Monday, September 8, 2014


Helen King, The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence. The History of Medicine in Context. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013. Pp. 270. ISBN 9781409463351. $124.95.

Reviewed by Lydia Matthews, University of Leicester (

Version at BMCR home site


First published in 1990, Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud has had a lasting impact on how we think about the history of the body. Laqueur postulated that a shift had occurred sometime in the eighteenth-century away from a model of sexual difference that, he argued, had predominated since classical antiquity.1 Previously, a ‘one-sex’ model of the body had prevailed in which women were thought to share the same basic anatomy as men: only their lack of internal heat meant that women’s genitals remained inside their bodies, while in men, the hotter and more perfect sex, the genitals were forced outwards. Making Sex tied the emergence of a ‘two-sex’ model (in which men and women were not just marked as different by superficial indicators of gender, but were instead thought to possess bodies that were of essentially different types to the development of modernity which required a ‘consistent biology as the source and foundation of masculinity and femininity’.2

While many have challenged Laqueur’s thesis, they have tended to do so on the grounds that, while his central premise is correct, it happens not to hold for their particular area or period (15). In The One-Sex Body on Trial, Helen King offers the first extended critique of Laqueur’s thesis. As she notes, the appeal of the one-sex vs. two-sex model lies in the fact that it provides a clear argument for how the experience of the body is socially constructed (6). Added to this is the disciplinary and chronological range of Laqueur’s work, which makes it difficult to challenge his thesis. However, King succeeds in doing just this. Drawing on a diverse range of medical and non-medical sources from the fifth century BC to the nineteenth century, King shows that, rather than there being a specific moment in the eighteenth century when the one-sex body was replaced by a two-sex one, no historical period in which the one-sex model completely dominated can be clearly identified and that these two ways of imagining the body had coexisted alongside each other since antiquity.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, King directly addresses Lacqueurs’ claims about the dominance of the one-sex model in antiquity and the early modern period. In the following sections the approach changes—instead of listing examples demonstrating how Laqueur was right or wrong about specific points of detail we are instead provided with richly detailed diachronic analyses of two stories taken from classical texts. King examines how these stories were interpreted from antiquity through to the present day and, through them, traces some of the different ways that sexual difference can be imagined. This approach works well as it shows the effects of genre and how the same material could be used for very different purposes.

King shows that by taking three texts of Galen (On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body, On the Natural Faculties, and On Seed) as representative of ancient thinking about the body in general, Laqueur ignores the alternatives to this model that existed in antiquity. In particular, the Hippocratic treatise on Diseases of Women (still not fully translated and so unavailable to Laqueur) provided a vision of female physiology that was very different from that of men. As King showed in her 1998 study of Hippocratic gynaecology, these texts do not locate difference primarily in the genitals (the focus of so much of Laqueur’s discussion).3 Instead, it pervades the whole body because of the different qualities of male and female flesh; the soft, spongy nature of women’s bodies makes menstruation a medical necessity (44). The Hippocratic way of imagining sexual difference is therefore different from that presented by Galen in his treatises On Seed and On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body. While Laqueur takes his description of women’s parts as being like men’s only turned inward as clear evidence for the dominance of the one-sex model, King shows that Galen’s understanding is more complex than Laqueur allows (34-38). In the same treatise in which Galen describes this ‘one-sex’ body, he also states that ‘the male animal differs from the female in its entire body’ (On Seed II 5.10). Galenic descriptions of female anatomy were not always understood as biological reality, but also as tools for imagining the unseen insides of women’s bodies (69-70).

King argues that in the sixteenth century, following the publication of Latin translations of the Hippocratic Diseases of Women in 1525, there developed a greater interest in the specialized treatment of women’s diseases and in distinguishing female and male bodies. It is in this context that she locates Vesalius’ illustration of a womb and vagina in Book 5, Fig. 27 of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (first published in 1543). Laqueur had used this image as evidence for Vesalius’ reliance on a Galenic one-sex model.4 King, however, argues that when we pay attention to the accompanying captions and labels (elements that Laqueur ignored) we can identify it, not as an illustration of ‘the vagina as penis’ as Laqueur claimed, but as a single organ: the womb and its neck.

