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Title: The Fille Vierge as Pharmakon: The Therapeutic Value of Desdemona's Corpse
Contributor(s): Noble, L (author)orcid 
Publication Date: 2004
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Abstract: In 1564, Guy de la Fontaine, physician to the king of Navarre, described to Ambroise Pare how a Jewish merchant who traded in mummified corpses "marveled that the Christians, so daintily mouthed, could eat the bodies of the dead." These reported words exquisitely express the cultural contradiction around the eating of human bodies that haunts the medicinal preparation and ingestion of human corpses, usually called mummy, in early modern Europe. The uneasy intersection of discourses of cannibalism and medicine produces the complex figurative jostling in Othello that imagines Desdemona's body as panacea for sick masculinity. When Othello identifies the source on the pigment in which Desdemona's handkerchief is "dyed" as "mummy, which the skillful/ Conserved of maidens' hearts," - his words register not only the cannibal paradox evident in the preparation and ingestion of human corpses for medicinal purposes, but also -- significantly for our understanding of Desdemona's fate -- a socio-medicinal economy in which the fille vierge, a drug produced from the embalmed corpses of virginal females, is constructed as the superior form of mummy. In Othello, the medical motif of the salvific healing power of ingested virginal corpse matter and myths of female chastity fuse into a powerful theme of female sacrifice and male salvation. Masculine jealousy, which has its culminating moment in Othello's vision of Desdemona's body as the efficacious corpse drug contained and preserved in all its purity, is the product of a deeply rooted epistemological anxiety over the true nature of women and their bodies and a pathological need to control those bodies.
Publication Type: Book Chapter
Source of Publication: Disease, Diagnosis and Cure on the Early Modern Stage, p. 135-150
Publisher: Ashgate Publishing Ltd
Place of Publication: Aldershot
ISBN: 0754637913
Field of Research (FOR): 200503 British and Irish Literature
HERDC Category Description: B1 Chapter in a Scholarly Book
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Series Name: Literary and Scientific Cultures of Early Modernity
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