As it is a rule in Geometry

For this post I want to return to Crooke’s text, looking at a specific phrase in the second paragraph of “The Praeface to the Chyrurgeons.” The first part of this passage reads as follows:

In the next place shall follow a Discourse of the constitution of mans body, as he enjoyeth a perfect or apportioned health by a due Mixture of the principles whereof he consisteth; of the Temperament of each part arising from that mixture; of the Offices or Functions proceeding from that temperament, and such other things as will fall in with the same. For as it is a rule in Geometry, that Rectum est index sui & obliqui, That which is Right measureth both it selfe and that which is crooked; so in our Art, he that knowes what should bee the natural disposition of everie part will be best able to judge when Nature declineth from that integrity, and how far the declination is from the true and genuine constitution. This part indeede is Philosophicall, but I shall make it so plaine, if God will, that a very reasonable capacity shall be able to apprehend it.

The underlining is mine; Crooke’s mention of geometry caught my attention because it immediately brought to mind one of my favorite articles, “Lessons from Literature for the Historian of Science (and Vice Versa): Reflections on ‘Form'” by Henry S. Turner (currently of Rutgers), published in the journal Isis in 2010. When I first read Turner’s piece a year ago it helped me begin to sketch out what interdisciplinary work between literary studies and the history of science might and should look like. I’ve had difficulty tying my disparate interests together and focusing them into a conceivable project for graduate studies in an English department, and this article was quite helpful to me in articulating some of what I envisioned.

What made me think of Turner’s article when I subsequently re-read this line from Crooke is the specific use of the geometry metaphor. In this paragraph, Crooke describes the way he has constructed his anatomy; he attempts to explain its form. As part of Turner’s discussion of form, he notes

In my own work on early modern English drama and its debt to modes of prescientific thought, I sought to combine all four notions of form [stylistic, structural, material, and social] along with a fifth: mathematical notions of form that were typical of geometry in both its speculative and practical varieties. Geometry provides one of the oldest and most enduring ways of thinking about the problem of form (the geometrical “statement” is, in the end, purely a formal one); in the late sixteenth century, mathematical notions of form that were primarily structural, spatial, and quantitative began to compete with rhetorical notions of form that were primarily linguistic, stylistic, and qualitative, with the result that early modern writers began to develop new ideas of form for their poems and plays. (581)

Turner goes on to cite examples of early modern authors—Philip Sidney, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson—drawing on fields such as cartography and carpentry to help form their writing.

For modern readers, an anatomical text that references geometry might not be notable; in our contemporary mindset, math and science go hand in hand. But my sense of early modern medical practices does not jive with that. In this very passage (and extensively elsewhere), Crooke refers to anatomy as “our Art.” He and his fellow physicians were university trained, but the barber-surgeons Crooke addresses this preface to are apprenticed and unschooled. Crooke is trying to convey technical medical knowledge to a relatively illiterate (at least, by early modern standards) bunch. In order to be successful, he has to put that specialized information into a form they can process.

This is why I find Mikrokosmographia such fertile ground (don’t think about that metaphor too hard) for exploring rhetorical construction in the early modern period. I see plenty of evidence within the text to support the notion that Crooke is, above all else, trying to make his book accessible. I haven’t yet fully explored this, but my hypothesis is that he is heavily influenced by classical and contemporary creative writing in the construction of his protoscientific text. Sawday briefly notes this possibility in The Body Emblazoned, and Elizabeth Harvey wrote an article on Spenserian allegory in one part of Crooke’s text; I plan to build on their work for a conference paper I’ll be presenting at PAMLA in October. But this instance of geometry in “The Praeface to the Chyrurgeons,” interpreted via Turner, may be another piece of supporting evidence. Like Sidney, Dekker, and Jonson, and perhaps in imitation of them, Crooke draws on geometry to help give form to his text. As he explains, “This part indeede is Philosophicall, but I shall make it so plaine, if God will, that a very reasonable capacity shall be able to apprehend it”; by drawing on the tangible concept of geometry to give shape to the intangible philosophical aspects of his text, Crooke believes he will be able to convey his information even to those of “reasonable [and not exceptional] capacity,” the barber-surgeons.

Addendum – 9/8/12: As I may have mentioned, I was really, really tired when I wrote this post; Fridays after teaching may not be the best time to blog, as it turns out. Anyhow, I’m not going to fuss with it (muddled as it is), but I do want to clarify my main point: Crooke’s use of a geometry metaphor is unremarkable, but the fact that he’s using it specifically to describe the form of his text is, I think, significant.

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