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Early Modern Bodies (Sophie Mann)


The early modern body is almost unrecogniseable to modern eyes. Classical medical discourses, religious beliefs and a conviction that bodies and minds were rarely separate shaped a distinctly pre-modern body. It contained fleeting ‘humours’ and ‘spiritus’, it housed an immortal soul and its physiology could be altered by occult and supernatural forces. In this session we will explore some of the central ways in which early modern men and women were predisposed to view human beings. What was a human body comprised of? How was the body’s physiology imagined and assigned meaning? And in what ways did conceptions of the human body inform how people experienced corporeal states? We will also consider how best to study ‘the body’ as historians. In particular, we will encounter historiographical debates that push us to consider whether the body is a stable, un-changing phenomenon or whether the body is just as socially constructed as the world around it.

We will also spend a little time today talking about your methodological or source-focused enriched essay plans, so do bring your topic ideas and questions!

Seminar Questions

  • How do early modern and modern conceptualisations of the body differ? Why?
  • How did understandings of illness interact with those of religion and sexual difference?
  • How do we historicise the body effectively? What are some of the central historiographical debates related to this theme?


Required Reading

Primary sources will be provided in advance of the seminar

Caroline Walker Bynum, 'Why All the Fuss About the Body? A Medievalist’s Perspective', Critical Inquiry, 22 (1995), 1-33.

Roger Cooter, 'The Turn of the Body: History and the Politics of the Corporeal', Arbor, 186 (2010), 1-19.

Mark Jenner, 'Body, Image, Text in Early Modern Europe', Social History of Medicine, 12 (1999), 143-54.

Further Reading

(NB: works marked * are particularly good introductory texts.

The Early Modern Body

*Ulinka Rublack, 'Fluxes: The Early Modern Body and the Emotions', History Workshop Journal, 53 (2002), 1-16.

*Nancy Siraisi, Medieval & Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice (Chicago, 1990), esp. Chapter 4: pp.78-115. [ebook]

*Katharine Park, ‘The Organic Soul’, in Charles B. Schmitt and Quentin Skinner (eds), The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy (Cambridge, 1988), pp.464-484. [ebook]

Nancy Caciola, ‘Mystics, Demoniacs, and the Physiology of Spirit Possession in Medieval Europe’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 42 (2000), 268-306.

Thomas Laqueur, ‘Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology’, Representations, 14 (1986), 1-41.

Historiographical Approaches

Lynn Hunt, 'The Self and Its History', American Historical Review, 119 (2014), 1576-86 (proposes a neuroscientific/biological approach)

Mark Jenner and Bertrand O. Taithe, 'The Historiographical Body', in Roger Cooter and John Pickstone (eds), Medicine in the Twentieth Century (Amsterdam, 2000), pp.187-200.

Roy Porter, 'History of the Body Reconsidered', in Peter Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (Cambridge, 2001), pp.233-60 (multiple copies in library).

Exemplary Topics in Early Modern History of Medicine

Carolyn Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York, 1991) [ebook].

Barbara Duden, The Woman Beneath the Skin (Cambridge, MA, 1993) (multiple copies in library).

Katharine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation and the Origins of Human Dissection (New York, 2010) [ebook].

Ulinka Rublack, 'Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Female Body in Early Modern Germany', Past and Present, 150 (1996), 84-110.

Elena Carrera (ed.), Emotions and Health 1200-1700 (Leiden, 2013) [ebook].

Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Gender and the Body from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA, 1993) [ebook].

Laura Gowing, Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England (New Haven, NJ, 2003) (multiple copies in library).

Emily Michael, 'Renaissance Theories of Body, Soul and Mind', in John Wright and Paul Potter (eds), Psyche and Soma: Physicians and Metaphysicians on the Mind-Body Problem from Antiquity to Enlightenment (Oxford, 2000), pp.147-72 (on order for library).

Daniel Garber, 'Soul and Mind: Life and Thought in the Seventeenth Century', in Daniel Garber and Michael Ayers (eds), The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy (Cambridge, 1998), pp.759-61 [ebook].

Sophie Mann, 'A Double Care: Prayer as Therapy in Early Modern England', Social History of Medicine, (2019)

Angus Gowland, 'Melancholy, Passions and Identity in the Renaissance', in Brian Cummings and Freya Sierhuis (eds), Passions and Subjectivity in Early Modern Culture (Farnham, 2013), pp. 75-94 [ebook].

Clark, Stuart, 'Demons and Disease: the Disenchantment of the Sick (1500-1700)', in Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra, Hilary Marland and Hans De Waardt (eds), Illness and Healing Alternatives in Western Europe (London, 1997), pp.38-59 [ebook].

Florike Egmond and Robert Zwijnenberg (eds), Bodily Extremities. Preoccupations with the Human Body in Early Modern European Culture (Aldershot, 2003). [ebook].