ones we find in a modern anatomy book. Not only is the lens placed much closer to the forepart of the eye, but the eye itself is no longer represented as perfectly spherical.

The modern eye depicted as a camera obscura in Descartes.

The modern eye depicted as a camera obscura in Descartes.

I will return to Descartes’ conception of vision and the importance of this figure in the second half of this essay, but his representation stands as a good example of what I will call the “modern eye,” despite the fact that it still differs in some aspects from what we think of when we turn to contemporary books of human anatomy. Descartes not only compared the human eye to a camera obscura, but also claimed the eye worked in the exact same way as the device and effectively was a camera obscura.

Descartes, like Kepler before him, accepted the retinal image and its inversion. Unlike Kepler, Descartes did not stop his investigation at the retinal image, theorizing the image from the eye at least as far as the pineal gland, and explaining that “it is the soul which sees, and not the eye; and it does not see directly, but only by means of the brain” (Descartes, Selected Philosophical Writings 68). The retinal image contributed in no small degree to Descartes’ philosophical skepticism. The disconnect established between sensation within the eye and perception in the soul dismantled theories that expressed their relationship and connection. While Descartes borrows many of his skeptical arguments from prior skeptical models, it is the retinal image that creates slightly different epistemological horizons for philosophical skepticism.[xi]

I do not mean to suggest that either Kepler or Descartes were singular geniuses that emerged from historical vacuums. Kepler continued to promote a quasi-Aristotelian understanding of the sensitive soul and Descartes not only adapted earlier skeptical motifs but also reiterated the quasi-Aristotelian model of the sensitive soul even if he pushed it beyond the pineal gland. Both figures shaped and were shaped by theories of perception available at the time of their writing.

The three corporeal eyes I discuss in the first half of this essay present the range of ocular anatomy from before 1543 to 1619, and I have shown the predominance of the mediate early modern eye in this period. Lindberg wonders what took so optical theories and ocular anatomists so long in coming to the realization that the crystalline humor functioned as a lens that projected light upon the retina when the relevant geometry and understanding of lenses were present for a long time previously. Part of the reason it took so long to discover the retinal image and correctly represent ocular anatomy has to do with the “absurdity” of claiming that the image within the eye was upside down and horizontally flipped.

In the next section, I explore the analogical and anagogical relationships developed in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century popular vernacular discourses that help explain what made de-centering the eye’s seat of power difficult and potentially revolutionary. These cultural beliefs, I suspect, made recognizing the correct position and function of the crystalline humor so difficult even beyond the absurdity of the retinal image and its inversion.

Broader cultural beliefs and practices shape early modern discourses on vision. The very notion that the eye must contain a species or image that conforms to the visual plane before it or as it is perceived in the mind was the biggest obstacle for early modern theorists of optics to overcome, but other discourses shaped their own perception of the eye. One wonders, for example, why Colombo and those who represented the mediate early modern eye not only emphasized a perfectly spherical shape to the human organ of vision and why, even when de-centering the position of the crystalline humor, they continued to place it, not towards the forepart of the eye, but more towards its center.

One explanation is that when early modern anatomists looked at the eye’s interior, they saw a radically different eye than modern anatomists. They saw within it a microcosm of the macrocosm. They saw an organ whose central functional component should occupy the organ’s physical center, and whose other parts were arranged in relation to and served this “sovereign” within the eye. The legacy of discourses that proclaimed the crystalline humor’s superiority and sovereignty shaped their own perception of the anatomized human eye. Even when they recognized, following the period of Vesalius, that the crystalline humor was not in the exact center of the orb of the eye, cultural discourses shaped their thought and perception in such a way as to construct the mediate early modern eye.

The anatomists’ shaping of sense also influenced and affected the recognition of the retinal image and its inversion. Not only did they see the crystalline humor as the eye’s seat of vision, but it was also imperative that the image within the eye conform to the orientation of the visual field and the way in which the mind perceived that visual field, and such an a priori stance obstructed the retinal image and its inversion’s acceptance. Even though many theorists of optics were probably aware of the camera obscura, they did not directly argue that the eye worked exactly like a camera obscura until much later since it was known that the camera obscura projected an inverted image upon a screen placed behind it. In the next section, I will go on to discuss the retinal image and inversion as well as the ways popular vernacular discourses published in or translated into English shaped and were shaped by ocular anatomy.

Works Cited

Banister, John. The Historie of Man. London 1578. (The English Experience 122). Amsterdam: Da Capo Press, 1969.

Bartisch, George. [Opthalmodouleia] Das ist Augendienst. Dresden: durch Matthes Stockel, 1583.

Clark, Stuart. Vanities of the Eye. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Colombo, Realdus. De re Anatomica libri XV. Paris: Apud Andream Wechelum, sub Pegaso, in vico Bellouaco, 1562.

Crombie, A.C. “The Mechanistic Hypothesis and the Scientific Study of Vision.” Science, Optics, and Music in Medieval and Early Modern Thought. London: The Hambledon Press, 1990. 175-254?

Crooke, Helkiah. Mikrokosmographia. A Description of the Body of Man. [London]: William Iaggard, 1615.

Davies, John. Nosce Teipsum. London: Richard Field for John Standish, 1599.

Descartes, Rene. Selected Philosophical Writings. New York: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Du Laurens, Andreas Richard Surphlet translation. A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight: Of Melancholike Diseases; of Rheums, and of Old age. London: Felix Kingston for Ralph Jacson, 1599.

Guillemeau, Jacques. A Worthy Treatise of the Eyes contayning the knowlege and cure of one hundred and thirteen dieseases, incident unto them. London, 1587.

Hakewill, George. The Vanitie of the Eie. Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1608.

Kepler, Johannes. Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena, Quibus Astronomiae Pars Optica Traditur. Francofvrti: Apud Claudium Marnium & Haeredes Ioannis Aubrli, 1604.

Lindberg, David C. Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Paré, Ambroise. The workes of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey translated out of Latine and compared with. London: Th[omas] Cotes and R[obert] Young, 1634.

Park, David. The Fire Within the Eye. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1997.

Platter, Felix. De Corporis Humani Structura et Usu. Libri III. Basil: Per Ambrosium Frob., 1583.

Scheiner, Christopher. Oculus Hoc Est: Fundamentum Opticum. Apud Danielem Agricolam, 1619.

Spruit, Leen. Species Intelligibilis: From Perception to Knowledge. Volume Two: Renaissance Controversies, Later Scholasticism, and the Elimination of the Intelligible Species in Modern Philosophy. New York: Brill, 1995.

Summers, David. Vision, Reflection, & Desire in Western Painting. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Tachau, Katherine H. Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham. Optics, Epistemology, and the Foundation of Semantics. Amsterdam: Brill, 1988.

Tomkis, Thomas. Lingua, or the Combat of the Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority. London: G. Eld for Simon Waterson, 1607.

Vesalius, Andreas. De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Venice: Apud Franciscum Franciscium & Joannem Criegher, 1568.

[i] For Augustine on the three eyes and the three types of vision see de Genesi ad litteram lib. XII. 6.15 to 7.29. I will talk more about these passages and the concepts of both the corporeal and intellectual species upon which they were based in later posts. Additionally, for a long history of the species, see both Katharine Tachau’s Vision and Certitude and Leen Spruit’s two volume work on the history of the intellectual species.

