Sunday, September 14, 2014

Book Review, Blood on King

Helen King. The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence. Burlington: Ashgate, 2013.

Reviewed by H. Christian Blood, Yonsei University (

Helen King’s The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence is as fascinating as it is formidable—not to mention engaging and informative in shedding light on both less familiar primary texts and the ins-and-outs of recent scholarly debates.

In the introduction, “Making Sense of Making Sex,” Professor King announces the book’s aim: “I want to put [Thomas Laqueur’s 1990 book] Making Sex on trial, presenting evidence from the periods with which I have worked most closely: the classical world and early modern Europe” (1), because “the model of body history presented in this book is misleading in many ways yet, to date, none of the many challenges made to it has dented its popularity” (1). The model in question is Laqueur’s one-body thesis, i.e., in antiquity, female and male bodies were understood to be different versions of the same thing, males with external genitals, females with the same genitals located inside, but that gradually in modernity the one-body model was replaced by a two-body model, in which female and male bodies began to be seen as fundamentally different from one another. Laqueur’s work is surely familiar to most anyone who studies ancient sexuality. Laqueur’s book was published the same year as David Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love and J. J. Winkler’s The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece, and while it was not as explicitly concerned with ancient same-sex phenomena as the other two, it was part of an important moment in classics scholarship, when the study of ancient sex and gender went legit. The problem, as King sees it, is that Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud is “unhelpful” for ancient texts (iv) because it omits too many sources, displays a “lack of care” for the ancient sources it does treat (xi), ultimately turns out to be incorrect in its conclusions about the eighteenth century (223), and yet remains seemingly unassailable even after 25 years of contestation. 

Those who decry a publishing climate rife with companions and guidebooks and very easy introductions will welcome The One-Sex Body on Trial. There is nothing introductory about it, and the care and detail with which King discusses and documents every stage of her argument is formidable. This is not a page-turner. This is not a book one picks up and cannot put down, or finishes in a day. It is a book to be read slowly, and reread carefully. There are no bullet points, text boxes, meta-summations, or outcomes. Readers have to want this book. And I loved it. Most especially, the detail with which King reviews academic debates is impressive; no stone is left unturned and few readers, I imagine, would not be swayed. At the same time, such a dense book can be difficult to review accurately and fairly; no matter what I say, I’d be leaving too much out. Thus, here I won’t even try to be exhaustive or to do justice to King’s argument. Rather, I hope to give readers a mere taste.

As the material goes comfortably from Herophilus and Artemidorus to the contemporary reception of Agnodice as a transgender role model in Switzerland (148), the argument unfolds along two main threads. First, a history of the body that takes into account sources in the history of medicine that discuss whether female and male bodies are fundamentally the same or fundamentally different. Spoiler Alert: King finds that once one telescopes beyond the limited texts with which Laqueur engaged, the evidence from all eras is far less conclusive than Laqueur’s account suggests.

King focuses her discussion around two figures, Phaethousa and Agnodice. Phaethousa was born and lived as a woman, she stopped menstruating after her husband was exiled, and her body mysteriously masculinized in his absence. As Hippocrates records in Epidemics, her voice deepened, her body took on masculine features, she became hirsute, and she died a short time later. King asks whether Phaethousa represents “a ‘woman’ becoming a ‘man’…or simply the late emergence of the ‘true sex’?” (73-4). Agnodice, according to Hyginus, was a female gynecologist and/or midwife who’d disguised herself as a man to study and practice medicine, thus embodying questions of gender identity and gender expression as well as the gendering of medicine.

King analyzes ancient discussions in their original contexts in order to show that in antiquity, the one-body model was hardly prevalent, even in the authors Laqueur favors, and then that Laqueur’s own engagement with ancient materials was limited. Next, King traces the reception of these texts in Europe from the sixteenth century onward, thereby greatly complicating Laqueur’s picture of the early-modern and modern eras. King’s argument will be especially interesting to scholars who study the history of non-conforming gender expression and gender identity in the ancient world, as King focuses on texts that may be unfamiliar to those who work within the tradition of (pro or contra) Foucauldian scholarship. Readers who work in Reception Studies will especially enjoy King’s rigorous discussion of uncommon texts in early-modern European medicine. 

The second thread is the critique of Laqueur and his book’s reception. Initially, this is the book’s focus, but as King delves into a textured and nuanced alternate history of the body, a critique of Laqueur becomes the subtext. Some readers will enjoy the ways in which King charts the incremental progression of scholarly debates over the decades. Indeed, I wish I had had The One-Sex Body on Trial at the start of my own graduate studies because it provides an invigorating study of the rhizomatic complexity of one field’s discourse over several decades.

When I first read the preface and introduction, I was fretful. A book that sets out to put another book “on trial” seems like the kind of project that could end badly, a kind of resentment-driven reverse-festschrift. In lesser hands, it could have. But King’s treatment is so sure and so concise and so engaging, The One-Sex Body on Trial is a pleasure to read and learn from. 

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