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In the second book of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), the narrator Raphael Hythloday describes a natural harbour at the island’s mouth. Interestingly, his description of the harbour reads like an allegory of a pacified early modern womb:

the land on every side compasseth it about and sheltereth it from the winds, is not rough nor mounteth not with great waves, but almost floweth quietly, not much unlike a great standing pool [that] maketh wellnigh all the space within the belly of the land in manner of a haven, and, to the great commodity of the inhabitants, receiveth in ships towards every part of the land. (More 49)

 The harbour’s gentle waves contrast with the ‘rough…great waves’, which can be interpreted as an aggressive womb. The comparison of the womb to a stormy sea is supported by Robert Barret’s observation that the pregnant womb ‘may be fitly compared to a rough sea, in which the Child floats for the space of nine months’ (Barret 37). Although published in 1699, Barret’s observation reflects widespread ideas that are in circulation during the Renaissance period. His turbulent womb implies many dangers for the unborn child, to the extent that the womb is not even considered as a space. Barret interprets space as the length of time the child has to endure the womb’s rough sea. By being ‘fitly compared to a rough sea’, Barret considers the womb an unfit space for a child. It becomes an external force that continuously threatens the child in the same manner that the great rough waves threaten Utopia’s natural harbour. This does not mean that Utopia or its natural harbour represent the child, but they suggest a space of stability that Barret may wish the womb to be.

Ambrosius Holbein’s woodcut of Utopia from the 1518 Basel edition with its symbolic uterus-like horns.

The image of the natural womb’s rough waves ‘mounting’ the harbour also implies corporeal passions. These waves threaten to transform the harbour into an inhospitable space. Instead, the subdued harbour creates a ‘space within the belly of the land in manner of a haven’. The mapping of the island in corporeal terms opens up geographical possibilities. The anthropomorphized land that has a ‘belly’ as a safe space naturally recalls the womb. Therefore, Utopia becomes a birth-place that is a ‘no-place’. The Utopians have no sense of history to identify with, as they have no hierarchal agencies. Also, Hythloday’s use of the signifiers ‘belly’ and ‘haven’ indicate that the surrounding land represents the bar between signifier and signified. It pacifies the water by protecting it from the natural elements, so that the pool of water becomes a space that is not determined by desire or excess. The ‘great standing pool’ simply becomes an empty internalised space that is denoted by how it is used. It has no autonomous influence on the Utopians’ lives to the point that it becomes invisible, so that no adequate signified can be attached to it.

The natural elements also control access to the ‘great standing pool’:

Other rocks be lying hid under the water, which therefore be dangerous. The channels be known only to themselves. And therefore it seldom chanceth that any stranger unless be he guided by an Utopian, can come into this haven. Insomuch that they themselves could scarcely enter without jeopardy, but that their way is directed and ruled by certain landmarks on the shore. (More 49)

The rocks are the signified because they block entry to the signifier ‘Utopia’. However, the channels remove the rocks as an obstacle and, conversely, become an obstacle to the rocks as they allow the noun ‘Utopia’ to become both signifier and signified. Therefore, Utopia is unified with its semantic offspring, the Utopians, to replicate the bond between mother and child. The channels also allow Utopia to expand its boundaries to include strangers who have to be ‘guided by an Utopian’ in order to enter its haven. In this sense, the strangers are already part of Utopia because, like the Utopian’s, they are affected by ‘jeopardy’. The combination of the dangerous rocks and safe channels act as a warning against allegorical misinterpretation. If the Utopians misread the ‘certain landmarks on the shore’ then they will be as ignorant as the strangers. The effect, then, is that Utopia emphasises the similarities between the Utopians and the strangers. They are linked by jeopardy that can only be removed by a non-aggressive reading of the maternal signs, so that the safe channels become an idealised representation of childbirth. The natural difficulty of childbirth is described by Barret in that the ‘Labour of Delivery, is the only port, but full of dangerous Rocks’ (Barret 37). The arrival of the child into an external space is a perilous journey that the Utopians have overcome by inverting it. They arrive safely in the ‘great standing pool’ that has been transformed into a subdued space.

Woodcut from the first edition of Utopia (Louvain 1516) showing the natural harbour’s narrow entrance to a womb-like space.

                            References

Barret, Robert. A Companion for Midwives, Child-Bearing Women, and Nurses: Directing them How to Perform their Respective Offices. Blue Ball in Duck-Lane: London, 1699.

More, Sir Thomas. Utopia. 1516. Trans. Ralph Robinson. Three Early modern Utopias. Ed. Susan Bruce. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 1999.

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