‘[P]rophane fidlers’: Medical Paratexts and Indecent Readers in Early Modern England

  • Harry Newman
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine book series (PLSM)


The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw an enormous proliferation of printed vernacular texts that discussed and illustrated the female reproductive organs. These gynaecological and obstetrical texts, which included midwifery manuals as well as sections in large anatomical works, inflamed moral outrage (even within the medical establishment) and were stigmatised as forms of pornography. While literary, social and medical historians have addressed the relationship between medical and erotic literature in the early modern period, little has been written on the significance of book history to such discussions. In particular, paratexts (not only title-pages, dedications and prefaces, but also readers’ annotations) can tell us much about the connections between the rhetorical or ‘literary’ qualities of these books and their material life during publication and reading processes. Focusing on Helkiah Crooke’s anatomical work Mikrokosmographia; or a Description of the Body of Man (1615, 1616, 1618, 1631, 1651) and its ‘portable’ octavo epitome Somatographia Anthropine (1616, 1634) as a case study, this chapter combines archival work with analysis of rhetoric and illustrations to examine the ways in which paratexts negotiated anxieties attendant upon publishing women’s ‘secrets’ in early modern England. It considers how prefatory writers—not just authors but also translators and publishers—justified the publications to ‘legitimate readers’ (modest women and medical professionals) and admonished the intrusiveness of ‘illegitimate readers’ (laymen). These writers employed rhetorical strategies which, while explicitly establishing the publications’ legitimacy, fetishised the books as marketable erotic objects, making them more attractive to consumers driven by prurient curiosity. Through bibliographical analysis of a wide range of copies based in the UK, the USA, and Canada, comparisons are drawn between the implied readers constructed by medical paratexts and the actual readers (both male and female) who produced their own.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Harry Newman
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishRoyal Holloway, University of LondonEghamUK

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