[ii] I would add, too, that recent critics, challenging the primacy of vision in their own right by tending to the importance of the other four senses often overlook the ways in which medieval and early modern constructions of the sensitive soul stress the interconnectivity of the external senses in the sensus communis. I do think their work makes important contribution to our understanding of the pre-modern sensorium, but would like to see more work that discusses the ways in which the quasi-Aristotelian sensitive soul, as inherited by medieval and early moderns, conjoin the discrete external senses in the inner senses. I intend to challenge the separation of the senses in later posts.

[iii] I will discuss the theories of extramission and intromission in a later post as well. While Lindberg stresses how theories of extramission were abandoned relatively early in elite discourses on optics and vision, there is evidence that the theories persisted popularly for some time following. Lindberg’s focus on elite discourses and in the pursuit of mapping out the discoveries that led to the development towards modern optics lead to ignoring the very real presence of theories of extramission in popular culture for some time following. On the other side of the spectrum, literary critics often fall into the trap of making the opposite claim, implying that the theory of extramission was much more widely accepted in the sixteenth century than they actually were.

[iv] For an excellent discussion of the history of early modern anatomy, see Jonathan Sawday’s The Body Emblazoned.

[v] One could argue that the geocentric model itself made only a strange type of sense in a macrocosm governed by God.  If the earth were important to an omnipotent and immaterial God, then the earth, with the exception of Hell, would be condemned to the basest realm of the cosmos.  David Summers makes a similar point in his Vision, Reflection, & Desire in Western Painting.

[vi] In this post, I would like to attend to the position of the crystalline humor but will discuss this more in a later post.

[vii] Forgive my hack job translation here. If anyone could help clarify and fix my translation, I would be most grateful. The Banister echo cited below probably comes closer to the sentiment in Colombo than my own translation.

[viii] Despite Colombo’s assertion that Vesalius’ error resulted from the dissection of animal rather than human eyes, Colombo’s own distortion gives us pause.  Why would Colombo correct the misplacement of the crystalline humor only somewhat, and why did he maintain a perfectly spherical eye?  We are, of course, in the realm of speculation here, but I would contend that his own error most likely resulted from the same cause that led to Vesalius’.  He simply did not see it, and could not believe the dissected human eye in front of his own living eye. I do not mean to say that Colombo’s charge that Vesalius’ eye was a deliberate distortion or that we have any reason to discount his contention that Vesalius dissected bovine eyes.  The cow’s lens is larger, more spherical, and more central to a cow’s eye but its overall shape is even less spherical than a human’s, and, yet, Vesalius maintains a perfectly spherical eye.  Why, then, would Colombo correct Vesalius’ gross error of the placement of the crystalline humor, yet not correct the overall shape of the eye itself nor place the crystalline humor in its “correct” location towards the front of the eye?  Dissection, I have been told and from vague memories of high school biology, is a messy business.  The body cannot be as neatly “seen” as a diagram supposedly showing the same structures.  Vesalius and Colombo could have accounted for their distortions by chalking them up to, say, the process of removing the eye from the ocular cavity or having pressed too hard while cutting into them, but I do think there is a possibility that they simply could not see the structure because their fantasies were shaped by their understanding of how vision operated.

[ix] I am not sure if more detailed figures were ever included in editions of this work, but my point is that even a crude figure like this offers an eye that more resembles modern optical anatomy than the previous examples.

[x] He also placed the optic nerve, not at the center of the back of the eye but in its more correct position towards one side.

[xi] While the relationship to skepticism exceeds the boundaries of this essay, as it will be an important concern in my other work, I wanted to mention it here.

George Bartisch’s Ophthalmodouleia Das ist Augendienst (1583): Animating the Early Modern Eye

For the past few days, I have been working on a long essay on the anatomy of the eye and the importance of the crystalline humor in early modern elite and popular discourses on sight, but I took some time away from editing to play around with both Flash and a digital edition of George Bartish’s splendid 1583 work on the diseases of the eye, the Ophthalmodouleia Das ist Augendienst.

A full-text digital edition of Bartisch’s work with some very high quality scans can be found here courtesy of the Internet Archive.

While I had seen some of the images from the Opthalmodoulia before reproduced in secondary sources, I had never seen a copy of the complete text before today, and, consequently, was unaware that the text also contained a woodcut of ocular anatomy with moveable flaps. Since I have been messing around with Flash to produce a few short videos for #WoodcutWednesday, I decided to try my hand at animating Bartisch’s anatomy of the eye.

What follows are two different animations. The first, an interactive animation, requires a Flash player, and the second, a Youtube video, does not have any interactivity but can be played on any device. Enjoy!

I hope to have my work on the crystalline humor posted by early next week.

“A mere Phantasm or Imagination”: Philosophical Skepticism and Joseph Mede’s Crisis of Sense

Hitherto, I have been focusing on the relationships established among the objects of the world and the objects of the mind predominantly in popular sixteenth- and seventeenth-century natural philosophy. I do so, in part, because the divisions between perception and reality, and between appearance and reality, for contemporary critical practice, are a given and are typically unreflectingly applied to earlier periods. In this post, I want to problemetize my contention by discussing an instance in which phantasms played a central role in epistemological and ontological questions generated by philosophical skepticism.

Literary critics at least since Staley Cavell have been interested in skeptical motifs in early modern literature. Cavell’s work was instrumental in developing my love of Shakespeare and in my interest in how philosophy relates to literature and cultural productions. Cavell argues that “the advent of skepticism as manifested in Descartes’s Meditations is already in full existence in Shakespeare … in the generation preceding Descartes” (Cavell 3). While insightful in his exploration of early modern philosophical skepticism as it appears in Shakespeare’s plays, he rarely uses contemporary sources outside of Shakespeare and Descartes to support his claim and never addresses the late sixteenth-century construction of the sensory system that might shape the ways in which skepticism at the time might be culturally contingent. Cavell mentions Montaigne, but only does so to position Montaigne as a skeptic trying to grapple with an “uncertain world,” whereas the skepticism he finds in Shakespeare and Descartes “is how we live at all in a groundless world. Our skepticism is a function of our now illimitable desire.”

Since Cavell and through new historicist scholarship, critics like Benjamin Bertram and Ellen Spolsky have broadened the understanding of sixteenth-century skepticism beyond Shakespeare, devoting more attention to its presence in early modern culture beyond Shakespeare and Descartes to amend the gaps. Apart from Spolsky, however, very few literary critics acknowledge the position of the sensitive soul in their analysis of early modern philosophical skepticism, and Spolsky herself typically reserves her discussion of the sensitive soul for footnotes. The same holds true for the objects of perception and of the mind known as species and phantasms. While Spolsky’s insightful analysis of a wide range of topics proves fruitful in deepening our understanding of how early modern skepticism was “satisfied,” it is my contention that by theorizing the sensitive soul and its objects we can attend to the different grounds upon which early modern skepticism is located. Stuart Clark, in his Vanities of the Eye, does the most extensive work I know of that discusses the ways in which what he calls the “derationalization” of sight intersects and converges with early modern skepticism. Clark’s exploration of changes in the accounts of early modern visual perception is incredibly rich and developed. Clark, however, in his focus on visual perception does not attend to the other senses and, aside from an incredible chapter on Macbeth, does not include many literary texts alongside the natural philosophy and optical treatises he details.

It is my contention that the Phantasy and its species or phantasms were central to skeptical dynamics in the early modern period. The faculty, the postulated theoretical point of intersection among perception and thought, the body and the soul, the world and the “selfe,”[i] waking and dreaming, and between the physical and metaphysical realms, was saddled with so many different tasks and roles, that the inherent contradictions produced uncertainty and cause for philosophical skepticism. Equally important are the objects of the Phantasy that are often represented as bridging the same divides and containing the same contradictions.

