Narrating the Body. New Perspectives on the Connection of Corporeality and Narrativity (c. 1500-1800)

Narrating the Body. New Perspectives on the Connection of Corporeality and Narrativity (c. 1500-1800)

Vitus Huber, University of Geneva
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
08.06.2023 - 09.06.2023
Jan Pawlowski, Histoire Générale, Université de Genève

How does corporeality shape the creation of stories, and how do stories shape our understanding of bodies? To answer these questions, VITUS HUBER (Geneva) invited us to explore the connection between narrativity and corporeality in the early modern world. The interdisciplinary group of experts participating in this conference showed how conflicting narratives could be borne by a single body and how self-fashioning and self-observation influenced the creation of early-modern individuals but also of class and racial distinctions.

SARAH TOULALAN (Exeter) started the conference with an analysis of the Dialogues of Luisa Sigea, which recounts a 17th century ten-year-old girl’s first sexual encounter with a fourteen-year-old boy and how the narrative framing of their body reinforced the social acceptability of their sexual act. The author introduced it as a consensual continuation of their previous non-sexual games. The author described their bodies and sexual organs as small and not yet developed, thus creating a narrative of a sexual encounter that is not socially transgressive or criminal but instead “a childish folly”.

In the second lecture, EFFIE BOTONAKI (Thessaloniki) used protestant women’s journals to illustrate the interplay between God, devotion, and illness. The diaries presented by the lecturer showed the diarist’s interest in the body’s response to meditation and prayers. The diarists also wrote about their own or their family’s hardships and illnesses and how their devotional duties were disrupted by them. The body was usually seen as sinful and unworthy of attention, but illness disrupted the conscious alienation of one’s body and led to somatic self-examination. The diaries and collections of texts show the development of the early modern concern for one’s own body.

BENJAMIN STEINER (Munich) presented how ritual scarification of the ruler’s body in Benin clearly underscored the somatic aspect of the legitimization of power and how this analysis can help better understand the less obvious somatic aspects of European monarchs’ narratives of power. One of the examples given by Steiner for this argument is how Queen Elizabeth transformed the narrative of the weak female body into a narrative of strength and devotion to her duties as a ruler. He also showed how the interaction between the physical needs of the rulership such as sitting through long councils were presented as a strength of a ruler that is committed to his duties. Therefore, the somatic narratives of power can be seen on the body in some cases, but also how people see the ruler’s body and its uniqueness, and how the ruler decided to present his body.

ANDREAS WUERGLER (Geneva) presented how Katharina Franziska von Wattenwyl (1645 – 1714) narrated her life experience in the form of the supplication to ask for a pension for her son. She was sentenced to death for spying on Bern for the French government. She recounted her hardships having to endure gender norms and how she would break and disregard them but also how she used those norms to avoid her death sentence. Von Wattenwyl self-fashioned herself as an amazon, using third-party quotes to enhance the truthfulness of her story. The style of her memoire follows two narrative types: the “very true facts” narrative trope that was used in hard to believe tracts but also the supplication narrative style that asked for forgiveness and compassion. Her memoire is therefore a great example of literary tropes influencing the way people created the narratives of their autobiographies or auto-fictions.

STANIS PEREZ (Sorbonne Paris Nord) interpreted Montaigne’s Essais in the light of an autobiography of the author’s body. He argued that there are three distinct parts in Montaigne’s somatic self-examination. In the first part, the body was seen as a tomb as it reminded Montaigne of death. Its contours were not clearly defined, and the author added a dualistic narrative to his interpretation as he felt he had a better understanding of his soul in comparison to his body. In the second part, Montaigne described his body as weak and handicapped. He drew a portrait of himself as an ugly, old and small man. Finally, the author told us how writing about his body was therapeutic as it helped his body express his pain, but his main conclusion was that his auto-observation was a failure as it had not freed him from his pain.

