Permeable Bodies

What does it mean to imagine the body as permeable? In this post, Lauren Rozenberg and Laura Scalabrella Spada share their reflections of organising the ‘Permeable Bodies in Medieval and Early Modern Visual Culture’ conference, UCL, 5-6 October 2018

Since the 1980s ‘body culture studies’ has become an important methodology for the practice of art history.  As such, human bodies function as a discursive framework to conceptualise medieval and early modern art in western cultures.  Bodies were conceived as permeable microcosms, sites of both containment and revelatory experiences.  They were visualised as vessels in which liquids navigated freely, generating in the process different sensory effects in the individual.  Following the legacy of Aristotle, Galen and their medieval commentators, early modern authoritative sources such as Andreas Vesalius further established that bodies were transpirable and trans-fluxible. Body and identity were indistinct categories, inseparable from the natural and cultural space they inhabited.  This logic of perpetual fluidity between self and world gave rise to a rich visual and material culture of the human body which flourished in medieval and early modern Europe.

The conference ‘Permeable Bodies in Medieval and Early Modern Visual Culture’, UCL, 5-6 October 2018, sought to investigate such cultures.  This interdisciplinary conference foregrounded permeability as a methodology to include bodies traditionally relegated to the margins in the medieval and early modern periods.  How was identity constituted?  What were the social roles of female, disabled, or anatomised bodies?  How did contradictory ideas about the containment or fragmentation of the body unfold in medieval and early modern discourses?  What is the role of images in untangling such complex questions?  Images depend on manifold understandings of different types of cultural and social bodies and, as such, they function as gateways to broader cultural discourses.  Over five panels and a workshop held in the Wellcome Library, this conference attempted to address these issues in original ways.

Throughout the two days, speakers addressed medieval and early modern understandings of ‘permeability’ from multiple perspectives.  The first panel dealt with representations of the body in pain.  In some instances, as Carly Boxer showed, treatise illustrations produced tensions between corporeal integrity and fragmentation.  John Arderne’s Practica de Fistula in Ano, for example, challenged traditional dynamics of centre and margin, through the pictorial representation of disembodied limbs positioned in-between the text.  Bianca Frohne’s paper focused on medieval representations of pain as a mutable emotional state, which could influence the body’s outer appearance.  The demonic nature of physical pain, she argued, co-existed in opposition to the transcendent power of miraculous healings.

In the second panel, the discussion moved to alternative representations of corporeality through augmentation, conjoining, or assimilation.  Sara Damiani recounted the medieval legend of the Black Leg in which the leg of a dead Ethiopian man is miraculously transplanted onto a white Christian body.  She reflected on contemporary implications of similar surgical procedures.  Such visual imaginary, itself situated in a permeable space between religion and medicine, opens up questions of hybridity and bodily integrity.  M. A. Katritzky then offered a historical survey of the phenomenon of conjoined twins in early modern visual representations.  Such representations, she argued, complicated medical notions of first-hand experience, as they proved particularly pervasive and produced autonomous knowledge.  Rachel Gillibrand looked at Götz von Berlichingen, a sixteenth-century knight who employed a prosthetic arm in battle.  The paper investigated the dynamics of broken and whole bodies in the hyper-masculine context of military campaigns.  Particular attention was given to autobiography as an inherently permeable literary genre, combining intimate insights with socially constructed discourse on the self.

The keynote talk was delivered by Jack Hartnell (University of East Anglia), author of Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages.  Hartnell engaged with a set of compelling illustrations of pregnant women in a German copy of De Secretis mulierum, made in Augsburg around 1470.  Re-conceptualising these images as ‘diagrammatic armatures’ he insightfully theorised on the idea of permeability, construed as a discursive methodology.  His analysis developed over different layers, from an intermedia notion of permeability (between manuscript and prints) to an intellectual and ideological one.  Such a framework engenders a fluid dynamic between corporeality and figuration.  In these images, Hartnell suggested, this relationship is reciprocal: violence is inflicted on bodies and images, conveying a permeability of both form and object.  These armatures generate a wealth of textual knowledge but, at the same time, they reject social and physiological boundaries.