For this post, I would like to focus on an account offered of an early modern skeptical crisis in which the phantasms or species play a central role. In the early seventeenth century, theological student Joseph Mede, while pursuing a degree at the University of Cambridge, faced a crisis of sense. Mede’s crisis occurred

not long after his entrance into Philosophical studies he was for some time disquieted with Scepticism, that troublesome and restless disease of the Pyrrhonian School of old. For lighting upon a Book in a neighbour-Scholars Chamber, (whether it were Sextus Empericus, or some other upon the same Subject, is not now remembered) he began upon the perusal of it to move strange Questions to himself, and even to doubt whether the… whole Frame of things, as it appears to us, were any more than a mere Phantasm or Imagination. (Mede II of “The Author’s Life.”)

Mede’s encounter with classical philosophy unsettled his conceptual order, making it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between reality and fiction. As Richard Popkin explains in his The History of Skepticism, Joseph Mede “was at Christ’s College, Cambridge from 1602-10, and studied philology, history, mathematics, physics, botany, anatomy, astrology and even Egyptology… in spite of all this learning ‘his philosophical reading led him towards Pyrrhonism.’ But he could not accept the possibility that mind might not know reality, and might only be dealing with delusory ideas of an external world” (66). Two components of Mede’s crisis stand out. The first is that the text, most likely Sextus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism, prompted Mede’s unsettling questioning of reality. The second is that reading classical pyrrhonists prompted Mede to consider all of perceptible reality a “mere phantasm or imagination.” The belief that the world might be a “phantasm,” resulting from reading classical skepticism, produces a crisis that exposes the tenuous grasp humans have on reality.

Title Page to Joseph Mede'sWorks.

Title Page to Joseph Mede’sWorks.

The phantasms, also called the species, played an important role in shaping the sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century sense of sense, serving as the “objects” of the inner senses. The phantasms were mental images “visible” to the inner senses. In addition to explaining ordinary perception, natural philosophers also deployed the concept, especially “mere phantasms,” to explain phenomena like hallucinations, dreams, memory, and the delusions of sense. The goal of my dissertation and this blog is to reveal the complex and convoluted history and nature of the notion of the phantasms or species that, I argue, play an important role in both epistemology and skepticism. As Mede’s case shows, however, determining the difference between phantasms and reality could be a difficult affair, producing a crisis of sense.

The crisis of sense Mede suffered from shows the “groundless world” possible in the generation before Descartes as Cavell suggests, but, as it precedes the broad acceptance of Kepler’s revolution in optical theory, it does not operate on quite the same ground. I contend that Kepler’s retinal image, of which Descartes too was aware, fundamentally shifted the ground of philosophical skepticism by more radically separating sensation from perception and the objects of the world from the objects in the mind. Once broadly accepted, the theory of the retinal image, combined with a shifting of the faculties of the sensitive soul, in Descartes case at least, to the far side of the pineal gland, produced a situation in which the mediating space of the sensitive soul was recast as a part of a mind that remained distinct from the body and transformed the embodied brain into something much more mechanical. This mind-body dualism, voiding the mediation of the sensitive soul and its objects, generated skeptical problems that resemble but do not perfectly copy the skeptical problems apparent in the sixteenth century.

One difference, as we find in the description of Mede’s crisis, concerns the phantasms and the imagination or Phantasy. For Mede, the possibility that the entire perceived world might only be composed of phantasms generated from his own brain rather than being the traces left in the mind by the mental objects of the external world unsettled him, leading him to doubt the very fabric of reality.

Whereas, in what I call the paramaterial Phantasy, the senses, the sensitive soul, and their objects expressed continuity and interconnection with the external world, with Mede’s case, we see a profound perimateriality. Rather than retaining connections to and with the world, Mede finds himself, with the encouragement of rediscovered classical skepticism, postulating a world radically closed off from the mind. The mental objects, the phantasms or the species, do not retain a mimetic relationship to their external world which are generated from outside the perceiving subject, but, instead, might be produced from inside the perceiving subject.

The skeptical disposition typically reinforces and reifies the boundaries between world and selfe, between objects and subjects. In the most extreme forms of paramateriality found most often in discourses of magic and witchcraft, there is a profound openness and interactivity between selfe and world. In the most extreme forms of philosophical skepticism, however, the self is radically closed off from the world to the point where the only thing that might exist is the subject. Such a gap, I contend, became increasingly wide following the discovery and popularization of the retinal image, but even prior to the retinal image cases like Mede’s could emerge from earlier models of mind.

The epistemological quandary Mede faces resembles the thought experiment Rene Descartes engages in with what is today known as the Cartesian demon. After arguing that all knowledge comes through the senses, Descartes famously posits a demon which could manufacture the illusion of reality by manipulating the senses. As Clark discusses and as I will discuss in other posts, Descartes builds upon questions of demonic manipulations of sense current in witchcraft discourses.

In many of these earlier discourses, while a devil or demon could manipulate the sensitive soul and its objects, Descartes extends the possibility of deception to the whole of sensible reality. But in Mede’s case, a similar world devouring skepticism emerges not from an externally postulated demon but rather from the solipsistic possibility that the world might be the product of Mede’s own mind.

In order to defeat his evil demon, Descartes turns to arguing that an omnipotent and benevolent God would not allow the type of all encompassing powers of delusion he attributed to the deluding devil. Similarly, the passage of Mede’s biography shifts from recounting Mede’s crisis of sense towards his life of religious study and writing. As the passage continues,

The Emprovement of this Conceit (as he would profess) rendered all things so unpleasant to him, that his Life became uncomfortable. He was then but young, and therefore the more capable of being abus’d by those perplex’d Notions by which Pyrrho had industriously studied to represent the Habitation of Truth as inaccessible: But by the mercy of God he quickly made his way out of these troublesome Labyrinths, and gave an early proof that he was design’d for profound Contemplations, by falling so soon upon the consideration of subjects so subtil and curious.

The “perplexed Notions” of Pyrrho lead to a crippling melancholy after the young Mede was “abused” by their representation of the inaccessibility of truth. The scholarly melancholy of Mede’s university days, the biographer assures us, gives way to “profound Contemplations” that drive him towards God and religious truths. Instead of Descartes’ arguments for the existence of God, Mede is led from the labyrinth of philosophical skeptical ideas by God’s “mercy,” but, through the implication, Mede turns towards God to recover from his uncertainty and melancholy.

Montaigne, too, makes such a move towards the conclusion of his “An Apologie for Raymond Sebond” where, after having taking Pyrrhonian doubt to its limit by undermining epistemology and faith in the senses, he takes issue with the sentiment “Oh what a vile and abject thing is man … unlesse he raise himselfe above humanity!” (325). Montaigne objects to this “absurd” statement by pointing out that man cannot rise above his humanity, explaining,

For to make the handful greater then the hand, and the embraced greater then the arme; and to hope to straddle more then our legs length; is impossible and monstrous: nor that man should mount over and above himselfe or humanity; for, he cannot see but with his owne eyes, nor take hold but with his owne armes. He shall raise himselfe up, if it please God extraordinarily to lend him his helping hand. He may elevate himselfe by forsaking and renouncing his owne meanes, and suffering himself to be elevated and raised by meere heavenly meanes. (325-326).

