Early Modern Women, Religion, and the Body

Image courtesy of @ciaokate331
Image courtesy of @ciaokate331

Last week, I participated in a wonderful conference hosted by Loughborough University. Entitled Early Modern Women, Religion, and the Body, the conference explored a very wide range of early modern lives and experiences from right across Europe and across confessional divides. The interdisciplinarity of the conference was particularly interesting to me – as well as historians such as myself, the speakers and audience featured scholars from many different disciplines, and this added a richness and breadth of reference that was extremely enlightening and refreshing.

In this blog post, Kristen Clements talks a little about the conference, which was supported by the Wellcome Trust (again, the intersection between religion and science is a fascinating and inherently interdisciplinary historical fault-line): “The conference provided a space where scholars from various academic disciplines could meet to explore the complex interrelationship between psychological, corporeal, spiritual, and emotional aspects of early modern women’s lives.  As well as questioning the relationship between body, mind, soul, and gender, exploring the history of medicine and health helps us examine our own cultural assumptions about what constitutes ‘good’ healthcare, and to think critically about what we mean when talking about issues such as medicine, health, and wellbeing in relation to individual subjective experience.”

My own contribution was a paper about the starving maidens, a group of young women I discovered in the course of research into prophetesses and demoniacs who refused food in favour of spiritual nourishment. The way in which they were depicted – as both sites of religious interest and physical bodies undergoing intense stress – seemed to play very well to the interests of the audience, and we had several useful discussions which I hope will contribute to further development of this material. Similarly, I was intrigued by the copies of Aristotle’s Masterpiece discussed in Professor Mary Fissell’s keynote lecture, in which women had written marginalia recounting their own fears, hopes and questions. Work like this really excavates women’s lives, and helps return them to us here in the present.

In a sign of how important and useful social media can be in recording and sharing conversations of this sort, there’s an in-depth Storify of tweets made at the conference here – I make my appearance in tweets like these, but there’s a lot to read and chew over across the two days’ worth of updates. Available, too, is a volume based around the conference’s themes – and the publication of which we were celebrating last week – entitled Flesh and Spirit: An Anthology of Seventeenth-century Women’s Writing … so keep your eyes peeled, on Twitter and elsewhere!

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