Media @ McGill

Anuradha Gobin | Representing the Criminal Body in the City: Knowledge, Publics and Power in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic

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My doctoral dissertation,  Representing the Criminal Body in the City: Knowledge, Publics and Power in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic, focuses on representations and practices surrounding the acquisition of new medical and anatomical knowledge from the criminal body. More specifically, my research explores the representation of social and cultural spaces associated with legislatively mandated public dissections on criminals. These include the town hall, the gallows field, the anatomy theatre and the cemetery. Public dissections occurred at least once a year in various Dutch cities during the early modern period, and were well attended, prominently advertised, and considered theatrical and entertaining events. My dissertation offers a critical consideration of the traditions and representational strategies employed during the period in question, as Dutch cities were centers of commercial, artistic, and scientific endeavors that greatly influenced similar practices throughout Europe.

In order to investigate the social, religious and legal associations surrounding spaces of criminal punishments, my research places particular emphasis on the role of various media that advertised and transmitted information about public dissections and executions. These include objects as varied as paintings, drawings, prints, anatomical illustrations, medical publications, pamphlets, flap-sheet anatomies and preserved body parts. These were actively circulated during the seventeenth century and investigation of the role of these historically relevant media will facilitate greater understanding of the ways in which the Dutch public explored and mediated religious, ethical and cultural tensions associated with the dismemberment and defacement of the criminal body. Visual imagery enabled accessibility of information and knowledge to wider segments of the population than the written text alone. Media such as paintings, drawings and printed illustrations were widely available and could be interpreted and understood by all viewers regardless of literacy or socio-economic standing. As such, the variety of media I explore will provide an expanded analysis of the range of social and ethical concerns related to practices surrounding the changing treatment of the criminal body during the seventeenth century.

My dissertation will be organized through analysis of representations and objects connected to specific public spaces associated with the execution and extended punishment of criminals. My first chapter, Communicating Criminality: Ceremony, Space and Image in Early Modern Public Executions, focuses on the site of the Amsterdam Town Hall, one of the most prominent locations in the Dutch Republic for criminal executions during the seventeenth century. This opening chapter considers the highly ritualized spectacle of public executions and positions the Dutch practice within larger early modern European punishment rituals. Chapter one also explores the use of punishment and spectacle in the process of asserting authority and constructing a sense of national identity of the newly established Dutch Republic.

My second chapter follows the public display of the punished criminal body and shifts the location of focus to the gallows field. Depending on the severity of the offense committed, some criminal sentences included the provision that, following execution, the corpse would be moved to the gallows field so that continued public display and gradual decomposition of the body may ensue. In this chapter entitled, Picturing Punishment: Authority and Ambiguity in Representations of the Criminal Body on the Gallows, I discuss the proliferation of images of the Dutch landscape that include the gallows field with the decomposing criminal body in its composition and consider the function this iconographic detail served through its circulation in a wide range of visual culture. I also explore the prevalence of the gallows as a marker of boundaries that was closely linked to military practices and which was interestingly appropriated into the landscape genre.

My third chapter, Dissecting the Criminal Body: Publics, Performance and Prestige in the Anatomy Theatre considers the visual and material culture associated with the space in which some criminal bodies were publically dissected, as this was again considered to be a form of aggravated punishment. Anatomy theatres, during the seventeenth century, were spaces of entertainment and knowledge production that combined the act of anatomizing with the display of curious objects and moralizing tableaus. The site of the anatomy theatre allowed for the emergence of a “public of dissection” which became possible through the authority of the anatomist. Visual culture thus served a central role in establishing this symbolic authority of the anatomist as he was able to derive knowledge and civic good out of what had originally been an act of deviance on the part of the criminal.

The final chapter of my thesis, The Afterlife of the Criminal Body: Medical Specimens, Anatomical Illustrations and Objects of Curiosity, concludes my survey of new types of publics that emerged in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. In this chapter, I explore a number of prominent cabinets of curiosity which included severed body parts and preserved human skins taken from the anatomized criminal body. This chapter discusses the often magical and healing properties attributed to the criminal after death as well as highlights the centrality of the criminal to visual strategies employed in early illustrations that accompanied medial treatises.

My thesis offers a critical examination of the increased accessibility and popularity of spaces associated with criminal punishment during the seventeenth century. My chapters together interrogate the supposed shift which occurred during the early modern period regarding the way in which the public body was perceived and formulated. My research brings to the forefront the centrality of representations of punishment and actions of authority over criminality and deviance to emerging notions of public formation and identity construction in the Dutch Republic.