Canterbury Cathedral Library holds a 1631 edition of the first anatomy book published in English, Mikrokosmographia, by physician Helkiah Crooke (first published in 1615). This expensive expanded edition came into the possession of Henry Oxinden, whose books form the core of the Elham Parish Library.
Mikrokosmographia has been described by the medical historian C. D. O’Malley as ‘the largest and fullest anatomical work produced in England up to its day and for a considerable time to follow’. The text is filled with detailed images of the human body and painstaking descriptions of its many corporeal functions. Crooke’s diagram of the abdomen represents in full the viscera of the belly, including the ‘bunching part of the Liver’, ‘the stomacke filled full of meate’, the ‘spleene’, the ‘blinde gut’, the ‘passage of the Colon’, and the ‘sunken or fallen side of the Colon’.
In pre-modern medicine, the body was often divided into three parts – the head (ruled by the brain), the breast (ruled by the heart) and the belly (ruled by the liver). The belly’s basic function was to distribute nutrition to the rest of the body. Just as the heart and brain ‘giue life and sence to the whole man’, Crooke wrote, so ‘the liuer doeth sanguifie the aliment, not for his owne vse alone, but for the nourishme(n)t of the whole body’.
Though this early modern image focuses on the anatomy of the belly, its organs were held accountable for more than the body’s nutritive processes. Early modern proverbs link the belly to emotion and behaviour. Greed and excessive appetite were commonly associated with carnality, as the proverbs ‘a full belly leads to dancing’ and ‘when the belly is full, the mind is among the maids’ suggest. Courage was also attributed to the belly – particularly its ruling organ, the liver – while the stomach was considered the seat of instinct. Elizabeth I, in her Tilbury speech, asserted that she had both ‘the heart and stomach of a king’, raising the belly to the same metaphorical importance as its better-known anatomical counterpart.
Though the heart has retained its metaphorical significance, the gut’s has declined. Indications of its former significance have, however, survived in language. The belly’s emotive functions are still alluded to in expressions such as the ‘pit of the stomach’, ‘visceral reaction’, ‘lily-livered’, ‘to stomach’, and ‘trust your gut’. In 2014, Swiss researchers showed that our pre-modern forebears were right to assign emotive values to the stomach. They found that the vagus nerve, which attaches the brain to the lower abdomen – and links the heart and other major organs along the way –can instinctively sense danger from its branch in the stomach, which it then conveys to the brain.
Like the modern stomach, the early modern stomach possessed a significance beyond the nutritive function described in Crooke’s text. Something to mull over while you wonder whether this year’s hefty portion of Christmas turkey and ham are really worth the belly-ache.
Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent
– Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (1999)
– Jan Purnis, ‘The Stomach and Early Modern Emotion’, University of Toronto Quarterly (2010)
– C. D. O’Malley, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, 1515-64 (1964)