Dissecting the Page, University of Glasgow: Conference Reflections, Harry Newman and Louise Powell

Following ‘Dissecting the Page: Medical Paratexts’, Harry Newman and Louise Powell have written short conference reflections (published below). As conference organisers, we would like to thank everyone who participated in the event, and added to what we found to be diverse and wide-ranging discussion. Thank you!


Hannah, Diane, Johanna and Francesca



Conference Reflection: “Medical Paratexts: Dissecting the Page”

Dr Harry Newman

One of the many treasures to be found in the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections is a copy of Andreas Vesalius’ ground-breaking anatomical work of 1543, De humani corporis fabrica (“On the Fabric of the Human Body”), whose wood-cut illustrations quickly became iconic across Europe, and indeed were reproduced in medical texts for centuries thereafter. A curious feature of the Glasgow copy is an early annotation written (in a neat italic hand) through the neck of an illustrated skeleton: ‘sic transit gloria mundi’ (‘Thus passes the glory of the world’) [Sp Coll Bi6-a.5, p. 163]. What should we make of this combination of manuscript note and printed image? Is the annotation a serious meditation on mortality inspired by the illustration, a pious memento mori to be read as spoken by the animated skull? Or could it be a wry jest undercutting (literally cutting through, in fact) a serious representation the human body for the benefit of medical knowledge (‘Thus passes … the glory of the world’)? The paratextual detail would probably elicit quite different responses from book historians, philosophers, literary scholars and medical historians, but perhaps its greatest value is that it can get these kind of people talking together in the same room.

De Fabrica

A detail from p. 163 in Andreas Vesalius’ De Fabrica (1543), Sp Coll Bi6-a.5

Last month, I was lucky enough to be part of a fantastic one-day conference at the University of Glasgow which did exactly that, “Dissecting the Page: Medical Paratexts” (#medpara15; see full schedule here). Funded by the Wellcome Trust and organised by three early career researchers (Hannah Tweed, Diane Scott and Johanna Green), this truly interdisciplinary event brought together academics from a wide variety of fields and disciplines (literature, history, medicine, book history and art – to name but a few), facilitating research conversations across a range of historical periods, although it was interesting to see the majority of speakers were medievalists and early modernists.

Deborah Thorpe (University of York; see her blog) got the ball rolling with a fascinating keynote, “Different Strokes”, presenting her collaborative investigations—with Jane Alty, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust—into the impact of illnesses and especially neurological disorders (including Parkinsons and ‘essential tremor’) on the handwriting of  medieval scribes. Rich and lively panels featuring a range of materials and approaches followed: “Text, Object, Performance”, “Illustrations, Epitext, and the Medical Gaze”, “Anatomy of the Page”, and “Framing, Reception, Response”. Of particular note were a talk by Louise Powell (Durham University) on illustrations of twins in seventeenth-century midwifery manuals (how do they represent similarity and difference, togetherness and separation, harmony and discordance?), and a paper by Shafalee Jain (Ambedkar University, Delhi) showcasing her visual re-interpretations of early modern images of ‘monstrous’ and ‘deformed’ humans (how does one subvert the ‘normalizing gaze’?).

A wonderful paper by Bob Maclean (Glasgow University Library) on “Marginalia in Printed Medical Books” anticipated a temporary exhibition in Special Collections, and we were not disappointed by our trip to the library. Following a charismatic talk by Jeremy Smith (Glasgow) prepping us to interpret interrelated ‘vectors of meaning’ (manuscript/printed texts, illustrations, readers’ annotations, etc.), we explored a rich variety of curated medical texts (including Vesalius’ De Fabrica), ranging from the late medieval period to the twentieth century. Highlights included a ‘high-end’ copy of Avicenna’s Canon medicinae (1486), lavishly illuminated and copiously annotated, and a small surgeon’s companion by Thomas Brugis, Vade mecum (1689), bought for 2 shillings and 6 pence in 1693, whose endpaper bears an illustration of a mercurial fumigation chamber for the treatment of syphilis.

