The imagined inside—feeling corporeal emotions

This is the second in a three-part series inspired by Barbara Duden’s The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany(1997). It builds on the first, The Feeling of Perceiving, so a quick review of that will give the following more meaning. (All page references are to this book.)

How did these early 18th C women experience their bodies and their illnesses?

In the West, our perception of the body is almost exclusively shaped by science. It is this perception, we should note, that has conceived emotion as an impediment to rationality.

Duden takes us back to a pre-science time.

She reconstructs “an extinct body perception” (p. 2) and “a socially ‘raw’ corporeality” (p. viii) from the notebooks of Dr. Storch in early 18th C Eisenbach, Germany. Although extinct in the modern West, there are similarities in body perceptions between women (and men) in less medicalized societies today and these women 18th C women.

The scientific lens has become so pervasive that it makes the current perception of the body seem self-evident, obvious, and “natural”. In fact, this perception is a social creation. As Duden says, “The notions about corporeality seem deeply embedded in us, like petrified deposits of the [modern] age to which we belong” (p. 22). Our conception of “nature,” itself, is a social construction.

Again, the question is not, how could the Eisenachers fail to see what to us is obvious, but how did we come to take the body for granted as a self–evident unchanging biological reality? (p. 3, my emphasis).

Consider the relationship between the dead body and the living body, in other words, the relationship between anatomy and physiology. In Storch’s day, the revelations of the dissecting knife (for example, a disease’s devastation of an organ) “did not explain the way a disease affected the living body” (Duden, p. 106).

Anatomy dissected the body into its component parts, but the living body could be understood only in motion. “The experience of living bodies refuted the anatomist” (p. 117). As previously noted, “the eyewitness account of a phenomenon of the living body was more convincing to Storch than a fact uncovered in a dead body” (p. 70).

Autopsy findings, almost by definition, speak of a pathological state—the person is dead. They reveal little conclusive about the “normal” condition inside the living body. Now, of course, the dead body casts a large and dark shadow on the living body.

We should note that while “opening” a dead body was regarded as a violation of the integrity of the person, Storch’s own body was dissected by his brother (Licentiate Jacob), in accord with Storch’s instructions (Duden, p. 71).

The body, for these women and their doctor, was opaque, a place of mysterious hidden activities. Doctor and patient imagined what existed and went on inside, and imagined this in a pre-modern, pre-Cartesian way: body and soul were indivisible. How, then, did they imagine the inside of their bodies?

For one, it was a sphere of “incessant metamorphosis” (p. 107), of “invisible flowing. . . . All matter, though ultimately the same, is involved in constant transformations” (p. 109). Freckles could become bad breath.

Substances took on different forms as they moved around the body. Milk, for example, could move around the body and could be excreted from several openings. Breath and sound could exit from the ears, not just the mouth. As well, because matter flowed, transformed, the inside must be a “porous place.”

Bodily phenomena were ambiguous and many-sided. Thus they could only be understood in their context—by establishing connections between the interior and the surface of the body and between the body and events, past and present.

These connections gave meaning to the various experiences described by Storch. Duden attempts to reconstruct the Eisenachers’ explanatory structures and their linkages—their inner causal principle.

For them, each bodily phenomenon:

  1. has a cause: it comes from something
  2. has an effect: it leads to something
  3. has an inner meaning: it is a change for the better or the worse

Implicit in almost all of Storch’s stories are three orientations:

A. the linkage of each phenomenon to an event that preceded it in time—the external and internal cause

B. the linkage to the present and the future—the effect

C. the inner, unexpressed meaning—what the body wants (p. 111) It was over the meaning of the signs “that the doctor and the women diverged most strongly. . . . For Storch, the body had an ability, even in a malady, to aim at something good . . . . The signs of the body spoke to the women more of an obstinate and stubborn interior threatened by stoppage” (p. 112).


A flux is “the name given for pains a woman felt inside from matter flowing in her body” (Duden, p. 130). In a note, Duden defines flux as “‘every ailment whose causes the people cannot fathom,’ ‘sudden and swift illnesses in general.’ The term was used until the end of the eighteenth century, by humoral pathologists as well as in popular medicine” (p. 226, n. 34). But flux could also refer to something flowing from women’s bodies. Certainly, “the flux is a strange thing” (p. 130).

There were inner and outer fluxes. An inner flux was a problem when it did not flow, when it stagnated or accumulated. Treating surface ailments risked driving the flux inside, repressing inner fluxes. An outer flux was a running flow—it ensured cleansing and unburdening. Here, the danger was “obstructed evacuations.” Stagnation of the monthly flow was “the one trouble the women complained about most and which stood in the center of everyone’s attention” (p. 139).

