Effects and Affects of Bodily Practices

A focus on objects, affects and effects in early modern culture – such as in our research project – will almost certainly have to include bodily practices and bodily experiences. The body is especially crucial when it comes to exploring the dimensions of religious and cultural identities through and in the use of objects and materials. The international conference Bodies in Early Modern Religious Dissent: Naked, Veiled – Vilified, Worshiped (conference program) which took place in Berlin from November 30th to December 2nd 2016 focused on bodily practices and religious dissent in early modern Europe. Organised by Xenia von Tippelskirch (Berlin) and Elisabeth Fischer (Hamburg), the aim of the conference was to open up an interdisciplinary discussion with experts from the fields of history, art history, the history of the church, the history of religions and the history of medicine to (re)interpret bodily phenomena, body practices, the disciplining of the body and the relation between the body physical and the body social.

Bodies provide a concrete target in the negotiation of religious identity: they can be veiled, bared, negated and vilified, as well as decorated and worshiped. The contributions to the conference presented a wide range of perspectives and sources in this field: They explored the relation between the body and the soul, the agentive power of dress, the affective dimensions of icons as well as bloody and dead bodies. This blog, rather than giving a full conference report, takes up some of the topics addressed in the Berlin conference that are of special interest to our own research and project. Objects e.g. of glass provoke emotions and affects through tactile perception, the interplay of materials such as gold and affects is at the core of the formation of individual and group identities and veils and feathers are worn on the body to have an effect on the person wearing them as well as on the observer of the wearer.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (ca. 1601–1602). Oil on canvas, 107 x 146 cm. Potsdam, Sanssouci (inv. no. GK I 5438). Image: Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg.

In the opening keynote of the conference, Gianna Pomata (Baltimore) called for a historical approach that no longer prefers the mind to the body. As a history of the body, however, cannot be separated from the history of the mind, she argued for a combination of the two approaches. Only when we consider experiencing rather than only apprehending the body can we come to an understanding of the fundamental functions of the body in communication and in self-fashioning of individuals and social and religious groups. Such an approach sheds new light on the perception as well as the use of bodies and thus on the affects bodies can arouse.

Of special interest for our project was the section on dress. Robert Jütte (Stuttgart) presented an intriguing study of nakedness as a bodily practice in the Jewish culture. His reflections on what was and is considered naked in Judaism, on the regulations of nakedness and the humiliation through nakedness emphasised that nakedness is not a state of nature but a specific cultural code with subtle variations that is being negotiated constantly. Moreover, shameful behaviour seemed to be especially pronounced in Judaism. Jütte pointed out the cultural and religious origins of this characteristic and how differences to other religions in this regard can cause uncertainties and conflicts. Another case in point touching directly upon the question of dress was presented by Christopher König (Bochum) with his paper on the vestment debate in 16th century England. The dispute about the priests’ habit reflects a textile codification of a churchly order concerned with the formation of a unity, the dissociation from the Catholic Church and an emphasis on the authority of the queen. Both these papers have proved that dress is never trivial but always carries effective power to represent the wearers and shape their identities.

One point that came up in almost every paper of the conference was the relationship between the interior and the exterior of the body. The exposition of the interior on the exterior of a body has a long history. Tattoos, for examples, have always been regarded as external manifestations of internal features. Similarly, exterior disfigurements can pose a threat to the soul. One very telling example in this regard are the diaries of the Frankfurt doctor Johann Christian Senckenberg (1702-1722) which were presented by Vera Faßhauer (Frankfurt a. Main). Besides documenting patient case studies, medical knowledge and descriptions of the moral evils in Frankfurt, Senckenberg meticulously documented the state of this body and its interior and exterior circumstances. This practice reflects Senckenberg’s (and his contemporaries’) belief that the body is a mirror of the soul and that one could only come to a devout life by detailed observation of and respect for one’s body. For the early modern period, thus, it seems difficult to draw a clear line of division between the soul and the body. This underlines the importance of an approach which includes both the history of the body and the mind.

Exploring sources with a focus on bodily practices does not enable us to precisely reconstruct how people felt wearing specific pieces of clothing or adornment. However, studying bodily practices, affects and effects, we can reach a better understanding of the idea of the relationship between the body and the soul and these both were regarded as interacting. Furthermore, clothing and adornment – similar to nakedness or the correct habit for priests – was and is not naturally given but is always a socially constructed and negotiated code. It is exactly the unveiling of this construction and codification that can help us comprehend the formation of identities and the role bodies and matter played in this process.

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