Borders, scribbles, yellow highlighting, footnotes, tables of contents, fonts, illustrations, comments fields and design are also medicine.
Reading an old book full of underscoring and scribbles can be quite irritating. On the other hand, borders, notes in the margin, drawings, pictures and yellow highlighting may provide a kind of access to history, at least medical history, that has hitherto gone unheeded. This assertion is the starting point for the anthology Medical Paratexts from Medieval to Modern, about a relatively new area of research, namely medical paratext or non-textual medical text.
The book starts with the editors Hannah C. Tweed and Diane G. Scott presenting the mysterious case of Mary Toft, who in 1726 gave birth to nine rabbits, witnessed by a British surgeon. The case was widely reported in the press and became legendary, because it also came to feature in skits and ballads. After Toft had repeatedly given birth to rabbits in the presence of witnesses, she was brought to London for a thorough examination by surgeons, medical practitioners and male midwives. There it was revealed that her husband had provided her with dead rabbits that she had used during her 'births'. After she had been threatened with a forced Caesarean section, she confessed to the scam.
What role does the story of Mary Toft play in a book about medical paratext? The discovery caused a flood of contributions from doctors, surgeons and midwives, and the editors argue that with all the text produced, the debate can be better understood if we analyse not only the texts themselves, but also their paratext. Paratext is varyingly defined and delimited, and in the widest sense it includes everything that surrounds the main text and itself communicates information and meaning ('para' means 'beside' in Greek). The paratext includes the peritext – such as illustrations, covers, colophon pages, annotations in the margins, headings, footnotes and endnotes – i.e. elements that are linked to the main text but not themselves included in it. The paratext also includes the epitext, i.e. text produced outside the original text, such as literature reviews, responses to articles, correspondence, public debates and press releases. The epitext reveals to us the social, political and cultural factors that shaped the production of the text.
One key point highlighted by the editors is that paratext always mediates between the author, publisher and reader: the paratext is relational. In Toft's case, such analysis of the paratext demonstrates how the female body became the object of a struggle in which many saw the need to defend their knowledge and their profession, not least because so many professionals had been led down the garden path. The analysis also shows how new opportunities for publication in the 18th century were utilised by an increasingly self-confident medical profession.