What caused anxiety and fear was “the perception of the inner space as a sphere of induration and stoppage,” when flux “seeped into the depths of the body and collected there” (p. 132). This was seen as a gathering of evil. “Healing lay in supporting the external flows of impure, dirty, pustular matter until the body had been sufficiently cleansed” (p. 133).

Inner flux is the name that these women used for their internal landscape, their viscera. They equated a bad feeling with evil: it made them anxious and fearful.

“‘Flux’ signified a contradictory echo between inside and outside” (Duden, p. 130). An imbalance between outside and inside led to stagnation, decay, and death. The motus tonicus (internal motive power) grew weak; the will to live weakened.

Death was heralded by

  • something rotten (black, yellow–white, putrid)—images of stagnation and corruptio
  • something ulcerated, cancer-like, gelatinous—images of hardening, petrification, accumulations, stagnation, hardening

Pain wandered about the internal landscape. There was a “chaotic multitude of painful sensations” (p. 153). “The pains were the active agent, the story revolved around them and they drove the story forward” (p. 154). “The experience of the sufferer shaped the temporally disparate and physically scattered sensations into a personal story of suffering” (p. 157). Sufferings “remained stuck to the body. Even after they had disappeared they were still present” (p. 150).

Men and Women

Duden reconstructs Dr. Storch’s views on the “physiological difference between women and men” (p. 112). She notes that “many of the manifestations that we clearly perceive as sex characteristics, were in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries not unequivocal signs for the difference between man and woman” (p. 113).

Note that the women of Eisenach had no need for terms referring to what we now call sexuality and reproduction. Nor did they need a term that could subsume insemination, pregnancy, and birth. They spoke in terms of fruitfulness (in Latin, generatio).

‘Reproduction’ emerged around 1800 as a direct analogy with the production of commodities. The Cartesian dualism between body and mind complemented—indeed, made possible—this metaphor, for Descartes conceived of the body as a machine; a woman’s body became a machine for producing babies. In traditional perception, women were begetters of life (generatio).

‘Sexuality’ had yet to be invented. According to Duden, “our modern ‘sexuality’ took shape with and after the Marquis de Sade. With de Sade, sexuality became visible, describable, dissectable” (p. 29). Sexuality redefined and reinterpreted lust, just as reproduction transformed generatio. Nor had menopause, as a word and as a concept of physiology, been invented (p. 118).

What we recognize as sexual organs had not been demarcated from the rest of the body. There was, therefore, no hard and fast boundary between being a man and being a woman. Sex characteristics “were . . . not unequivocal signs for the difference between man and woman” (p. 113). Monthly bleeding was not enough to distinguish women from men, because not all women bled, and some men did, via what we recognize as hemorrhoids. “The ‘bleeding piles’ . . . were seen as analogous to women’s ‘monthlies.’ . . . Evidently the discharged matter itself was not gender–specific” (p. 115). The flow of each was equally sensitive to “stoppage,” which produced similar ailments.

Furthermore, men “could resemble women even in a characteristic that would seem to be exclusive to women” (p. 117). Boys and men could have milk in their breasts. “It was only from the end of the seventeenth century that blood and milk were definitively assigned to the functional sphere of physiological motherhood” (p. 117).

During the seventeenth century, Duden argues, menstruation was reinterpreted: it was transformed from a sign that woman was the prototype of the self–healing body, in popular therapy and humoural pathology, into a sign that women had bodies inferior to those of men, bodies that were designed for procreation and domestic activity (p. 224, n. 21). Before this transformation, women “embodied the self– healing power of the discharge from the inside.

Bloodletting . . . was supposed to be aligned, like proper menses, with the lunic phase, and it was interpreted explicitly in analogy to the menses” (p. 118).

Male and female were not fixed, “definitive and unambiguous attributes,” polar opposites—they were relative categories, like right and left. “Gender was constructed only through diverse relationships to each other and to the environment” (p. 119). The accent was on diversity, not normality.

The Skin

The skin is a boundary, but not a seal: a “surface on which the inside revealed itself,” via emissions, through “a collection of real, minute orifices—the pores—and potential larger orifices” (Duden, p. 121). These were the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, breasts, navel, anus, urinary passage, and vulva. However, unlike today, “the body openings [were] not clearly designated for a single substance” (p. 120).

It is because the body is conceived as a porous place of metamorphosis that a variety of superfluous or impure matter could be ejected anywhere the skin opened or could be induced to open. It was “a flowing and indistinctly structured body” (p. 124). But this was no passive oozing: matter pushed to the periphery, it searched for an outlet. “These women experienced themselves as multidimensional vectors, as bundles of constantly shifting but directed forces” (p. 123).

