photo by Sage Reed

Feature Article

"Men execute Men, women are executed by nature."

Meghan Strell (Sister Luyt/Artistic Director) reflects on the process of doing historical research for Corpus Delicti: Just Desserts.

When I first came across this line of text: "Men execute Men, women are executed by nature," I was confused about how and why punishments were determined by a person's gender. What were the motivations behind that? Was death by nature supposed to be more gentle or more cruel?

Which is worse? To be a man, sentenced to die at the hands of an executioner (usually by the rope), or to be a woman, sentenced to die by nature: burned alive at the stake (death by fire), buried alive (death by earth), or stuffed in a sack with a cat, a snake, and a dog and then thrown into a river to drown (death by water)?

Personally I'm most horrified by the burning. So I concluded that death by nature was intended to be more severe. It would also spare the executioner the shame of picking on someone weaker than himself.

I thought that women were definitely getting the short end of the stick until I read more detailed accounts about how men were punished. When hanging wasn't enough, their hearts were cut out while they were still alive, and were thrown repeatedly into their faces. That struck me as particularly wretched. These images continue to huant me—the cruelty that we as humans are capable of.

Which of the following was not proposed as a treatment for hysteria?

A. Holding garlic and feces under the nose
B. Burning fragrant spices between the legs
C. Removing the uterus
D. Taking a soothing bath of milk and honey
E. Undergoing electric shock therapy
F. Having an orgasm
G. Getting a lobotomy
H. Taking a ride in a whirling chair

The correct answer is D. The Greeks believed that holding feces and garlic under the nose, and burning fragrant spices between the legs would lure a woman's wandering womb back into it's proper place. By the late 1800s, hysteria was a term that came to refer to sexual dissatisfaction. At that time, treatments usually involved the use of vibrators or psychoanalysis.

Dutch Masters & Fainting Ladies

Due to booming trade, the Netherlands prospered during the renaissance and a wealthy merchant class emerged. Professionals with a disposable income became patrons of the arts, a role previously reserved for the church and royalty. Painters like Rembrandt began to take on secular commissions, like painting group portraits for the guild of surgeons--hence, "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp".

Interestingly, a new genre of painting emerged among the Dutch Masters, the portrait of the sick woman. It's a bit shocking to see how many renaissance paintings portray a woman in a semi-faint with the doctor, maid and or nurse
at her side. The doctor is usually looking at a vial of urine, burning incense and taking her pulse. He ranges in impression from a respected professional to a lascivious quack. The woman is clearly in a weakened state with her breast partially exposed. Often, a romantic icon hangs in the background, either cupid or a musical instrument.

One wonders at the fetish that combines the burgeoning medical profession with romanticized women's weakness.

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Jan Steen