From saints’ relics to public executions to stories of cannibalism in the Americas, the body was constantly the subject of debate and display in early modern Europe. In this seminar, we shall follow changing understandings of the human body in Europe from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. Historians of science, religion, gender, and culture have demonstrated that we can learn much about the past by exploring the ways in which views of the human body differed over time and from one culture to another. Debates about whether women were defective men, for example, help us to understand some of early modern Europeans’ most basic assumptions about social order, and their horror at the prospect of dissection speaks to their deepest fears. Throughout the semester, we explore several approaches to the historical study of the body. First, we will ask how medical practitioners understood the body, and how the conception of a body governed by four humors gave way to new theories of its structure and function. Second, we shall also explore the significance of the body to religious culture, focusing in particular on relics, the Eucharist, and mysticism. Third, we ask how Europeans’ understanding of the body shaped their views on differences, including gender, race, and disability. We will also pay attention to how those concepts were transformed as Europeans entered a wider world.
Weekly discussions draw upon readings in primary sources and scholarly literature, as well as the analysis of images. Throughout the semester, we will focus on developing the skills of the historian, especially the analysis of primary sources and the evaluation of scholarly arguments. Each student will apply these skills in a major research paper based on primary sources, developed through a series of preparatory assignments over the course of the semester. Topics will be devised in consultation with the instructor and reflect each student’s interests.