Embodied Experience in the Early Modern World

From the clothes people wore, to the objects they touched, heard, saw and smelled, material culture’s relationship to the body shaped lived experience of the Early Modern world. This synergy between body and its material landscape was consciously employed in processes such as self-fashioning, ritual, and conquest, where identities were both made and broken. 

‘Embodied Experience’ aims to examine how the Early Modern body, often conceptualised as a ‘semipermeable’ container, interacted with other people and places through material mediation in the period 1400-1800. Exploring how experience was shaped by the body’s physical relationship to the world around it, the session is particularly interested in the senses, and how the study of material, oral/aural and visual culture can elucidate embodied experience. How might objects retain traces of human interaction? How do objects reflect the body’s relationship to broader religious turmoil, burgeoning colonialism, and cross-cultural exchange of the Early Modern period, as well as individualised or local identities?  

Session Conveners: 

Huw Keene, University of Edinburgh

Emma Pearce, University of Edinburgh  

Molly Ingham, University of Edinburgh


Jonathan Trayner, Southampton Solent University 

The reflected subject: prints as talismanic objects in early modern Europe 

One of the points of contention in the discussion of the role of the printed pamphlet in the political and religious conflicts of the early modern period is the extent to which the text penetrated the popular consciousness especially in contexts of limited literacy. The view of many current scholars of the period is that the huge amount of printed material produced circulated mainly in the cities and did not impact on the construction of political subjectivity among the rural commons or provide a significant inspiration for revolts such as the German Peasants’ War. This position makes considerable sense when confined to the text included in the pamphlets, that could only be orally communicated to the non-literate audience. However, it does not adequately address either the presence of the image or the pamphlets’ symbolic and material function as objects that embody the ideas presented in their oral communication. This paper will discuss these ideas drawing on other contexts of rural revolt – such as Ranajit Guha’s examination of peasant resistance to colonial rule in nineteenth century India – popular ideas of the magico-religious role of the image and object, and the symbolic value of the images present within the texts, to readdress the idea that these prints had a talismanic embodying function as objects quite apart from their written content. 

Suri Li, University of Cambridge

Reading in Her Cell: Nuns’ Guided Meditative Experiences in Early Modern Italy 

Commonly gifted by their relatives, devotional books within the nuns’ cells were treasured personal possessions, even if their convents had communal libraries. While being used by the nuns to guide their meditations within their private spaces, these books also symbolised the unbreakable bonds between the professed nuns and their worldly families. This paper primarily focuses on a printed and hand-illuminated copy of the Meditationes vitae Christi in Cambridge University Library. This book was gifted to a nun named Suor Alexia by her uncle Fra Petro Matuano in 1528, as indicated by her inscriptions at the end of the book. It was later owned by another nun named Suor Teofila Guadagna, who further annotated this devotional text. Through reading, touching, and imitating, the nuns’ private devotional practices were inspired by both the content and materiality of the book. Additionally, the act of giving this book to another sister signals the changing nature of this book from a personal belonging to communal property. Following this process of gifting, annotating, and sharing, the once ever-increasing multilayered memories embodied within the book would become an integral part of one’s meditative experience. Yet, through the continuously added annotations and inscriptions, the gifted book bridged material interactions and spiritual dialogues between its senders and changing owners. Substituting the restricted bodily movements of its owners, these devotional books, which once served as mediators between the external and the conventual worlds, also preserved the spirituality of their previous owners from the past to the present. 

Evelyn Earl, Chitra Collection  

Refashioning ‘our English bodies’: A study of ‘hybrid’ teaware in the Chitra Collection 

The arrival of tea in Europe in the seventeenth century had a profound impact on early modern embodied knowledge. Drank in China for millennia, the caffeinated hot beverage, and the equipage required, revolutionised European artisanal practice, scientific thought and the corporeal customs of the elite. It is clear from contemporary prints, ceramics, silver and written discourse that tea was perceived as inherently Chinese by Northern Europeans. Equally lauded and disparaged, one satirist expressed concern of the corrupting influence of the foreign substance on the ‘constitution of our English bodies’. Others, often with mercantile interests in the new trading companies, purported miraculous medical benefits including curing gout or overcoming the need for sleep. These claims of bodily control and the increasingly ritualised tea ceremony can be viewed according to Norbert Elias’ theory of ‘the civilising process’. Tea would also come to play an important role in the formation of gendered subjectivities. Both in terms of consumption and craftsmanship, early teawares attest to this transnational dialogue during this period of nascent empire and ‘proto-globalisation’. In the Chitra Collection, a group of objects can be described as ‘hybrid’ in their materiality. Porcelain teawares made in China were decorated with overglaze enamels, or mounted with precious metals, by artisans in England and the Netherlands. Often overlooked due to the perceived ‘crude’ quality of the additions, these objects are a palimpsest of global human interaction. The purposes and the character of this collaboration shall be closely examined. 

Scarlett Butler, University of Edinburgh

‘Big, fat and voluptuous’: Women’s experience of body size at the French court (c.1530-1650) 

Accusations of ‘fatness’ would plague a series of French royal women: the powerful regent Catherine de Médicis, for instance, worried her doctors with her ‘enormous plumpness’, while her daughter Marguerite de Valois’ would be satirised for her ‘big, fat and voluptuous’ body. Such accounts complicate the common view that fatness signified health and wealth in premodern societies. Building on scholarship in the emerging field of ‘Fat Studies’, this paper considers noblewomen’s experience of body size at the early modern French court (c.1530-1650). 

Beauty advice, personal accounts, portraits, and surviving garments are used to reveal the array of slimming practices. A closer examination of these methods – drying diets, hot baths, sweaty exercises, and firm corsets – suggest the range of intense sensory experiences associated with moderating body size. Yet the rise of medical and beauty advice regarding body size presented limitations as well as possibilities. Advice could be complex and contradictory. Exhortations to exercise could be undermined by decorum, pregnancy or illness; while the luxury of elite women’s lifestyles might undermine adherence to a physician-endorsed diet. The challenges involved in pursuing such advice offer further insight into women’s emotional experiences, including their responses to pain, grief and aging. While some women could not change their body size, there may also have been those who would not. The disciplinary function of regimen itself, suggests this possibility of disobedience, enabling a discussion of elite women’s agency to resist slimming advice or rework the meanings of a larger physical body to their own ends. 

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