The body itself was a space of knowing: of concealment and revelation, of inwardness and discovery. Following ancient philosophers such as Plato, the human frame was often thought of as a microcosm; literally, a little universe (the heart, for instance, was associated with the sun). In the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries, interest in exploring the outer – or rather, inner – reaches and intricacies of this body grew, prompted in part by the influential, irreverent sixteenth-century Flemish anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius. Anatomical knowledge, Vesalius argued, should be based not in the authority of classical and canonical texts, but rather in first-hand experience of dissection, looking beyond the superficial appearances of the body in search of a deeper truth within.

In this context, the body was at once a subject and an object of knowledge, as anatomists used their own bodily senses to better understand the corpses they cut open. Such investigations, moreover, were concerned with a better understanding of not only physiology, but also psychology: working in a context where body and soul were intimately intertwined, anatomists hoped to uncover the secrets of human nature as well as flesh and bone. Literary and dramatic cultures also drew on and contributed to a growing interest in anatomy in this period: the dissection of dead bodies provided a lively source of metaphor and analogy for poets and playwrights. The word anatomy was, for instance, popular in book titles, indicating a thorough and detailed examination of a specific topic; Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is probably the most famous example of this.