Jeremy Smith

Jeremy Smith speaks to conference delegates in the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections 

Canon Medicinae

A 1486 edition of Avicenna’s Canon medicinae, Sp Coll Hunterian Bw.3.24 

 Vade Mecum

An illustration of a fumigation chamber for syphilitic patients in Thomas Brugis, Vade mecum; or A companion for a chirurgion (1689), Sp Coll Ferguson Am-b.34

The conference finished with a roundtable discussion led by Andrew Prescott (Glasgow) and Elizabeth Robertson (Glasgow), which opened up debates that had been touched on or provoked over the course of the day. What are ‘medical paratexts’ anyway? Are we studying paratexts or material culture? Are we done with Gérard Genette’s paratextual theory? How do all these texts and images negotiate their power relationship with the reader’s gaze? How do they challenge ideas about the mind/body duality?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of digital resources like Early English Books Online? How does the study of medical paratexts relate to recent research on the history of emotions and the senses?

The great triumph of the conference is that it put pressure on these questions and cast them in a new light. Its participants will continue to correspond as part of an expanding interdisciplinary and international network focused on the intersection of the medical humanities and the history of the book. I for one am very much looking forward to being a part of the conversation.

Harry Newman is a Lecturer in Shakespeare and Early Modern Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. His paper at the conference was “‘Prophane Fidlers’: Medical Paratexts and Indecent Readers in Early Modern England”.



Conference Reflection: “Medical Paratexts: Dissecting the Page”

Louise Powell

I have long been interested in the representation of twins in seventeenth-century medical works, but I had never quite known where to discuss them. With an academic background in English, I had used the many references to twins that are found in midwifery books in order to argue that their presence in dramatic works was not an incidental detail, but an important one. Yet as I researched and wrote on this subject, I found the twins of medical works to be equally as intriguing as the twins of plays.

It was not until I saw the CFP for the ‘Dissecting the Page: Medical Paratexts’ conference at the University of Glasgow that I realised how medical ideas surrounding twins could constitute a topic in itself. When I saw that papers on medical illustrations were among suggested topics, I remembered the images of twins that I had seen in James Guillemeau’s Childbirth or, The Happie Deliverie of Women (1612) and Thomas Chamberlayne’s The Compleat Midwives Practice (1656). I recalled how the twins of the illustrations had touched, but their textual counterparts had not – a topic I had noted in my earlier research but never returned to, as I had failed to find a relevant place for it. Now, having found a space in which I could discuss this matter at length, I returned to the texts and their illustrative paratexts. Realising that they suggested contrasting ideas about seventeenth-century twins, I excitedly produced an abstract and hoped it would get accepted.

I was delighted to present my first-ever paper at the conference, and very grateful to the Wellcome Trust for awarding me a bursary which made my attendance possible. The papers covered an impressive range of periods and subjects, spanning from the medieval period to the present day, and including, among others, medieval almanacs, early modern pamphlets, and online comments sections. I regret that illness made me unable to attend many of the sessions, but those papers I did hear were remarkable for their insights and their presentation. It was wonderful to present to such an attentive and encouraging audience, who asked carefully-considered questions that were almost as thought-provoking as the papers themselves.

The conference organisers – Dr. Hannah Tweed, Dr. Diane Gilles Scott, Dr. Johanna Green, and Francesca Mackay – are to be commended for their organisation of the ‘Dissecting the Page: Medical Paratexts’ conference at Glasgow University. Not only did they successfully put together a day full of varied and fascinating research, but they were also incredibly welcoming, supportive, and generous with their time. Their friendliness made what could have been an intimidating first foray into academic conferences into a very pleasant experience indeed.

Louise Powell is completing her MA in Medieval and Renaissance Literary Studies at Durham University, after which she aspires to undertake doctoral study. Her paper at the conference was entitled “Touching Twins in Seventeenth-century Medical Illustrations”.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *