Man as Microcosm: An Introductory Essay

Anna Young

Early modern texts often discussed the male body as the default human body. In written sources, premodern writers often referred to “men” or the "body of man" when they meant to discuss both men and women together. Visual sources, such as those brought together in this digital collection, also tended to represent the male body as the human default, meant to stand in for all humanity. 

The image above, from Robert Fludd's 1671 Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae represents a long-standing tendency among premodern medical and scientific writers to represent "Man as Microcosm." Early modern medical and natural philosophical texts frequently depicted the nude male figure as the template for all humans, even as a reflection in miniature (the microcosm) of the larger operations of the whole universe (or the macrocosm). The male figure above, for instance, represents the zodiacal influence of the planets on different parts of the human body, recapitulating in microcosm the greater celestial order of the constellations. The same male figure also, however, stands in for "man" as all of humanity, demonstrating how all human bodies--women included--were connected to the divine order of the universe. Anatomical texts also tended to represent all human bodies as a male nude--unless specifically dedicated to examining the interior of the womb. Representations of bodily proportions, such as that made famous by Da Vinci's interpretation of Vitruvius, also almost universally depicted the human body as a male figure.

In many ways, this tendency to represent "Man as Microcosm" or the male body as the archetypal human, confirmed contemporary Christian teachings. As introduced in the book of Genesis, God had supposedly created man first in his own, ostensibly male, image. Christ had also been incarnated as a male human being, further suggesting the primacy of the male body in the divine plan for humankind's salvation. The prototypical woman, Eve, on the other hand, was not created as a separate, independent being, but derived from Adam's body, suggesting that women were only weaker, derivative versions of male bodies.

Medical constructions of male and female sex difference quite literally supported this view of female bodies as essentially variant human bodies. As Thomas Laqueur famously argued, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century medical texts often described the male body as the human default, upon which women were a less perfect variation. According to what he termed the "one-sex model" of sexual difference, men and women shared the same basic body plan and even the same reproductive anatomy. Women, however, differed only in that their bodies were naturally less "heated" than men's--heat being a humoral quality strongly associated with activity and vitality. Their lack of heat prevented their genital organs from protruding externally and so they remained tucked inside the abdomen. Rather than recognizing these as separate structures altogether, medical writers often discussed the womb as containing "female testicles" which, just like male testicles, produced seed necessary for reproduction. One-sex thinking thus tended to center the male body as the human default and, as men and women possessed essentially the same structures, tended to support the notion that the male form could justifiably stand in for all humanity.

Because women were more often discussed in sex-specific ways in early modern texts, which tended to emphasize the difference or "otherness" of their bodies, historians have for this reason generally shied away from similarly investigating perceptions or constructions of male bodies. As Kenneth Gouwens has observed, this "early-modern propensity to figure the masculine as the human," raises several methodological obstacles for historians interested in masculinity and past discussions of male bodies. In the first place, it tends to make "men as gendered beings invisible." Because the male body so often figured as the assumed, universal human, it is often difficult to disentangle thinking about specifically male bodies from generalizations about all humanity. Added to this, most all European languages allow for the use of the word "man" to refer to humankind generally. Significant linguistic ambiguity thus often clouds a reading of medical sources for sex-specific discussions of maleness and male bodies, because it is often unclear whether those sources mean to refer to men specifically or both men and women together.

This digital collection, and my larger dissertation project, is dedicated to examining how, and in what instances, early modern medical and scientific sources discussed male bodies in sex-specific ways. In other words, I am interested in whether it is possible to examine these sources for instances in which men are discussed as men, male bodies being clearly distinguished from all humankind?

The featured collection in this exhibit presents sixteenth- and seventeenth-century medical and scientific diagrams which featured the male body as a universal microcosm. It includes schematic representations of the cosmos, like that included in Fludd's text, as well as other representations of male-centered figurations of human bodies, like "Zodiac Man," "Blood-letting Man," "Wound Man," Vitruvian models of human proportions, and anatomical depictions of human bodies.