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Der zerstuckte Corper: Zur Sozialgeschichte der anatomischen Sektionen in der fruhen Neuzeit (1650-1800).

By Karin Stukenbrock (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2001. 309pp.).

The history of anatomy has long been a central concern of medical historians. Until recently, it was written as a story of progress that neatly encapsulated a bigger narrative of the triumph of knowledge over superstition and ignorance. The advance of anatomy was, just as obviously, indispensable to the rise of medical science and medical professionalization. More recently, however, social and cultural historians have transformed the history of anatomy by highlighting the many and disparate threads in the anatomical projects of the sixteenth century or by redefining anatomy as spectacle and theater. Karin Stukenbrock presents another variation. Der zerstuckte Corper is a history of anatomy written from the cadaver's perspective, where the corpse itself rather than the anatomist or his audience takes center stage. All lines of analysis run through, from, and back to the body on a slab. Stukenbrock adroitly portrays the moment when the corpse arrived to be anatomized as almost paradigmatic (rather like an anatomical cockfight) where the many agencies and interest groups involved--magistrates, legal codes, university administrations, medical professors, eager students, poor relief agencies, clergymen, and, of course, the people who became anatomical raw materials--came together.

This is a smart idea, for it permits Stukenbrock to view anatomy in ways that are fresh and informative. She refuses to accept at face value standard interpretations and she presents neither a simple picture of ignorance and abhorrence on one side and the drive for scientific knowledge on the other, nor a titillating but perhaps overblown gothic tale of graverobbers and body-sellers. Even more impressively, she deploys analytically chancy topics, such as social disciplining, with exemplary caution and good sense.

An important moment in her analysis is the procurement or delivery (Ablieferung) of the corpse to the anatomical theater. Although at the beginning of her period, most corpses that found their way under the anatomist's scalpel and saw were those of executed criminals, the circle of eligibles widened appreciably over time to include unmarried mothers who died in childbirth, illegitimate children (no matter when they died), prisoners, and those receiving poor relief. Some historians would tell this story as a simple one of social disciplining--the fear of being anatomized after death working as a deterrent to crime but also as a stick to beat proper behavior (industry for the poor, chastity for young women) into the heads of the lower orders. Stukenbrock accepts this line of reasoning to a degree, but not slavishly. Social disciplining is only one of a considerably more complex, and persuasive, set of explanations. First, exceptions were the rule and relatives, employers, and the subjects themselves frequently procured dispensations to avoid dissection. Second, a good deal of dissent existed over the issue of suitable subjects. For instance, the Friends of the Poor in Kiel resisted the state's attempts and professors' wishes to have paupers delivered for anatomizing, fearing that such would discourage the needy from seeking assistance and thus undermine the whole institution. Third, it was not merely a matter of professors and students howling for bodies and being frustrated in their demands by opponents to a manifestly laudable procedure. Many more bodies were available for delivery than were actually accepted and the reasons for rejection ranged from obvious weather problems (August was a bad month for dissections), unsuitability of certain corpses, and even the lassitude of professors who were not as anxious as often believed to cut into the dead--they, too, felt disgust and abhorrence for the task. Not all professors of medicine were fanatic anatomists or even convinced that anatomy played an essential role in medical education. Finally, it is by no means dear that the state vigorously pursued a program of social disciplining or believed in using post-mortems as a sort of punishment after death. For the state, "disciplining was certainly part of the program, but not necessarily the goal of its legislative efforts" (278).

Stukenbrock's analysis rests on an extensive survey of printed and documentary sources. Some of her sharpest observations come from a direct comparison of published ordinances and archival material. She counterpoints one with the other, privileging neither and playing both with great skill and sensitivity. Still, a few omissions in the bibliography seem curious. Perhaps Andrea Carlino's fine study of Renaissance anatomy (that offers a parallel interpretation of how a modus vivendi was worked out in Renaissance Rome to make dissection possible and acceptable) (l) appeared too late for her to consult (certainly, his articles were available). Also missing are the Handbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens and Johann Krunitz's encyclopedia with its interesting article on "corpse" (Leiche). The sources she consults range impressively across Germany. The cities involved--Gottingen, Halle, Helmstedt, Jena, and Kiel--were all university towns but the course of events proved by no means identical. Indeed, Stukenbrock's interpretation hinges on the diversity of the interest groups and uses that diversity to highlight the permutations and combinations that came into play in delivering the cadaver to the anatomical theater. Of course, all five places were Protestant and one wonders if Catholic cities, states, and universities differed. Stukenbrock's search for comparable sources in Catholic areas, however, came up barren. Yet because her analytical thrust depends on the process of negotiation between different groups, adding the Catholic variation would merely increase the number of factors involved, but would not substantially alter the interpretive dynamics.

Stukenbrock's book is, therefore, an excellent description of the politics of anatomy on many levels. She argues convincingly that anatomy must be historicized in a particular time, place, and locus of interests. While this reviewer applauds that perception--and thinks it spot on--nonetheless, one wishes she might have been bolder in her conclusions by using the anatomical moment to craft broader interpretations of how state and society worked. Of course, this is a dissertation (according to the preface, only lightly revised) and dissertations have their limits. Despite the considerable achievements of this one, many dissertation agonies are still apparent. Sections, divided Teutonically into numbered, subnumbered, and sub-subnumbered sections ( even!) often begin and end abruptly. Judicious rewriting and reorganizing could have banished annoying repetitions. There remains as well a certain obsessiveness about problematizing every step in the analysis rather than just getting on with the story. A little more time spent on the manuscript would have produced a better book. Still, this review should by no means end on a negative note. Der zerstuckte Corper is an impressive work as medical, social, and political history.


(1.) Andrea Carlino, Books of the Body: Anatomical Ritual and Renaissance Learning. Translated by John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

Mary Lindemann

Carnegie Mellon University
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Author:Lindemann, Mary
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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