SONIA WIGH (Exeter) scrutinized the Lazzat-al-nisa, a 17th century Persian text written in the Mughal empire. The text is based on Hindu and Perso-Arabic sexual and physiognomic literature and defines a typology of men and women. It shows how to ensure that sexual partners are ideally paired together to maximize their sensual pleasures. Sonia Wigh presented this book as an illustration of the early modern anxieties about women’s pleasure but also as an example of class ascension through marriage in Mughal society by means of a narrative that heavily relied on bodily traits. She demonstrated how physiognomy and anatomy was also used to order society by making sure that class distinctions could be related to physical features.

NADINE AMSLER (Fribourg) analyzed the correspondence between Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and her daughter-in-law Maria Beatrice d’Este. In her letters, Maria Theresa inquired Maria Beatrice about her lifestyle and gave her advice on how to behave. The empress interpreted signs of possible pregnancies from afar and asked about any details, even observing her daughter-in-law’s handwriting to determine her physical health. The personal relationship between the Empress and Maria Beatrice was at odds with the dynastic implications of pregnancies and therefore illustrates how Maria Beatrice’s pregnancy created a duality between the Empress’s considerations for her daughter-in-law’s natural and political body.

LYNDAL ROPER (Oxford) gave the conference’s keynote. Her subject was the peasant’s body in the Peasants’ War (1524–1526). She showed how divergent narratives were constructed through the illustration of male peasants. The free peasant is represented as man with agency, recognizable through his clothing and stance. Roper emphasized the importance of the body in this conflict. Indeed, the serf’s body, but also his livelihood, were the property of his lord. Therefore, the peasant’s upheaval can be seen as a movement to liberate their body from aristocratic encroachment. She closed with a monument commemorating the lords’ victory over the peasants. Here, the latter was depicted in a humiliating manner as a drunkard, reinforcing the idea of the two competing narratives about the peasant’s bodies.

Epistolary medical consultations given by the physician Samuel Auguste Tissot (1728–1797) were analyzed by MICHELINE LOUIS-COURVOISIER (Geneva). She highlighted that the letters of Tissot’s patients lacked a set typology; instead, each patient emphasized the uniqueness of their illness. In those letters, the patients described their illnesses by indicating the localization of their pain and using a very rich and precise vocabulary. Louis-Courvoisier showed how the patients had to self-examinate to translate somatic impressions into semiotic expressions and that the physician had to translate it back. Therefore, a strong connection between corporeality and narrativity is formed through those letters. The lecturer argued for the application of Carlo Ginzburg’s idea of the estrangement as an adequate strategy to analyze medical epistolary relationships.

NICOLE NYFFENEGGER (Bern) spoke about the wounds and scars in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Firstly, she argued for surface reading and defined her method in the three following points: take the text literally instead of looking for hidden meanings, take the text seriously and do not look for a deeper symbolic reading and finally one’s method should be guided by the text. She then presented how two conflicting narratives were built around Coriolanus scars: the Romans called them “wounds” but he called them “scars” and he also refused to show them to the citizens. Hence, he refused the scars’ narrative appropriation by the Romans. This analysis was broadened to tattoos and any other skin marks which were open to different interpretations and therefore might create conflicting skin narratives.

ROBERT FOLGER (Heidelberg) examined how different narratives about writing were used to subjugate and alienate native people in the Americas. The Spaniards’ epistemic system that put the Bible at the centre of its culture clashed with the natives’ material epistemic system and therefore the Folger argued that colonial semiosis can be construed as a clash between Spaniards’ and the natives’ epistemic systems. The alphabetical system claimed a hegemonical place over any other kinds of semiotics and most of the native books were destroyed by burning. The natives’ tattoos or writing systems were not accepted as valuable semiotic systems but seen instead as diabolical. This was reinforced by the colonizers’ millenarist theology: the tattoos were seen as the mark of the beast present in John’s Apocalypse.

