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Beyond Gynaecology - female bodies, expertise, agency and competition in Jewish late antique culture(s)

Sun, December 17, 2:45 to 4:15pm PST (2:45 to 4:15pm PST), San Francisco Marriott Marquis, B2 (03) Golden Gate C1 (AV)

Session Submission Type: Panel Session

Session Sponsor: Research Network "Between Encyclopaedia and Epitome – Talmudic strategies of knowledge-making in the context of ancient medicine and sciences" (U. Tübingen, UCL, FU Berlin)


Earlier research into gynaecology and concepts of fe/male bodies and knowledge or practices applied by and to women has been largely confined to Graeco-Roman sources. Only recently, various projects – such as “Cultural Constructions of the Uterus in Pre-Modern Societies” (eds. Couto-Ferreira and Verderame, 2018), “Female Bodies and Female Practitioners. Gynaecology, Women's Bodies, and Expertise in the Ancient to Medieval Mediterranean and Middle East” (ed. Lehmhaus, 2023), or “Pregnancies, childbirths, and religions: rituals, normative perspectives, and individual appropriations” (ed. Pedrucci, 2019)– have fruitfully introduced comparative perspectives on various non-Western traditions or the inclusion of religious texts (e.g., early Christian, Talmudic or Zoroastrian) and other non-medical writings as valuable sources.

This panel adopts this interdisciplinary openness to discusses current research on gynaecological knowledge or practices, women’s bodies and female expertise in Jewish texts of late antiquity.

Sara Ronis discusses rabbinic concepts of fetal personhood and how its legal and ritual agency affects the pregnant person. Utilizing approaches from ritual theory and medical anthropology, this paper focuses on (halakhic) relationships between mothers, fathers and the unborn and its medical, religious, and legal ramifications.

Sari Fein examines the discourse on female obstetric practitioners (such as midwives) in Jewish Late Antiquity. The paper analyses how textual sources such as rabbinic literature and material artefacts such as the Babylonian incantation bowls construct women’s expertise within a complex web of subjective knowledge, exchange among peers and rabbinic male institutions.

Lennart Lehmhaus explores Talmudic regulations of breastfeeding and wet-nursing for Jewish and non-Jewish women that appear to be in dialogue with ancient cultural, religious and medical conception about mother’s milk. The paper demonstrates how the rabbinic authors navigate between religious and ideological beliefs and socio-legal, pragmatic aspects that contrast in some ways with common solutions in neighboring traditions.

An author of seminal studies in the field, Charlotte Fonrobert as a respondent will reflect on the three papers in light of developments in rabbinic studies and adjacent fields, which is intend to inspire lively discussions among the panelists and the audience. This panel showcases on-going developments in a growing subfield and its trans-cultural/comparative perspectives that combine classical methods with innovative approaches from ancient history of medicine and knowledge, medical Humanities, and material culture.

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