Glass Bellies and Artificial Wombs: Gender, Science, and Reproduction in Early Modern Alchemical Performance


  • Jennifer M Park University of North Carolina at Greensboro


In this essay, I use the glass belly or vessel as a framework for examining the intersection of science, performance, and gender in the early modern period. I begin with the example of the glass belly because of how its form and functions intersect these areas of inquiry through early modern alchemy, which I argue can be examined *as* science in performance—in other words, alchemy serves as exemplar of the performativity of science. If early modern scholars have used performance to represent “the deceptive, hollow, and illusory nature of the theatrical, even as it conjures the real into being,” alchemy serves as a particularly pertinent case. Alchemy is often dismissed in our modern day as an illusory science, one that but mimics the more sophisticated techniques of scientific methodology and which is defined by its reputation as fraudulent and deceptive, which was not entirely accurate to its time. But insofar as we might define science as a body of knowledge—scientia—and a set of practices—techne—alchemy was very much constituted by both. Furthermore, precisely because of the gendering that occurred with the glass vessels used in alchemical science (and would continue to be used as laboratory vessels in the growing field of chemistry), I argue that the history of alchemy can provide a useful framework for mapping out the early, gendered relationships between science and performance. 

Author Biography

Jennifer M Park, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Assistant Professor of English, University of North Carolina at Greensboro