For Montaigne, only heavenly means can allow for a transformation where one rises above humanity even if one can help, through pyrrhonian skepticism, by voiding the faith in one’s senses and abilities.

The move, characteristic of many mid- to late sixteenth-century skeptical treatises, uses pyrrhonian tropes to reinforce a subjection to God, and can, at times, resemble the negative theology offered by thinkers like Nicholas of Cusa. In both Montaigne and in the description of Mede’s crisis of sense, God becomes the point beyond skepticism and remains unchallenged, but Descartes feels compelled to defend the existence of God through argument. While such skeptical questions were rarely (at least openly) deployed against belief in God, the philosophical skepticism they found in recovered and popularized texts like Sextus Emipricus’ Outlines certainly deployed similar arguments against belief in the gods. In Mede’s case, we see that the effects of skeptical questions and method could challenge all beliefs and knowledge, leaving them in a “groundless world” in the generations before Descartes.

The sense of urgency, anxiety and melancholy found in the report of Mede’s encounter with classical skepticism presents something not found in Sextus himself. For classical pyrrhonists, skeptical methods were used not to increase anxiety about ontology and epistemology, but rather as a way to achieve ataraxia (“tranquility”) by suspending judgment on dogmatic beliefs. For Mede, however, Sextus produces feelings of melancholy and profound anxiety that the world might not exist. The anxiety apparent in his doubt that “the… whole Frame of things, as it appears to us, were any more than a mere Phantasm or Imagination” leads to anything but tranquility as his melancholy makes things and life “unpleasant” for him.

I mention melancholy because it too plays a very important role in the skeptical arguments of both Sextus and Descartes, both use the delusions of madmen and melancholics to challenge the reliability of ordinary perception and judgments. In this too, Descartes plays into a tradition available at least a generation before him. While the psychophysiological models of the mind might not have resulted in exactly the same type of mind-body dualism found in Descartes, the paramaterial model of the mind, its sensitive soul, and their objects still gave occasion for an extreme philosophical skepticism.

At the same time, however, many of the philosophical skeptics’ arguments, even while questioning the reliability of the senses and suspending judgment on all matters, often depend upon a Galenic understanding of the mind, its faculties, and their objects. I will talk about this further in a later post on an expurgated translation of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines often attributed to Sir Walter Ralegh. Even as late sixteenth-century philosophical skeptics reified the borders of the body, possibly speculating, as Mede does, that all of sensible reality was a delusion, the terms in which they expressed such thoughts were linked, in some respects, to a model of mind that was slowly coming to be seen as outdated.

Sixteenth-century philosophers, natural philosophers and the skeptics inherited models of the mind shaped through Galen, Aristotle, the Stoics, Scholasticism, Avicenna, Averroes and the intervening commentary on those authorities. The models derived from classical thought and shaped during the medieval period typically become the tools deployed by skeptics against dogmatic belief and against epistemology. Many sixteenth-century philosophical skeptics, like the classical skeptics before them, do not often turn their own methods against the authorities on or the dogmatism of the models of perception and mind from which they draw the explanatory models to challenge the certitude of perception. Instead, they deploy those models to raise ontological and epistemological questions, challenging the nature of other beliefs and practices.

In the brief description of Joseph Mede’s crisis of sense, we discover that the phantasms and the possibility that the phantasms might be internally generated rather than externally derived stand at the center of the epistemological questions occasioned by philosophical skepticism. As I will discuss in further posts, the phantasms or species and the related faculty of the Phantasy which retained or produced them stood at the center of sixteenth-century ontology and epistemology. Additionally, representations of those objects and their faculty expose the tensions between two competing models of the selfe that either expressed an extreme openness and interconnectivity with the world in a model that I am calling paramaterial and one, offered by skeptics, that radically, and perhaps solipsistically, closed the selfe from the world in a model that I am calling perimaterial.



Bertram, Benjamin. “The time is out of joint:” Skepticism in Shakespeare’s England. University of Delaware Press, 2004.

Clark, Stuart. Vanities of the Eye. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Mede, Joseph. The Works of the Pious and Profoundly-Learned Joseph Mede. London: Roger Norton, 1672.

Montaigne, Michel de. Essays: Volume Two. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1942.

Popkin, Richard H. The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1979.

Reiss, Timothy J.. Mirages of the Selfe: Patters of Personhood in Ancient and Early Modern Europe. Stanford UP, 2003.

Spolsky, Ellen. Satisfying Skepticism: Embodied Knowledge in the Early Modern World. Aldershot, Burlington, Singapore, and Sydney: Ashgate, 2001.

[i] Here and elsewhere, I opt to follow Timothy J. Reiss’ use of the term “selfe” as he describes in his incredibly insightful Mirages of the Selfe, saying that he chose to use the early modern spelling of “selfe” because of its “defamiliarizing effect” since “It just named whatever interior nature it was that made a person a human and no other kind of being” (25). In other posts, I also refer to “perceivers” to avoid using the modern spelling and notion of “the self” where appropriate.

“Runne through [t]he[i]r vaynes”: Phantasies of Desire in Barnabe Barnes’ Parthenophil and Parthenophe’s Sonnet 63 and Sestine 5

A few years ago, Gordon Braden introduced me to the peculiar sonnet from Barnabe Barnes’ Parthenophil and Parthenophe. At that time, I remember finding the pairing of Jove’s “golden shower” with the speaker’s desire to become the urine of his beloved both hilarious and intriguing. I wondered whether this was the first instance in English history where the term “golden shower” was used and if the valences I read into the poem were historically accurate.

Barnes’ Sonnet 63 reads as follows:

Jove for Europaes love tooke shape of Bull,
And for Calisto playde Dianaes parte
And in a golden shower, he filled full
The lappe of Danae with coelestiall arte.
Would I were chang’d but to my mistresse gloves,
That those white lovely fingers I might hide,
That I might kisse those hands, which mine hart loves
Or else that cheane of pearle, her neckes vaine pride,
Made proude with her neckes vaines, that I might folde
About that lovely necke, and her pappes tickle,
Or her to compasse like a belt of golde,
Or that sweet wine which downe her throate doth trickle,
To kisse her lippes, and lye next at her hart,
Runne through her vaynes, and passe by pleasures part. (Barnes 43).

Returning to it now, however, after studying early modern representations of the external and internal senses, I rediscover a poem that bears meaning beyond my previous laughter. I still do not know if the poem constitutes the first reference to watersports, and, sophomorically, it still makes me laugh, but Barnes’ poem also reveals a culturally contingent understanding of the body. Attending to that model of the body additionally reveals the extent to which Barnes exceeds the colonization of the female body found in the typical early modern blazon. While his speaker goes on a descriptive tour of his beloved’s external body, what he craves is to penetrate that body. The desire for penetration, here, exceeds the boundaries of sexual penetration, as Parthenophil imaginatively penetrates and invades her entire body.

Sanctioning his desire for otherwise debasing transformations, Pathenophil begins with a list of gods willing to transform in pursuit of their desires. Notably, his first reference to Jove’s becoming a bull implies a threat of or a desire to rape. The Jove and Europa myth detail Jove’s abduction of and non-consenual sexual encounter with Europa while he was in the shape of a bull. The theme of transformation in pursuit of sexual violence continues in his second reference to the Callisto myth. Jove, lusting after one of Diana’s nymphs, took Diana’s form to seduce Callisto. Once he has her in his arms, he reveals himself and rapes her. His third reference, takes a slightly different frame as he refers to Danaë. Imprisoned by her father in a tower for fear that her child will kill him, Jove comes to her in the form of a shower of gold. While Jove is not the offending male figure in this myth, the father’s actions again reveals and conceals the threatening nature of Parthenophil’s desire.

