In the twentieth century it is virtually impossible to think about the body outside a prevailing medical-scientific discourse. But it was not always so. What we consider to be primarily the focus of medical attention — the accounts of physicians, surgeons, anatomists, physiologists, biologists — has, in other epochs, been entertained under quite different categories of description. Those categories, bounded by theology and cosmology — the polarities of ritual — did not admit the possibility of thinking about the body as a discrete entity. In the west, prior to the ‘new science’ of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the body’s interior could not be understood without recourse to an analysis of that which gave its materiality significance — the essence contained within the body. A belief in the presence of that essence, a belief, that is, in the existence of an anima, a soul or a thinking entity, necessarily informed any possible perspective of the body. To consider the body in isolation was not merely difficult but, strictly speaking, impossible, since the body’s primary function, it was held, was to act as a vessel of containment for the more significant feature of the soul.
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