Preternatural Particulars & the Wonders of Generation


A review of From the “Workshop of Wonders”: Observing Generation in Danish Medicine, 1650-1800, by Signe Nipper Nielsen.

This excellent dissertation begins with a description of an astonishing stillborn fetus, which was found to be carrying a tiny, nearly viable fetus in its uterus. The account appeared in a collection of anatomical observations published in 1661 by the Danish physician Thomas Bartholin (1616-1680), the main subject of Signe Nipper Nielsen’s dissertation. A highly-regarded doctor, Bartholin was also fascinated with natural marvels, particularly those relating to generation. The story of the pregnant fetus provides a vivid entrée into his accounts of the wonders of the womb. As Nielsen argues, Bartholin viewed generation as the moment at which nature most frequently went awry, and his learned works kept careful record of monstrous births.

Nielsen’s dissertation offers a noteworthy intersection of several strands of historiography. It makes a major contribution to the historiography of the body and generation, encapsulated by Barbara Duden’s The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), Laura Gowing’s Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), Mary Fissell’s Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), and Katharine Park’s Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection (New York: Zone Books, 2006). It also intersects with the work on the study of nature and natural marvels most influentially considered in Paula Findlen’s Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) and Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park’s Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998). In addition, Nielsen offers a compelling contribution to works focusing on natural particulars, observation, and the genre of historia in early modern Europe, including Anthony Grafton and Nancy G. Siraisi (eds.), Natural Particulars: Nature and the Disciplines in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998); Gianna Pomata and Nancy G. Siraisi (eds.), Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); Brian Ogilvie, The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); and Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck (eds.), Histories of Scientific Observation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). By demonstrating the extent to which Bartholin’s interest in historia and observation focused on oddities of generation, Nielsen adds fuel to Park’s argument that studying the female body was central to the study of nature in early modern European learned spheres.

The dissertation comprises four chapters — three focusing on Thomas Bartholin, and one on eighteenth-century medicine. The first chapter provides an overview of Bartholin’s place within European medicine and, in particular, his study of generation and anatomy, including the religious context of his practice. Nielsen emphasizes the importance of the Christian-Lutheran framework of Thomas Bartholin’s body of work: although most of his observationes do not explicitly reference God or the Bible, his interest in medicina sacra underscores the extent to which he saw religion and natural philosophy as intertwined. Similarly, his anatomical practice was informed by Melanchthonian notions of showing the glory of God’s creation. As part of the pan-European intellectual community, Bartholin both received much of the information he included in his observationes from the wider Republic of Letters (as well as lower-class informants, such as midwives and clergymen) and disseminated his accounts to the wider medical community.

Chapter 2 examines Bartholin within the context of natural philosophers’ increasing interest in natural particulars, or empirical evidence from the natural world, encapsulated in the learned genre of historia. Nielsen argues that Bartholin’s historia focused especially on preternatural particulars as evidence of the extraordinary wonders of nature. Nature’s playfulness and capriciousness, or lusus naturae, was a much-discussed concept in early modern natural philosophy, and Bartholin viewed generation as a process in which nature’s playfulness was especially pronounced. Nielsen demonstrates that for Bartholin, nature and generation were intertwined concepts that informed and influenced each other — so much so that his historiae often mirrored the popular literature on monstrous births. Nielsen then provides numerous examples of ways in which the concept of the lusus naturae manifested itself in Bartholin’s historiae on generation. Crucially, she notes that the first-hand witnesses for these natural particulars were often women, since oddities of generation usually appeared at births, which were attended by women. To reinforce the credibility of many of the accounts of monstrous births, high-status women or “reliable” male witnesses such as clergymen often backed up the accounts, even if they had not witnessed the event first-hand. In addition, the historiae often call attention to the good character, erudition, and/or piety of the witnesses. Chapter 2 thus demonstrates the complex intertwining of trust, reliability, status, religion, and gender in scientific witnessing.

Chapter 3 focuses specifically on Bartholin’s concept of the womb as a “workshop of wonders.” Nielsen contends that Bartholin saw generation as a complicated and fraught process with unpredictable outcomes, in which the usual boundaries of nature could be breached. The fetus-within-a-fetus mentioned at the beginning of this review is a perfect illustration of the disruption of nature’s usual path, and Nielsen provides many other vivid examples as well: the goat which gave birth to a stillborn human-like fetus; the man who resembled a bear due to his mother’s affection for a bear skin during pregnancy; molar pregnancies with fanciful forms ranging from a starfish to a toad to a penis; women who gave birth to various animals and human-animal hybrids; and a man who generated a rooster in his head. Fundamentally, these cases demonstrate Bartholin’s belief that the body was transmutable and able to undergo radical changes.

Nielsen’s final chapter examines Bartholin’s legacy, focusing on a number of changes to ideas of generation and monstrous births that occurred in eighteenth-century Denmark. In keeping with the overall Enlightenment project of systematization and classification, the boundaries between the human, animal, and plant world became much more fixed, and the concept of nature’s playfulness shifted to a focus on the classification of types of monstrous births. This impetus was facilitated by the institutionalization of birth assistance as well as greater access to bodies of fetuses for dissection. Overall, Nielsen argues, tales of natural wonders were replaced by the “facts” of dissection, and the emphasis on nature’s playfulness was replaced by ideas of the regularity of her deviations.

Overall, Signe Nipper Nielsen’s dissertation provides a fascinating and provocative view of the continuing importance of natural wonders to seventeenth-century science. In particular, it adds to the growing literature on the centrality of the female body and its mysteries to learned medical literature. Nielsen’s merging of themes of generation with the focus on historia and scientific witnessing should make this dissertation relevant to historians of diverse areas of early modern science and medicine. Most crucially, it is a fascinating read!

Alisha Rankin
Department of History
Tufts University

Primary Sources

Printed works authored by Caspar Bartholin
Printed works authored by Thomas Bartholin
Printed works authored by Ole Worm
Philosophical Transactions
Societatis Medicæ Havniensis Collectanea
Nye Samling af det Kongelige Danske Videnskabers Selskabs Skrifter

Dissertation Information

University of Cambridge. 2010. 200 pp. Advisors: Lauren Kassell, Ole P. Grell.


Image: Thomas Bartholin, Acta Medica et Philosophica Hafniensia (Copenhagen: Sumptibus Petri Haubold, 1673-[80]). “Anatomia Animata: Anatomy and Medicine in William Harvey’s Century,” The Lilly Library, Indiana University Bloomington.