Danae impregnated by Jove in the form of a "golden shower"

Danae impregnated by Jove in the form of a “golden shower”

From the first two classical references that imply the threat of sexual violence, Parthenophil turns towards the metamorphoses he desires to get closer to Parthenophe. Rather than engage in the typical blazon, systematically dismantling his beloved’s integrity by splitting her into parts, the speaker proceeds to imagine himself as a variety of objects connected to her body. He begins with her gloves, then her pearl necklace, and then her belt. Each object, as magnified through his description, serves to surround and envelop her body. The gloves wholly conceal the hand, the necklace folds around her neck, the belt encompasses her waist.

While on one hand imagining his control over her external body, his imagined metamorphoses also carry the suggestion of his own feminization. He becomes the one penetrated, as he becomes the glove, the necklace and the belt. In each imagined scenario, he becomes filled with her body. The would be penetrator becomes the penetrated; the subject becomes a series of imagined objects. As his imagined objects become containers for her body, his beloved becomes the phallus to his glove. Whereas Petrarch fetishized Laura’s glove, which symbolically and metonymically represents her vagina, the speaker of Barnes’ poem desires to become a glove, to become the vagina filled by his beloved. Like Jove who metamorphosed into Diana for Callisto, Parthenophil seems willing to adopt a type of gender-bending to attain the object of his desire. The gender-bending dynamic does, however, meet its limit in the full description of her pearl necklace. As the necklace, the speaker hopes to “tickle” Parthenope’s breasts, moving from an object that folds around her neck to actively touching her.

Barnes ends the sonnet with Pathenophil imagining his expulsion from her body. He, becomes excremental in order to access places otherwise denied. Instead of a scene of penetration, the sonnet ends with an expulsion. He, in effect, becomes another form of golden shower. Thomas Nashe, like unlike my own initial reaction to Barnes’ sonnet, mocked Barnes’ overwrought metaphor. In his dialogue Have with you to Saffron-walden, an unnamed responder mentions this poem while discussing Barnes, saying, “In one place of his Parthenophill and Perthenope, wishing no other thing of Heaven, but that hee might bee transformed to the Wine his Mistres drinks, and so passe through her” (Nashe Q2 verso). In response, Bentivole, one of the interlocutors, quips, “Therein hee was verie ill advisde, for so the next time his Mistres made water, he was in danger to be cast out of her favour.”

While certainly amusing, the dynamics of his move at the conclusion of this sonnet give us pause. Parthenophil finishes his thought experiment by expelling him from her body, but only after he has imaginatively explored her entire body from the inside, fully filling her with his presence. The parallel with the Danaë reference earlier metamorphoses him not only into excrement but also into a god. Although he leaves the beloved’s lap rather than falling into it, his taking this form of “golden shower” renders him an excremental deity.

The end of the sonnet cycles back towards the violence suggested in the first quatrain. Moving back from the penetrated objects in the previous, Parthenophil imagines himself as the wine she drinks. It is this move that alters the series of metaphors from attention to the external form of his beloved to her bodily interior. As wine, the speaker imagines entering her mouth and penetrating her throat, but this is where the metaphor becomes even more interesting. As a liquid his beloved drinks, the fantasy of penetration is taken to an extreme. He fantasies that this will allow him to lie near her heart and run through her veins. With the first half of the last line, Parthenope imagines a complete penetration of Parthenophil’s body, insinuating himself into her vital spirits and, therefore, becoming dispersed throughout her entire body.

As Nashe’s mockery shows, the metaphor might be overwrought, but Nashe also plays on an interesting pun that reveals an additional layer to the dynamic in Barnes’ poem. The responder says that Parthenophil wants to “passe through” his mistress. While Bentivole turns this towards the metamorphosis into piss, the quip also reveals that the central conceit involves fully infiltrating and penetrating Parthenophe. I will return to this thread below, but first want to turn my attention towards the culminating poem of Barnes’ Parthenophil and Parthenophe.

Title page of Barnabe Barnes' Parthenophil and Parthenophe

Title page of Barnabe Barnes’ Parthenophil and Parthenophe

The sequence ends with the equally peculiar “Sestine 5” in which Parthenophil employs the assistance of Hecate to achieve his desires. While unclear whether this poem reveals a narrative event or if it is supposed to be taken as an imagined event, the poem’s real or imagined event unleashes a sexual violence. Driven to the depths of despair and love-melancholy for Parthenophe, Parthenophil turns to the dark arts to summon her naked where he rapes her.

Then, first with lockes disheveled, and bare,
Straite guirded, in a chearefull calmie night :
Having a fier made of greene Cypresse woode,
And with male frankincense on alter kindled
I call on threefould Hecate with teares,
And here (with loude voice) invocate the furies :
For their assistance, to me with their furies :
Whilst snowye steedes in coach bright Phoebe bare.
Ay me Parthenophe smiles at my teares,
I neither take my rest by day, or night :
Her cruell loves in me such heate have kindled.
Hence goate and bring her to me raging woode :
Hecate tell which way she comes through the woode.
This wine aboute this aulter, to the furies
I sprinkle, whiles the Cypresse bowes be kindled,
This brimstone earth within her bowelles bare,
And this blew incense sacred to the night.
This hand (perforce) from this bay his braunche teares.
So be she brought which pittied not my teares.
And as it burneth with the Cypresse woode
So burne she with desier by day and night.
You goddes of vengeance, and avenge-full furies
Revenge, to whom I bende on my knees bare.
Hence goate, and bring her with loves outrage kindled.
Hecate make signes if she with love come kindled.
Thinke on my Passions Hec’ate, and my teares :
This Rosemariene (whose braunche she cheefely bare
And loved best) I cut both barke and woode,
Broke with this brasen Axe, and, in loves furies
I treade on it, rejoicing in this night :
And saying, let her feele such woundes this night.
About this alter, and rich incense kindled
This lace and Vervine to loves bitter furies
I binde, and strewe, and with sadde sighes and teares
About I beare her Image raging woode.
Hence goate and bring her from her bedding bare :
Hecate reveale if she like passions bare.
I knitte three true lovers knottes (this is loves night)
Of three discolour’d silkes, to make her woode,
But she scornes Venus till her loves be kindled,
And till she finde the greefe of sighes and teares :
Sweet Queene of loves for mine unpittied furies,
A like torment her with such scaulding furies :
And this turtle (when the losse she bare
Of her deare make) in her kinde did shed teares,
And mourning did seeke him all day, and night :
Let such lament in her for me be kindled,
And mourne she still, till she runne raging woode :
Hence goate and bring her to me raging woode
These letter’s, and these verses to the furies
(Which she did write) all in this flame be kindled :
Me (with these papers) in vayne hope she bare
That she to day would turne mine hopelesse night,
These as I rent, and burne, so furie teares.
Her hardned hart, which pittied not my teares.
The winde shaked trees make murmure in the woode,
The waters roare at this thrise sacred night,
The windes come whisking shrill to note her furies :
Trees, woodes, and windes, a part in my plaintes bare,
And knew my woes, now joy to see her kindled :
See whence she comes with loves enrag’d and kindled !
The pitchy cloudes (in droppes) send downe there teares,
Owles scritche, Dogges barke to see her carried bare
Wolves yowle, and cry : Bulles bellow through the wood,
Ravens croape, now, now, I feele loves fiercest furies :
See’st’e thou that blacke goate, brought this silent night
Through emptie cloudes by’th daughters of the night ?
See how on him she sittes, with love rage kindled,
Hether perforce brought with avenge-full furies ?
Now I waxe drousie, now cease all my teares,
Whilst I take rest and slumber neare this woode :
Ah me ! Parthenophe naked and bare,
Come blessed goate, that my sweet Lady bare :
Where hast thou beene (Parthenophe) this night ?
What could ? sleepe by this fier of Cypresse woode
Which I much longing for thy sake have kindled,
Weepe not, come loves and wipe away her teares :
At length yet, wilt thou take away my furies ?
Ay me, embrace me, see those ouglye furies.
Come to my bed, least they behold thee bare
And beare thee hence the[y] will not pittie teares,
And these still dwell in everlasting night :
Ah loves, sweet love, sweet fiers for us hath kindled.
But not inflam’d, with franckinsense, or woode,
The furies, they shall hence into the woode,
Whiles Cupid shall make calmer his hot furies,
And stand appeased at our fier’s kindled.
Joyne joyne (Parthenophe) thy selfe unbare,
None can perceive us in the silent night,
Now will I cease from sighes, lamentes, and teares,
And cease (Parthenophe) sweet cease thy teares :
Beare golden Apples thornes in every woode,
Joyne heavens, for we conjoyne this heavenly night :
Let Alder trees beare Apricockes (dye furies)
And Thistles Peares, which prickles lately bare.
Now both in one with equall flame be kindled :
Dye magicke bowes, now dye, which late were kindled :
Here is mine heaven : loves droppe insteede of teares.
It joynes, it joynes, ah both embracing bare :
Let Nettles bring forth Roses in each woode,
Last ever verdant woodes : hence former furies.
O dye, live, joye : what ? last continuall night,
Sleepe Phoebus still with Thetis : rule still night.
I melt in love, loves marrow-flame is kindled :
Here will I be consum’d in loves sweet furies.
I melt, I melt, watche Cupid my love-teares :
If these be furies, oh let me be woode !
If all the fierie element I bare
Tis now acquitted : cease your former teares,
For as she once with rage my bodie kindled,
So in hers am I buried this night. (Barnes 143-146).