ALDAIR RODRIGUEZ (Campinas) gave the last paper of the conference on the Brazilian colonial administration’s interpretation and use of slaves’ skin marks. The colonial officers would incorporate skin marks such as tattoos, scars, scarification, or smallpox marks to identify each enslaved African. They developed a list of terms to describe those marks but also their nation of origin, erasing the Africans’ own skin narrative and by consequence their own self-identification in the colonial administration’s system. It furthered the animalization of the slaves’ body by removing their original individuality. However, the persons subjected to slavery still used their own codes between themselves. The record keeping created a distinction between those that could set a dominant narrative and those that were subjected to it. This analysis helps us further our understanding of the body as an unexplored archive.

One of the strongest links that appeared during this conference is the conflict between one’s own body narrative and the interpretation other people made of the same body. Robert Folger and Aldair Rodrigues showed how different understanding of the body between the colonizers and the colonized reinforced the othering and dehumanization of the colonized body and brought an anatomical or physiological component to class distinctions. Sonia Wigh’s and Lyndal Roper’s talks made clear that this analysis goes beyond the racialized colonial system. Benjamin Steiner’s presentation of the ruler’s body as a somatic expression of power showed that the two distinct semiotic approaches are still building a similar narrative of power. One’s self-fashioning is to be understood within a cultural semiotic system. Andreas Wuergler exemplified this idea with Katharina Franziska von Wattenwyl’s self-fashioning, as her autobiography was deeply embedded in the common narrative tropes of her time. Nicole Nyffenger’s surface reading of Coriolanus also gave a literary example of the idea of conflicting body narratives through the use of different terms for Coriolanus’ scars.

Corporeal self-examination was another prevalent topic of this conference. Effie Botonaki’s protestant ladies’ diaries and Stanis Perez’s analysis of Montaigne’s Essais showed how the early modern minds dealt with one’s own body when it was frail. This offered a different kind of narrative conflict: one’s struggle to understand and control one’s body and the anxieties that were linked to this self-examination. The letters presented by Micheline Louis-Courvoisier and Nadine Amsler make another rich source of knowledge about early modern personal understandings of one’s own body that could be used to further understand the meanings people ascribed to their feelings, as well as how narratives dictated our understanding of our body.

To conclude, the conference successfully brought a group of researchers from different areas of expertise into a very rich dialogue. It compellingly scrutinized what the organizer Vitus Huber called the “multifaceted connections between the body and the narrative in the early modern world”. The interdisciplinary approach has proven to be very fruitful and brought to light a wide range of examples of the early modern period, as well as different methodological tools to analyze how people built narratives with, about, and through one’s own or someone else’s body.

Conference overview:

Sarah Toulalan (Exeter): “Childish folly:” Representing Sexual Acts Among Children in Seventeenth Century Pornography

Effie Botonaki (Thessaloniki): “Fraile” Bodies Writing and Disrupting Life-Narratives

Benjamin Steiner (Munich): Body and Power: Narratives of the Body in Early Modern Political History

Andreas Wuergler (Geneva): Narrating her Life as an Amazon: Katharina Franziska von Wattenwyl’s Mémoire (1714)

Stanis Perez (Sorbonne, Paris): “Mon âme ne prend autre alarme que la sensible et corporelle:” Les Essais de Montaigne en tant qu'autobiographie corporelle

Sonia Wigh (Exeter): “Delicate lips, wicked words:” Exploring Female Physiognomy in Early Modern South Asia

Nadine Amsler (Fribourg): The Pregnant Body in the Letters of Empress Maria Theresia to Maria Beatrice d’Este

Lyndal Roper (Oxford): The Body of the Peasant and the Story of the Peasants’ War 1524–1526

Micheline Louis-Courvoisier (Geneva): Sensation, expression, transmission du symptôme: la puissance du langage dans la médecine du 18e siècle

Nicole Nyffenegger (Bern): [Scars in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus]

Robert Folger (Heidelberg): Somatic Writing and Colonial Semiosis in Colonial Latin America: The Case of Diego de Landa

Aldair Rodriguez (Campinas): Conflict Readings of African Body Markings in the Colonial Archive (Brazil, 18th Century)