Life and Limb: Technology, Surgery, and Bodily Loss in Early Modern Germany

Heidi Hausse is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University. In 2014-2015, she was a Dissertation Writing Fellow at the Consortium. Read more about her research project below. My dissertation examines one of the gravest injuries that a human being can survive: the loss of a limb. In the early modern period (c.1500-1700), many inhabitants of the Holy Roman Empire (German-speaking Central Europe) suffered this loss, especially, though not only, through battle. The haze of gun smoke creeping across battlefields at the turn of the sixteenth century signaled a new series of challenges, discourses, and treatments for the loss of a limb: When was it preferable to preserve a limb, and at what point was it better to remove it? How much of a limb should be removed in an amputation, and what was the best way to amputate? Could diseased or excised flesh be regrown naturally? What artificial instruments might be created to replace a natural limb? My project investigates early modern responses to these problems, moving across two hundred years of change in technologies harming and reshaping the body. Through medical treatises, archival documents, and artifacts, I explore surgical and artisanal practices surrounding the body from the first signs of gangrene in a living limb to the polishing of a mechanical one. My project recreates the experiences of patients, surgeons, and those around them. On one level, I show that these scenes of injury, loss, and reconstruction—brought into critical historical study for the first time—help us pin down areas of continuity as well as major shifts in the intersections of cultural aesthetic, technology, and medical practice during the early modern period. Technologies, both destructive and rehabilitative forces, became intertwined with culture, medicine, and the very shape of the body as never before. On a second level, I show that coping with the loss of a limb was an endeavor involving several social layers: familial, religious, occupational, and even legal. My dissertation peels back these layers, situating the struggle to treat an individual’s bodily loss within the interests, beliefs, and economic means of his or her local community. My dissertation is structured as a narrative of the body taken apart and put back together. The first half examines the putrefying and dismembered body. I explore such themes as the social process of gaining consensus to perform amputation, and visions of the body implicit in amputation techniques. As a 2014-2015 Dissertation Writing Fellow at the Consortium, I focused my energy on the latter half of the dissertation, which turns to the convalescence and restoration of the body after amputation. I composed three chapters about early modern prostheses, using artifacts to study an aspect of early modern life that has left few written sources. Chapter 5 of my dissertation first introduces artifacts of early modern upper limb prostheses. In a gallery of images taken during fieldwork in Germany, I present the variety of artificial limbs available to early modern amputees, and challenge the way in which these objects have previously been categorized and understood. Rather than project martial and masculine associations on anonymous objects, I suggest scholars begin to think of the objects’ wearers as amputee-patrons: a small group of elite patients who dramatized their recoveries, and commissioned prostheses as an act of social and economic power. They used art and craft to defy popular stereotypes of amputees as pitiful and helpless. In the following chapter (Chapter 6), I study extant artificial hands to find out as much as possible about their producers. These objects display several craft techniques brought together to refashion the contours of the amputee body a second time. They provide evidence of networks of artisans—gunsmiths, clockmakers, wood turners, and armorers—who drew from contemporary aesthetic tastes to compete for the attention of a small market nearly invisible in textual sources. My final chapter on prostheses (Chapter 7) uses a famous woodcut of a mechanical hand in the French surgeon Ambroise Paré’s Oeuvres to explore how craft knowledge of prostheses moved into printed text and circulated in the Holy Roman Empire. Artifacts show that the image—obtained by Paré from a Parisian locksmith—offers a workable design of a mechanical limb. Drawing on studies in cognitive science, I suggest a reading of the image that recalibrates scholars’ expectations of how technical knowledge could travel during the early modern period. A writing fellowship at the Consortium gave me the opportunity to pursue my project within a vibrant community of scholars, and gave me access to important resources during the writing process. I relied on Consortium member institutions such as the Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Van Pelt Library at UPenn. I also was able to discuss mechanical hands and early modern firearms with specialists in Arms and Armor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. My time at the Consortium allowed me to workshop my ideas with others in many different settings. Besides participating in the Consortium’s Introductory Symposium, I also presented a paper at The Sixteenth Century Society and Conference which became the basis of an article recently accepted for publication by The Sixteenth Century Journal. Throughout my year at the Consortium, the opportunity to learn about the work of other scholars expanded and deepened my knowledge of the history of science. The office brown bag lunches introduced me to a series of fascinating projects and engaging scholars, and always led to stimulating discussions. I also enjoyed participating in the Early Sciences Working Group, in which scholars generously shared works-in-progress. Consortium-sponsored events, such as the lecture “Diagnosis, Madness” at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, or the memorable “Alien Abduction and Psychic Spies” event at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, took me on exciting adventures into completely new areas of study. The great independence allowed by the Consortium’s generous support was balanced by a warm and welcoming community. In particular, field trips to the Morris Arboretum, local museums, and other cultural sites in Philadelphia provided enjoyable ways to learn more about the city while building friendships with the other writing fellows and members of the Consortium office. My project benefited immensely from the time and resources provided by the Consortium’s writing fellowship. I am very grateful to everyone in the office, as well as to the other fellows, who contributed to such a constructive and enriching year.