The turn towards sexual violence and threats of violence in the first quatrain of Barnes’ Sonnet 63 return in this final poem with a vengeance. Violently breaking from the Petrarchan conventions that served as the model for many of the poems in the sequence, Barnes’ Parthenophil metamorphoses from unrequited lover into a demon summoning rapist.

Externalizing the uncontrollable internal forces of passions and love-melancholy, the power Parhthenophil exerts over Pathenophe’s body here enacts a wish-fulfillment but also displaces his own feelings of powerlessness in the presence of her into an imagined scenario where her presence lies under his complete control. The uncontrolled and uncontrollable passions and thoughts within himself are given an imaginary solution whereby the external world acts at his command.

The fantasy of control on display in Barnes’ concluding poem reverses the processes internal to the speaking subject throughout the sequence. Love, it was thought, entered through the senses and, often, through the eyes. The beloved enters the body of the lover through the external senses, typically through vision. The sensible forms enter through the external senses and impress themselves upon the spirits of the mind and the internal senses. With love-melancholy, the attention to this mental object increases its power, and the species or phantasm can have a special control over the body.

The example I just sketched includes an intromissive theory of vision, but similar effects were offered in extrmissive accounts. As I will discuss in a later post, love beams, in particular, were one example of extramission theory that seems to survive popularly into the seventeenth century. In theories of extramissive love-beams, the eyes shoot forth beams that include the visual spirit that is a form of or is infused with the beloved’s blood. As such, those beams, when they enter through the eyes of the lover, insinuate, or, perhaps, insanguate, themselves in the lover’s own spirits, blood, and body.

While the private Phantasy shaped such objects, it should not be forgotten that those objects and forms constitute a type of penetrating, invading, and usurping force. While the fantastic image within the lover might be shaped, perverted and reconstructed though the private fantasy, the object-subject separation partially collapses in such explanations of love’s effects.

The seemingly uncontrollable internal forces and the uncontrollable world which, internally, the speaker is unable to control through his will become the occasion for an externalized fantasy of an all-powerful will in which the world conforms to his will. Subject to her power over him in his state of unrequited love, Parthenophil turns to a fantasy of immense power over her and the world. In the sonnet immediately preceding the culminating “Sestine 5,” Parthenophil claims that Parthenophe’s hard-heart and lack of pity unleashes “ten thousand furies” in his mind which “chaung[e] the tenour of [his] lovely dittie” (Sonnet 105, line 12). He turns from poetry that he hoped would affect Parthenophe’s heart and mind, to “enchaunting sawes, and magicke spell” (13). Rather than persuade her “hard indurate hart” through verse, he will use the dark arts to “compell.” His control over her, however, only extends as far as her body, her will resisting. In this scenario, the world, significantly apart from her will, becomes an extension of his own will; the unruly passions within him become controlled through his agency.

Woodcut of a woman riding a goat from Guazzo's Compendium Maleficarum (1608)

Woodcut of a woman riding a goat from Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum (1608)

Through psychoanalytical lenses, we can understand the conclusion of Barnes’ sequence as wish-fulfillment where fantasies of control step in to counteract the speaker’s feelings of powerlessness and impotence. If we take into account contemporary beliefs about the body, of sense perception, and of love, however, we can see precisely how this drama unfolds in a culturally contingent way.

For those Lacanian minded, one might consider the ways in which Petrarchan conventions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries present the power of the fantasy in feelings of love. As Zizek constantly reminds us, love and sex are imprecated in narcissism, and sex is merely masturbation with a partner present. As Zizek puts it in The Parallax View, “in a strictly symmetrical way, ‘real sex’ has the structure of masturbation with a real partner–in effect, I use the flesh-and-blood partner as a masturbatory prop for enacting my fantasies … sex always-already was ‘virtual,’ with flesh-and-blood persons used as masturbatory props for dwelling in our fantasies” (191). The fantastic surplus drives desire, since sexual attraction is driven by the fantastical construction of the object.

Such insights remain valid when investigating early modern love lyric, but one should also acknowledge that the separation of the external world and the world of objects does not remain entirely distinct from the objects of the mind quite as radically. While the phantasms are shaped through the sensitive soul and by the private Phantasy, they also retain some relationship to and with their external originals in a way that modern optical theories and theorists foreclose. The Phantasy certainly shaped those objects, but the theories of the senses as popularly expressed also granted those mental objects a real quasi-material connection to their external originals.

As I mentioned earlier, some pre- to early modern theories of love and love-beams challenge our contemporary notions of a subject with closed off borders and boundaries, of a subject removed from and isolated from the world. In the systems of perception I have been mapping, there is more emphasis on the porousness and permeability of a perceiver. The beloved, despite the shaping power of the Phantasy, exerted a force on and power over the lover. Whether it the form, the species, or the blood, the material body of the beloved enters and becomes part of the lover’s body and mind.

While such theories expose the permeability of the sensory system and a perceiver, many also, like Helkiah Crooke in his Microcosmographia, recommend the policing of the borders of the body. While such arguments reveal that those theories also presumed a somewhat stable self that needed protection from the external world, the sensory apparatus needed to be rigorously patrolled and protected even more given the quasi-material interactions that were thought to occur in the sensory system.

