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Renaissance Bodies

Venue: Birkbeck 43 Gordon Square

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Join our discussants for three panels on the body and how seventeenth century people imagined, wrote and performed it. Think about the household, the reader and the stage to explore the body's many contexts. Look within, to how people felt and feel - about pregnancy uncertainty and about images of birth. Consider the relationship between inner and outer - what is it to sit still? And think about the joy (and meaning) of jumping and wriggling. This is a London Renaissance Seminar event, at Arts Week.



3.15-3.45pm Fit notes? Uneasily at home


The sick body, family life and privacy in seventeenth-century England

Based on familial correspondence, this paper will consider the ways in which sick bodies were situated in both the physical space of the household, and the epistolary space of the letter. Focusing particularly on issues of ‘privacy’ and ‘secrecy’, it will address the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the changing use of domestic space to accommodate sickness, including the demarcation of boundaries. It also discusses the ways in which bodily privacy was enforced, negotiated or rejected through letter-writing. Overall, the paper centres on the tensions between interior bodily experience and the body’s status as social currency within the family.
Emma Marshall


Short Break



Bodies in the Mind: Imagining and Experiencing


‘A mother that dyed when thou weart born’: dating early modern British pregnancy portraits through records of baptisms and burials

It is rare to find evidence for the circumstances in which an early modern portrait was commissioned, and thus for the decisions that informed its content and appearance.  My research continues to address painted portraits of early modern elite British women who were depicted at a time when they were pregnant - whether that pregnancy was made visible in the portrait or not.

   In interpreting such portraits, it helps if the sitter can be securely identified.  Although it can be hard to establish biographical facts about early modern women, increasing archival information online means that relevant dates can sometimes be found, enabling us to link the record of a birth or baptism (and thus of the preceding pregnancy) with the time at which a portrait may have been painted. This was sometimes followed by a record of the mother’s death, impacting on the significance of a surviving portrait.

Karen Hearn



‘to think of wonders’: Prints, Agency and Maternal Imagination

This paper will examine early modern printed illustrations of the fetus in the uterus from the perspective of the pregnant viewer. Exploring first the demographics of access to early printed midwifery manuals, I will argue that ‘birth figures’ functioned beyond and around a core purpose of describing fetal malpresentation for surgeons and midwives. For many women viewers, the birth figure offered a focus for the powers of maternal imagination. By contemplating these medical illustrations, women could not only learn about their pregnancies and envision their unborn children, they could impress what they saw upon their own bodies, actively shaping and protecting their children, ensuring beauty, health, maleness, and a safe delivery. Looking beyond the accompanying text of the midwifery manual, this paper proposes a methodology for recovering the experience and the agency of early modern women by modelling their interactions with visual culture.
Rebecca Whiteley

Not having children: evidence from the intersection of querelle des femmes and Advice to Princes writing.

This paper will look at how not conceiving or the problems of conceiving are treated in a group of writings for and about women, and for princes at the beginning of the sixteenth century. It asks what these texts tell us about attitudes to conception - how does it happen, what is it, how does it carry the parental likeness to the forming foetus - in the course of arguments embedded in the defence and detraction of women and marriage. I will consider how fears about infertility and other unexpected reproductive outcomes were discussed and managed. 
Isabel Davis



5.15-5.45pm TEA and cards


5.45-7.00pm Bodies in Motion: Running, Jumping, Sitting Still


'Sit down. Take pen and ink and write. Are you ready?': Sitting still in the Early Modern Imagination

Sitting might be associated in our minds with a break in action; less a gesture than a slump into inertia. However, by analysing John Milton’s Samson Agonistes and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, this paper explores the manifold ideas about madness and melancholy encapsulated in the early modern sitting body. By sitting decisively, the Duchess and Samson alert us to the ways that early modern sitting bodies were sites where madness and rationality, power and dependency, and different genders, incline into and towards each other.
Eva Lauenstein (and Laura Seymour, in absentia)


Running Through Fire: Speed as Grounded Allegory on the Early Modern Stage.

 What meanings were produced by actors running across the early modern stage? This paper begins with Demetrius’s declaration that he will ‘run through fire’ for Helena’s ‘sweet sake’ in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and considers the dramatic tensions between the lethally serious effects of the material passions in the early modern body, and the potential comic foolishness of running on stage. The paper will draw on Judith Anderson and Claire Gueron’s work on stage action as grounded allegory to suggest that running across the stage, running onto the stage and stopping, and dialogue about running, all posit the physical presence of the actor as an allegorical site for the troubling boundlessness of the early modern passions.
Bridget Escolme

Hoop, rope, paint and stage: alternative feminine embodiments and the technologies of early modern performance

This paper explores the performance of diverse femininities by the most culturally visible of early modern female performers: rope-dancers (akin to tight-rope walkers), tumblers and acrobats who earned their living performing both inside the playhouses and beyond their walls. Early modern audiences were used to seeing women perform on the rope; such performers were ubiquitous across early modern Europe and their profession became associated with race-making, and with othered and racialized identities. I will examine the intersections of the material embodiment of rope-dancing femininities with race-making and stage technology, attending to the shaping of femininity on the Jacobean commercial stage and in the 1650s entertainments of William Davenant.

 Clare McManus


END 7.15


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