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Following Agnodike and Phaethousa

April 15, 2011

Work in progress – by Helen King

I am completing a book (with an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship) examining the fortunes of two ancient stories from the 16th century onwards. These are the Hippocratic case history of Phaethousa, who grew a beard when her husband left her, and Hyginus’s Latin story of Agnodike, the ‘first midwife’.

Both went through multiple transformations as they were used for different purposes by medical and other writers. For example, in late 17th- or early 18th-century London, a woman wanted to produce a handbill to advertise her skills in healing skin conditions, as well as providing cosmetic services such as facial makeovers in which she reshaped eyebrows to make the forehead look higher. Searching around for a professional name, she chose to call herself ‘Agnodice: The Woman Practitioner’, which suggests that the name would encourage clients to buy her services. In contrast, in 1851, when challenges were being made to women’s traditional exclusion from the medical profession, the American physician Augustus Gardner gave a lecture on the history of midwifery in which he argued that women should not be allowed to practise obstetrics, owing to “the past inefficiency and present natural incapacity of females” in this area. This dual appeal to history – the ‘past’ – and science – what women are ‘naturally’ able to do – was designed to deflect all possible dissent. He compared Agnodike to the infamous abortionists of his own day. A name that had evoked healing had completely changed its meaning.


Agnodike, by Alois Delacoux, 1834. Wellcome Library

The story of Agnodike is known from only one ancient source, the elusive Latin writer Hyginus (Fabula 274), who cannot be tied to any firm dates within the period of the Roman Empire. It re-entered the Western tradition in 1535 and was popularised through the work of Tiraqueau and Estienne in the 1550s and 1560s. The bare details – Agnodike disguises herself as a man in order to learn medicine, but then reveals her true sex to women in labour, until she is taken to court – were fleshed out in many different ways by writers from 1600 onwards who enlisted her as a classical ally to fight their contemporary battles: men trying to enter midwifery, women trying to prevent them, midwives seeking to raise the status of their profession, women struggling to enter other areas of the medical profession, and men endeavouring to keep them out. It featured in debates about Caesarean section and abortion, despite neither even being mentioned in the original Latin text. Studying the extraordinary range of variations in how this story was told provides a window on to the medical debates of the early modern and modern periods, and illustrates how a story from even a very marginal Latin writer could be seen as powerful enough to support various positions in professional and gender politics.

As for Phaethousa, she features as late as the 19th century, in a reference in James Young Simpson’s treatise on hermaphrodites. In contrast to Agnodike, she comes with the authority of the ‘Father of Medicine’. But she was not only used in discussions of sex change. In the 17th and 18th centuries she was used to illustrate theories about the role of emotion: either lust, the symptoms only developing because her husband was not available to satisfy her, or sorrow, with her ‘female testicles’

drying up because she missed him so much. She also featured as evidence of the power of the imagination; by thinking of her husband, she came to resemble him. Furthermore, the story was also used as an example of various physical disorders, such as menstrual suppression and uterine prolapse.

My book uses the stories of the virgin Agnodike and the mother Phaethousa to discuss the nature of femininity and the role of different parts of the body – beard, voice, womb, external genitalia – in establishing it. Agnodike can pass as a man without difficulty, but her femininity is not affected by her disguise. Phaethousa’s femininity is a fragile condition, easily disrupted by the departure of her husband, but although her internal organs no longer function properly, and her external appearance changes, she remains a woman – a conclusion not, however, followed by all versions of her story.

These women were both so fundamental that, from the late 16th century onwards, the reader simply expected to find them in histories of midwifery or in discussions of sex change. The book therefore explores how classical texts were used to provide authority in medicine: how and why did their authority continue into the modern period? How far could the texts provide continuity, being read in different ways so that they could be accommodated into new explanatory frameworks? A close reading of the uses of Agnodike and Phaethousa also challenges Thomas Laqueur’s still-influential model of a shift from a one-sex to a two-sex model in the 18th century (Making Sex, 1990), looking at sex and gender beyond the genital organs, and revealing a more complex interaction between different models of the body.

Professor Helen King is attached to the Department of Classics of the Open University, UK.


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