The shocking and unsettling violence at the conclusion of Barnes’ sequence certainly breaks with Petrarchan conventions, but it also reveals the sexual violence often sublimated within the Petrarchan conventions themselves. The concluding poem also brings the imagined violence of his earlier sonnet into relief. In his fantasy of becoming Parthenophe’s “golden shower,” the violence of the culminating “Sestine 5” is already apparent in that earlier poem.

In that earlier poem, Parthenophil wants to “runne through her veins,” implying, as I argued previously, that he would fully penetrate her body by insinuating himself in her blood and possibly her spirits. He wishes to fill her, penetrating her entire body and filling her with his presence. This violent act resembles the violence of the concluding poem. It also, however, resembles the represented violence inherent in theories of love and love-beams. Just as he imagines running through her veins and spirits in the form of digested wine, her form “runs” through his veins and spirits as the object of his obsession.

I do not mean to suggest that the affecting potential of a beloved upon a lover directly parallels the violence of rape, but I do think, at the level of natural philosophical theorizing, such a similarity can be drawn. The power and agency attributed not only to human but also to objects in and of the world show the interrelation and interconnection of the world and perceiver. As such, when we encounter moments that resemble the mle gaze in early modern literature and culture, we should be aware that the pre- and early modern gaze is not a one sided affair, and that power is not solidified on the behalf of the male gazer. Instead, the gaze becomes a play of agency between the looker and the looked at. The looked at maintains an influence over the gazer on a psychophysiological level.

The material effects generated within a perceiver and the objects’ ability to interface with the material world, the spiritual world and the soul has led me to call the faculties, spirits, and objects of the sensitive soul and mind paramaterial, and the agency conferred upon a beloved extends in many respects to the world of objects at large. Just as the external beloved could shape the interior of a perceiver both materially and spiritually, objects too, especially religious objects threatened to shape a devotees’ mind and body.

Barnes, Barnabe. The Poems of Barnabe Barnes. Ed. Alexander B. Grosart. Manchester: Charles Simms, 1875.

Nashe, Thomas. Have with you to Saffron-walden. London: John Danter, 1596.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Monstrous Phantasies: Imagining the Fetus in Ambroise Paré’s “Of Monsters and Prodigies”

I have been discussing the paramaterial objects of the medieval and early modern mind as if they paradoxically took part in both the material nature of external objects and the immaterial abstraction of the soul. I will have more to say about the strange positioning and representation of those objects in later posts, but here I want to discuss a few specific peculiar examples from early modern natural philosophy and anatomy that exposes the force those objects supposedly possess. The examples I have chosen for today’s post mainly come from a chapter of Ambroise Paré’s “Of Monsters and Prodigies” devoted to “monsters which take their cause and shape by imagination” (Paré 978). In his examples in this section, Paré explores the relationship of the Phantasy to the womb and details several examples in which he thought external objects affect the development of the fetus in utero.

Paré warns of the dangers to the formation of a fetus within women who possess a powerful Phantasy, attributing some forms of physical deformity in children to the mother’s perception and/or imagination during conception. The first example, pulled from Heliodorus, is of Persina, “Queene of Aethiopia,” who, married to a fellow Ethiopian,

had a daughter of a white complexion, because in the embraces of her husband, by which she proved with childe, she earnestly fixed her eye and mind upon the picture of the faire Andromeda standing opposite to her. (978).

Paré explains Persina’s “daughter of white complexion” as a result of the mother’s “earnestly fix[ing] her eye and mind” upon a “picture of the faire Andromeda.” The image of Andromeda, while Persina is in the “embraces of her husband,” prints its influence upon the fetus formed in the womb.


Of special note, the woodcut accompanying this portion of Paré’s “Of Monsters” includes, not the white child born to Ethiopian royalty, but rather a black child. The error might simply result from copying a similar block from another text, but, in a book and chapter devoted to monstrous forms and deformities, its inclusion here casts the woodcut in a particularly racist light. It would seem that doing so associates skin-color with monstrosity. While one should not ignore the racist undertones of an account that seems to contrast the “fair Andromeda” to the “Aethiopian” parents or the misogyny which underlies the impulse to blame a child’s deformity upon the mother, one should also attend to the implications of such an account upon our understanding of popular representations of the Phantasy and its objects.

So what does this example mean for the representation of perception? Persina’s case implies that visual phenomena in conjunction with a strong Phantasy can alter the physical body. External objects or images, finding their way through the external senses, not only shape the mother’s Phantasy, but also, in a strong imagination, can shape the form of the unborn. As Paré explains earlier,

the force of the imagination… bee so powerfull in us…it may alter the body of them that imagine, [the ancients] soon persuaded themselves that the faculty which formeth the infant may be led and governed by the firme and strong cogitation of the Parents begetting them (often deluded by nocturnall and deceitfull apparitions) or by the mother conceiving them, and so that which is strongly conceived in the mind, imprints the force into the infant conceived in the wombe. (978).

While Paré displaces the ideas about these phenomena onto the “ancients,” he also reiterates their conception of the Phantasy’s relationship to the womb and to a developing fetus by providing multiple examples without ever questioning their reliability.

In Thomas Johnson’s translation at least, something strongly imagined can “imprint” its image onto the conceived “infant.” Just as the visible species was thought to “imprint” or “impress” itself on the crystalline humour, the species or phantasm in the Phantasy was thought to “imprint” itself on the form of the unborn. In Paré, looking at an image, even an artificial image, affects the material body in a corporeal way. The strong Phantasy, so taken by the image it receives, allows that image to penetrate and then permeate the body to such an extent that it alters the form of the developing fetus. In this instance, Paré focuses on the external form, but would also involve altering the humoral temperament involved, according to some sixteenth-century Galenists, in producing “blackness.” The image shapes not only Persina’s Phantasy, producing physical changes within her, but also shapes the external and internal form during conception.

Paré draws another example from “Damascene [who] reports that he saw a maide hairy like a Beare, which had that deformity by no other cause or occasion than that her mother earnestly beheld, in the very instant of receiving and conceiving the seed, the image of St. John covered with a camells skinne” (978). Probably born with what today’s science would diagnose as hypertrichosis, the child Damascene mentions grew into a hairy woman as depicted in the woodcut accompanying the text. Like the previous example, an image produces the deformity in a child through its power on an affective Phantasy. Whereas with in the previous example, Andromeda’s whiteness passes through the Phantasy and imprints upon the child, here, St. John the Baptist’s “camells skinne” coverings generates a hairy maid.

In both examples, an artificial image, mediated through a mother’s strong Phantasy, alters the body of the unborn, but, in order to bring the external form of the child into line with the perceived or imagined object, it must also alter the unseen aspects of the fetus. The artificial image, a painting or statue, is enough for the Phantasy to work from, but to produce its results, early modern natural philosophers could have explained how those external forms affect the inner body. While Paré does not go into such explanations, Galenic humoralism could be deployed to explain such miraculous internal effects that led to changes in external form.

While Paré registers some hesitation in this chapter, noting that he has “read” or “heard” such stories, he concludes by countering some who think the infant can only be affected early in pregnancy, recommending that pregnant women avoid such images until they are brought to term.

There are some who thinke the infant once formed in the wombe, which is done at the utmost within two & forty dayes after the conception, is in no danger of the mothers imagination, neither of the seed of the father which is cast into the womb; because when it hath got a perfect figure, it cannot be altered with any external form of things; which whether it be true, or no, is not here to be enquired of: truly I think it best to keep the woman, all the time she goeth with childe, from the sight of such shapes and figures. (979).