The imagined causal connections within the body are an instance of action at a distance. “Impulses to movement” of the inner flux “could be caused from afar” (Duden, p. 124). Movement responded to stimulations.

There are three interrelated concepts that “coexisted in Storch’s notions of the inner body”:

  1. urge and habit
  2. the interior as an unstructured osmotic place
  3. the auxiliary categories of the mechanistic body model as interpreted by the school of Stahl (p. 127) Duden’s discussion of these three interrelated concepts sheds more light on the nature of the inner forces.

Motus tonicus is a tension force. “The ‘tonus’ of muscles and fibres . . . was set in motion by a ‘motus’” (pp. 127–128). It was this inner force that “moved the body on the inside, kept it together”; “this power moved the blood in the directed of due secretions and excretions” (p. 128). This tension force, this power, this immaterial agent capable of wandering throughout the body and responding to action–at–a– distance, is what they called the soul. It is what we call emotion.

Social conflict and corporeal emotions

Duden asks what, according to Storch, causes women’s diseases? A brief answer would be, mishaps.

“‘Mishaps’ were incidents that affected the body from the outside, that happened to the body and made an impression upon it” (Duden, p. 140). Anything out–of–the–ordinary, an evil coincidence, could be a mishap. “A sudden shower could chill the blood, drive it inside, cause it to stagnate.” The toils of daily work, however, “were very seldom experienced as causes of illness” (p. 140). Other mishaps could be anything entering through the mouth, tripping, lightening, cold air, or damp cloth.

Anger and fright (especially at something sudden or unexpected) were mishaps (p. 147). The body “attracted and absorbed effects from outside.” Thus “the soul, one’s mood, and specific perceptions” could trigger an ailment from the inside (p. 141). In fact, “anger and fright, impressions, delusions, and imagined things were the prime causes of illness” (p. 142). Anger was seen as an inner poison. It was a “heated, internal upwelling that caused a multitude of pains” (p. 143).

Anger could stagnate inside the womb. Fright and anger were mirror images. “Fright penetrated, drove the blood from the limbs to the heart, caused the heart to tighten, to suffocate under the abundance of blood. Anger caused the blood to surge to the periphery, toward the head, into the limbs, into the womb, where it caused cramps by its surging” (p. 149).

Evidently emotion was experienced as physical. There was “a perception of emotions actually inside the body, where they could be and had to be worked on. Emotions affected the body in very immediate and direct ways. . . .

Phenomena we would consider psychic and part of the noncorporeal realm, were treated in Eisenach in the same way as other ailments (p. 144). Duden cites a study, Mind and Body in Eighteenth Century Medicine, “in which anger, fright and distress were considered the prime causes of illness, and a person’s mood was the decisive factor in preserving good health” (n. 47, p. 228).

Social conflicts were internalized, becoming inner conflicts, creating (emotional) substances that had to be drawn off or expelled. The body was not self–contained. The social environment did not stop at the skin. “The concept of a body that could be isolated did not yet exist because an isolated individual did not exist . . . . [People] were bound into social relations down to their inner–most flesh” (p. 145, my emphasis). The moral personality of these women was ingrained in their bodies.

During the fertile years, especially, women lived in a state of ambivalence, perched on the edge between good growth and evil stagnation; they walked a tightrope between hope and fear. The womb was regarded as a collecting basin for blood, and if it did not flow every month, women feared stagnation, decay, and death. The womb, then, was regarded with ambivalence; it could be the site of healthy evacuations, or of potential blockage leading to death. Retention of the menses “could be interpreted as a sign of pregnancy, but could also be a sign of an impending illness” (p. 159). “Hidden in women were death and life” (p. 162). Good and evil coexisted within the body (p. 163).

A woman’s mood was paramount: the foetus could be marked by a woman’s mood swings (p. 167). “Anger of any kind could have a deadly affect on the fruit” (p. 169).

Where does all this take us?

These women had no medical terminology with which to describe their experience of their bodies. They were, however, highly sensitive to how they felt and had the vocabulary to express these feelings.

Dr. Storch never physically examined his female patients because he was not looking for symptoms. Rather he listened to women’s descriptions of their feelings, i.e., the sensations of their corporeal emotions—and it was these feelings that he treated.

Duden contrasts this eighteenth-century experience with current perceptions: “in a medicalized culture such as ours, it is not people who are ill with something, but their bodies and organs that are diseased” (p. 157).

NEXT: Taking Feelings Seriously

On this theme:

Weber, A S. 2003. “Women’s Early Modern Medical Almanacs in Historical Context.” English Literary Renaissance 33(3):358–402.

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