The value of King’s close-readings is clearly demonstrated in the studies of the stories of Phaethousa and Agnodice that comprise the final two sections of the work. Phaethousa is described by the author of Epidemics 6.8.32 as oikouros (a stay-at-home wife) and epitokos (highly fertile), characteristics that King argues marked her out as a model of femininity in both her behaviour and her body (78, 101-111). However, following her husband’s exile, Phaethousa stopped menstruating, her body became manly, she grew a beard, became hairy all over, and developed a harsh voice. Despite the doctors’ efforts to restore her menses, she then died. Far from demonstrating the dominance of the one-sex model in the classical period, King argues that Phaethousa’s case-story was used by the Hippocratic author to demonstrate the impossibility of changes of sex—women who grow beards and stop menstruating do not become men, they die. The efforts of the doctors to restore menstruation show that they were following a model of sexual difference based on difference between fluids of the body.

By tracing the ways in which Phaethousa’s story has been understood since antiquity, King shows the different models of the female body that were read onto a single tale. While Phaethousa began as an example of the one-sex model, she could also be fitted into the many hermaphrodite/’sex change’ stories that circulated in the sixteenth century. Those who would read her story in this way left off the ending— as a hermaphrodite Phaethousa did not die (97). However, humanists like Hieronymus Mercurialis could use the story to engage with the Hippocratic corpus and so reject the tradition that saw Phaethousa as an example of a ‘sex change’ story, claiming instead that ‘nobody of sound mind would have said that these women truly became men’ (119). King uses Phaethousa as a way of exploring the shift towards the two-sex model that she locates in the sixteenth century after the publication of the translations of the Hippocratic corpus (124).

The story of Agnodice is more challenging. In his Fabulae, Hyginus (whom King distinguishes from C. Iulius Hyginus, the freedman of Augustus) gave lists of ‘who invented what’ in which he told the story of Agnodice, the first obstetrix. According to this author, the ancients had no midwives, because women and slaves were banned from learning medicine, and so women died because of shame. Nevertheless, Agnodice, disguised as a man, was taught medicine by Herophilus (a proponent of the one-sex model, 165). Still disguised, Agnodice served the women of Athens, proving her real sex to them by lifting her tunic. However, rival doctors, jealous of her success, accused her of seducing her patients and she was brought before the Areopagus where she defended herself by again lifting her tunic—this meant, however, that she was guilty of a different crime, practising medicine as a woman. The women of Athens converged in her defence and the Athenians changed the law to allow freeborn women to practise medicine.

King demonstrates that Agnodice’s story complicates the one-sex model in a variety of ways. She can show her patients and the Areopagus that she is a woman by revealing her genitals, an action that immediately demonstrates her true sex (although the parts that she uncovers and that are therefore understood as signifying sexual difference change in the various retellings of her story, on which see chapter 8). In fact, in Hyginus’ version of the story, everything that Agnodice does underlines the difference between the sexes (179). Women are understood as so different from men that they require different treatments and doctors. King argues that Hyginus adapted a story that was originally about female doctors into one about the invention of midwifery to fit into the list of firsts he was compiling (193, 202). In the sixteenth century, Agnodice was understood as an example of a female physician, but as men began to lay claim to the fields of first gynaecology and then midwifery, Agnodice was increasingly read as a midwife. She could be used to show that women had always had control over this field, and therefore to assert women’s rights over those of male-midwives as well as to argue for the need for educated midwives in the increasingly professional field of midwifery (190).

Elegantly argued and endlessly fascinating, King has marshalled an impressive range of material to show that the two-sex body is not a modern phenomenon. Two-sex and one-sex ways of thinking about the body have existed alongside one another since antiquity, and the choice about which model to privilege depended on the rhetorical needs of individual authors.


1.   T. Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge (Mass.), 1990, p. 149.
2.   Laqueur 1990, p. 61.
3.   H. King, Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece. London, 1998.
4.   Laqueur 1990, p. 82.

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