So, even if he appears to take a skeptical stance towards his sources earlier in the chapter, he continues to stress the importance of keeping pregnant women from such pictures and images.

In his essay, “The Force of the Imagination,” Michel de Montaigne also refers to similar examples even if he attributes them to different details, locales, and time periods.

Magitians are but ill respondents for me. So it is, that by experience wee see women to transferre divers markers of their fantasies, unto children they beare in their wombs: witnes she that brought forth a Blacke-a-more. There was also presented unto Charles king of Bohemia, an Emperour, a young girle, borne about Pisa, all shagd and hairy over and over, which her mother said, to have beene conceived so, by reason of an image of Saint John Baptist, that was so painted, and hung over her bed. That the like is in beasts, is witnessed by Jacobs sheepe, and also by partridges and hares, that grow white by the snow upon mountaines. (Montaigne 102).

While Montaigne goes on later to complicate the citing of examples in his essays, he contrasts these accounts with those of “magitians.” Whereas Paré called it an “imprint[ing],” Montaigne refers to the process as a “transferr[ing] of diverse markers” from the Phantasy to the fetus.

Paré, like Montaigne, also makes reference to Jacob’s sheep from Genesis 30 to provide scriptural proof of the imagination’s influence on the generation of animals. As Paré has it:

which thing many thinke to be confirmed by Moses, because he tells that Jacob encreased and bettered the part of the sheepe granted to him by Laban, his wives father, by putting roddes, having the barke in part pulled off, finely stroaked with white and greene, in the places where they used to drinke, especially at the time they engendered, that the representation apprehended in the conception, should be presently impressed in the young; for the force of imagination hath so much power over the infant, that it sets upon it the notes or characters of the thing conceived. (Paré 978).

While the reference provides some scriptural sanction of the ideas offered in each text, the passage also once again exposes the way in which the Phantasy challenged the distinction between human and non-human animals. As Jacob’s sheep grew to resemble the striped rods which he placed before them, the corporeal component of human Phantasy caused human fetuses to resemble perceived or imagined objects.

Additionally, the description “of monsters and prodigies” offered by Paré, Montaigne, and their classical sources blur the line between animal and human by combining the form of the human with the forms of animals. Throughout Paré’s book, for example, he provides descriptions and images of calf-men, dog-men, pig-men, goat-men, colts with a man’s face, and women who give birth to snakes or dogs. One wonders, with an explanatory system dependent upon reserving reason or an intellectual soul for non-human animals, where these “monsters” fall with respect to their rationality. While the cases in the chapter on deformities caused by the imagination or the chapter on deformities caused by too much or too little seed might imply that the prodigies described there were mostly human with aspects of another form, the images of human and non-human animal hybrids muddy the waters. It is never clear whether these hybrid creatures are supposedly limited to the imagination of non-human animals or if their minds extend beyond it.


Paré’s last example in this chapter of “Of Monsters and Prodigies” concerns “an infant with a face like a Frog,” turning from ancient testimony to testimony from the early sixteenth century:

Anno Dom. 1517. in the parish of Kings-wood, in the forrest Biera, in the way to Fontain-Bleau, there was a monster borne, with the face of a Frog, being seen by John Bellanger, Chirurgian to the Kings Engineers, before the Justices of the towne of Harmoy; principally John Bribon the Kings procurator in that place. The fathers name was Amadaeus the Little, his mothers, Magdalene Sarbucata, who troubled with a feaver, by a womans perswasion, held a quicke frogge in her hand untill it died, she came thus to bed with her husband and conceived; Bellanger, a man of an acute wit, thought this was the cause of the monstrous deformity of the childe.

This example differs from the previous examples in that the woman “held a quicke frogge in her hand until it died” rather than looking upon a picture, image, or object. While not discussed in the main body of the chapter’s text, it is still included within the chapter proper, but the separation might underscore its reliability as opposed to the stories of ancients. Paré is also in a position to provide more specificity and detail. With the sketchy details of the previous examples, Paré overloads this description with dates, locations, names, and relationships.

The explanation, given credibility through these details and through the diagnosis of a reliable physician, shows that the species and its influence was not solely limited to the visual. Here, touching the frog during the act of generation purportedly “imprints” its form upon the fetus in a similar fashion. As I have suggested elsewhere, because the discrete sense impressions and species were reassembled by the Phantasy, the mimetic object produced within the spirits of the brain retained all of their aspects. In this case, the touch itself produces tactile as well as a visible transformation in the fetus.

The resulting “infant with a face like a Frog” shows evidence of the transferability of properties and the fluidity among the impressions offered by the five external senses with respect to the species or phantasm. Perceiving and strongly conceiving of an object, because the phantasm retained information from all of the senses, could produce effects beyond the visual, the tactile, the auditory, the odor, and the gustatory discretely. Instead, the resulting infant, stamped with the form, looks like a frog even though the mother only touched a frog during conception.

The question remains how these “monsters” fit within a hierarchical system designed to maintain human superiority over non-human animals. While they become human-like or beast-like, it is never really addressed whether these “monsters” operate with a human animal’s capacity for reason or not. Despite the fact that I have not found an example describing the sensitive soul of such reported “monsters,” their hybrid natures call into question the rigid demarcation continually stressed between human and non-human animals.

Additionally, such examples link women more thoroughly to corporeality through the Phantasy’s power over the formation of children. While Paré acknowledges that a strong conceit in men as well as in women, his examples typically account for deformities and “monsters” through the woman’s Phantasy. By associating women with the Phantasy and its objects, such examples, by extension, associate women with animals whose internal life was dominated by the imagination rather than remaining under the strict control and guidance of human reason.

The explanation for such events was attributed to the special “sympathy” between the brain and the “matrix,” but the implication is that the materials of the brain, the species or phantasms they contained, retained some “tast of the matter” (more on this in a separate post) that when considered in an overactive imagination could alter matter itself within the womb. While others have discussed the gendered implications of such phenomena, especially Montaigne’s suggestion that the Phantasy could contribute to spontaneous sex changes, less emphasis has been placed on what those effects mean for the understanding of mental concepts and their relation to the external world. That the species of a particular entity could exert such an influence on the paramaterial spirits suggest that the contents of mind were more than merely and incorporeal mental phenomenon when charged with an overactive imagination. The same holds true for images purportedly found in the hearts of the particularly devout, where images were found in the heart of God, Christ, or the name of God. An image graven on the material surface of the heart could show that spiritual matters were so consistently on the mind that the spirits of the devout could physically manifest those images within the very matter of the heart.

The species and phantasms can also be transported to and have an influence on other parts of the body since they are “stamped” within the spirits and the Phantasy, and can dwell in the heart and “imprint” or “transferre diverse markers” upon a fetus within the womb. The potential of images within the brain to generate material effects on the body, underscore not only the fact that the mind and body were considered more interconnected, coextensive, and coexpressive, but also reveal that the products of the mind were granted a paramaterial force; their “forms” could influence and “shape” matter generated within the body. A species or phantasm in a powerful Phantasy could potentially inform and stamp its influence on the matter forming in the womb just as much as those species could be stamped within the matter of the brain.


Montaigne, Michel de. Essays: Volume One. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1942.

Paré, Ambroise. The workes of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey. London: Th[omas] Cotes and R[obert] Young, 1634.

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.

The nose and eye in Helkiah Crooke's Microcosmographia. (539).

The nose and eye in Helkiah Crooke’s Microcosmographia.

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.