UER MS.B 33 fols. 94v-95r

The second day of the conference started with a panel focusing on extraordinary bodies as possible sites of permeability.  Hannah Lucas discussed the medical metaphors present in the mystical visions of Julian of Norwich, highlighting how Julian drew on humoral theory and contemporary medical discourses to construct her theology of salvation.  Sophie Shorland examined early modern notions of ‘celebrity culture’ in relation to Moll Cutpurse, a notorious seventeenth-century British pickpocket known for her outrageous defiance of gender roles.  Existing in between the category of ‘defiant woman’ and ‘hermaphrodite’, Moll Cutpurse, Shorland argued, employed clothing as a permeable surface onto which multiple identities could coexist.  Sergei Bogatyrev’s paper investigated the representation of royal bodies in the Illuminated Chronicle of Ivan the Terrible.  Through a close engagement with both images and historical records, he pointed out a cultural shift in visual conceptions of male and female corporeality, due in part to the influence of new printing technologies.


The fourth panel examined medieval and early modern representations of disabled bodies. Ninon Dubourg examined the growing depiction of disabled bodies in manuscript marginalia, which she associated with the elites’ practice of charity.  She argued that these depictions of marginal bodies are representative of the complexity and diversity of medieval disability.  Jessica Bailey, then, considered questions of gendered violence in the prints of Swiss artist Urs Graf.  This talk started with a discussion of the social implications of new military technologies for disabled female bodies, especially those of sex workers, and their translations into print.  Bailey contended that such images condoned gendered violence by representing non-normative female bodies for the consumption of heteronormative viewers.  Finally, Hillary Burgardt argued that epilepsy functioned in the Middle Ages as an invisible disability, which had to stay secret, hidden from view.  The nature of epilepsy, which carried a number of theological connotations, produced a marginalising effect on otherwise socially integrated bodies.

The final panel of the conference focussed on regimes of visuality and ocular theories as productive sites of permeable knowledge.  In her paper, Shoshana Adler explored Guillaume de Deguileville’s Le Pèlerinage de la Vie Humaine, questioning the role of perception in relation to corporeal observation.  In this allegorical poem, in which eyes become ears and bodies are constantly transforming, the human form is conceptualised as a shifting, productive substance.  Pamela Mackenzie then interrogated natural analogies in Nehemiah Grew’s Anatomy of Plants (1682), one of the first treatises to closely inspect plants with the aid of microscopes.  She argued that microscopic technology, by expanding surfaces and threatening the established notions of human perception, transformed plants into a new territory to conquer, in line with contemporary socio-political attitudes toward the ‘New World’.  She asserted that the textual surface of plants, when analysed through microscopes, evoked such bodily features as eyes or physical wounds.  Finally, Shani Bans considered representations of eyes in early modern ocular treatises.  Her paper built upon Shakespeare’s description of the eyes as ‘frail and soft’ substances, and Cartesian philosophies on vision and knowledge.  Bans posited that the eyes were understood to have a dual identity.  Eyes could be violently penetrated, but they also project outwards inner forces.


The conference included an interactive session at the Wellcome Library where delegates had the opportunity to engage with rare visual materials.  When bodies are visually translated into images, do images start behaving as bodies?  What is the relationship between real and imagined corporeality?  Can images resist permeability, and how?  These are some of the questions we asked during the workshop, using various materials such as fifteenth-century manuscripts (MS 290, MS 8004), prints (26115i) and fugitive sheets (287, 66323/F, F.348, 697/D).


Thanks to the interdisciplinary nature of the event, many of the responses proved original and provocative. By interrogating notions of corporeal permeability, the conference articulated the implications of conflicting visual representations of the human form.


Lauren Rozenberg is a PhD candidate in the History of Art Department at UCL.  Her thesis focusses on medieval phantasms, concentrating on the relationship between visible objects, mental images, and embodiment, while also drawing on medical understandings of bodies and devotional practices.


Laura Scalabrella Spada is completing her PhD in History of Art at UCL.  Her research and publications revolve around early modern Italian prints, with a particular emphasis on the body and its processes, boundaries, and relations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.