Female body baffled men in Elizabethan era, research reveals
Have you ever been told not to eat hot food or you might become lustful?
Men in the 14th century thought that if women ate hot foods their hormones would take over, according to Stephanie Thompson, a literary studies student at Utah State University.
Thompson is working on her 60-to 80-page thesis, titled "Constructions of Knowledge of the Female Body in the Early Modern Period."
As part of her master's degree, Thompson has been researching the rights of women and how the female body was perceived in the 1500s.
Thompson explained that during the Elizabethan era men didn't understand women's bodies.
"[They] thought that when a woman was pregnant, the womb could disconnect and float in the body if she wasn't careful," Thompson said.
Thompson explained that in the 1500s women were perceived as inferior to men; the belief was that women were more susceptible to illness and their brains were not as strong.
Medical texts from the 14th century explain that blood flowed only out from the heart. People would do "strange" exercises to keep blood flowing, Thompson said.
"They would flap their arms up and down to get the blood from their fingers back to their heart," Thompson explained while flapping her arms in the air like a bird.
These perceptions led Thompson to begin researching medical and legal texts (specifically juries of matrons) and plays from the 1500s, and possibly religious aspects.
"When a woman was on trial and needed to be examined [to find out if she was pregnant or raped] then men couldn't examine," Thompson said. "Only women could examine women."
Because of this, men had to create ways to tell if a woman was virtuous or not just by looking at her. This is depicted in the plays Thompson is studying‹Henry VI, Fairy Queen and The Changling.
In Shakespeare's "Henry VI, Part I," Joan of Arc is burned at the stake because she claims to be pregnant and can't name the father. Joan of Arc's virginity is put into question, so her inquisitors marked her as evil by burning her body, Thompson explained.
"Fairy Queen," by Ed Spencer, depicts a witch who pretends to be a virgin. When she is stripped, her body is deformed and animalistic. This shows mens desire for womens evil nature to be obvious, according to Thompson.
In Middleton and Rowley's "The Changling," a bride is stabbed because she was not a virgin on her wedding night. Her body is bleeding and punctured, marking it worthless and evil, according to Thompson.
"I want to identify and clarify gender relations and how it worked back then," Thompson said.
She wants to look at "how it affects things today."
Thompson is considering tying in the information she finds with how gender relations and stereotypes are created and reinforced today, but hasn't begun any research on it.
"Ramifications for now [are] just plain interesting," Thompson commented.
This fall, English graduate students will be part of a major change in the English studies program at Utah State University. The graduate programs in literary studies and the theory and practice of writing will be merging to become the literature and writing program, according to Professor Keith Grant-Davie, the head adviser for the literary studies program.
Professor Brian McCuskey, the head adviser for the theory and practice program, has been planning this merger with Grant-Davie over the last year.
"We neither have the faculty nor the student numbers to sustain both programs with discrete curricula," Grant-Davie explained. "We're just too small a department, in too rural a part of the country, to run both programs."
The enrollment numbers have picked up in the theory and practice of writing department, but the literary studies department has been under-enrolled for the past few years, according to Grant-Davie.
"We can't afford to offer a seminar with one faculty member teaching just two or three graduate students," said Grant-Davie. "By merging the two programs we hope to ensure a healthier program and better accommodate the rise and fall of student numbers."
Although numbers and resources are the main reason for the merger, Grant-Davie says they want to explore the connections between literature and writing.
The literary studies department has 10 students enrolled and four more that have applied for fall semester. The theory and practice of writing department has 29 students, which will make a total of nearly 40 students when the departments merge.
"I love the people I work with," explained Stephanie Thompson, who has been in the program for two years. "Literary studies is a small department, but I get a lot of one-on-one attention."
In Fall 2000, Thompson was awarded the Russell Fellowship scholarship‹sponsored by Dan C. and Manon Caine Russell‹from the literary studies department. The scholarship is the highest available and gives the student $10,000.
"Stephanie is a strong student," Grant-Davie said. "She has maintained straight As in all her graduate coursework."
After graduating from the University of Utah with a bachelor's degree in English, Thompson taught English for six years to students aiming for their GED.
She became interested in perceptions of the female body when she attended a seminar in history that focused on juries of matrons and the male dominated legal system in England during the 1500s.
"I wasn't able to explore what I really wanted to," said Thompson. "The resources weren't available to look specifically at court records [from the 1500s in England]. I would have had to spend six months in England just to do research."
Thompson enjoys the research and finds it fascinating to learn about different people and cultures.
However, Thompson has found it difficult to find materials to research. The process is time consuming. Thompson relies on interlibrary loan, which allows students to loan books from other colleges and universities that are part of the system.
Thompson says she is anxious.
"I am removed from making a concrete difference in the world [with my area of study]," she said.
Last year Thompson taught freshmen English, but she is enjoying this year more, partly because she got to pilot her own book.
"I get to do what I want this year," Thompson said.
Thompson spends most of her time researching and teaching sophomore-level English courses.
"It has been nice to have a chance to teach [while completing a master's degree]," Thompson explained. "That's why I came to Utah State. Funding wasn't great, but it wasn't bad. Being on scholarship has been helpful."
Thompson has been considering getting a doctorate in literary studies after she defends her thesis this summer.
"On one hand it is really hard to get a job [in the English field]," she said. "But [literary studies] doctorate programs are very specific on letting people in."
Thompson explained that her advisers tell her to get a doctorate only "because you love it."
She may apply at a community college or someplace where she can "help people get an education."
"Ideally, I'd like to take the summer off and sleep," Thompson commented.