Organized Session

The Boundaries of Human Bodies in the Early Modern World

Organizers

Tawrin Baker

University of Notre Dame

Dániel Margócsy

University of Cambridge

Chair

Maria Portuondo

Johns Hopkins University

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Session Abstract

This session investigates the ways in which human bodies were understood, classified, and managed in the early modern period. Looking at the boundaries that were in place, transgressed, or redrawn when early moderns accounted for human bodies raises important questions about the development of technology, the sciences, and the state. How were human bodies categorized, quantified, or otherwise managed conceptually? In what ways were the limits of human bodies drawn, and what important shifts occurred in this period? What was on the other side of those limits (e.g., the artificial, the animal, the monstrous), and how clear were lines separating the human body from what was just over the border? We use an interdisciplinary perspective to examine how the demands placed upon early modern actors who considered or managed living bodies led to the reshaping of historical disciplines and categories. Such a focus on the human body allows us to study how historical actors constructed, combined, expanded and questioned disciplinary boundaries throughout the early modern era.

Presenter 1

Early Modern Images of the Eye and the Borders Between the Artificial, the Natural, and the Mathematical

Tawrin Baker

University of Notre Dame

Abstract

At the beginning of the seventeenth century a radical restructuring of the ways in which anatomists, natural philosophers, and mathematicians understood vision was taking place, in part due to the new ways in which the disciplines themselves began to read, borrow, and intrude upon one another on matters related to vision. Around 1600 the eye-constrained in new ways by anatomical research-became, for a time, the foundation of optics and visual theory. Debates arose among mathematicians, philosophers, and anatomists over which discipline was best suited to build upon this new foundation, and images of the eye became a key medium through which these contests were carried out.
However, due in part to the promiscuous nature of images in sixteenth-century print culture and their multivalent potential, visual depictions of the eye crossed the borders between disciplines and print genres earlier and more ideas than ideas encoded as text. These visualizations of the eye were simultaneously an influence upon, and a response to, shifts in visual theory, anatomical experiences, and philosophical practice. This paper examines (among others) the works of Hieronymus Fabricius ab Aquapendente, Johannes Kepler, Christoph Scheiner, and René Descartes. I argue that images of the eye helped to reshape the borders between inanimate and animate bodies, between art and nature, and mathematics and natural philosophy during the first half of the seventeenth century, and I lay out an initial scheme for understanding how these images of the eye were read and what, generally, they were doing.

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Presenter 2

Monster Theory and the Problem of Giants

Anita Guerrini

Oregon State University

Abstract

Between the early sixteenth century and the late seventeenth century, physicians and naturalists debated the status of giants, both real and imagined. Legendary antediluvian giants fit the characterization of "monstrous," being bestial and evil and at most only semi-human. But very tall contemporaries such as Anton de Franckenpoint (d. 1596), known popularly as "Langer Anton," were indubitably human. Complicating these debates were discoveries of huge fossil bones attributed to historical humans in the (post-flood) past, and new textual evidence that appeared to support these identifications, as well as New World accounts of living giant humans. Were these giants monsters? What constituted a giant, and what a monster? And who should make these determinations? These debates crossed boundaries of theology, medicine, anatomy, and humanist scholarship across Europe. At stake were determining the boundaries of the normal and of the human, as well as the historical status of national heroes.

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Presenter 3

Accounting for Bodies: Slave Trading and Medical Arithmetic in the Early Seventeenth-Century Iberian Atlantic

Pablo F. Gómez

University of Wisconsin, Madison

Abstract

This paper examines the role of accounting and financial practices in the ideation of models for the quantification of human bodies, disease, population health, and risk in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century world of the transatlantic slave trade. Drawing from sources coming from state and notarial archives and libraries in Colombia, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France, the paper examines the conceptual logic appearing in the registration and bureaucratization of the value of slave bodies, and their insertion in the logic of the early modern state and its mercantile economies. The paper argues that the constitutive elements of what would later become known as medical arithmetics, and ideas about possibilities for the quantification of risk as related to human bodies and disease, appears for the first time in widely used models for the registration and bureaucratization of the value of slave bodies, and their insertion in the organizational language of early modern Iberian states and their mercantile economies. In other words, these concepts entered the western "scriptural economy" of corporeality via the enslavement of millions of Africans and their descendants. The acts of registering enslaved African's bodies nominal values in contracts predicted in quantifiable terms their behavior and production (as groups), and calculated revenue both from their labor, and from taxation and financial gains. These ideas shaped methodologies for the organization and taxonomizing of human bodies' worth, while transforming political, social, and economic relationships between individuals and the state.

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Presenter 4

Worms

Dániel Margócsy

University of Cambridge

Abstract

This talk examines the role worms played in the discourses of medicine and shipbuilding in the years around 1700. In the period, these parasites were considered as a major risk for sailors and ships. Intestinal worms attacked the insides of those traveling to distant lands, and shipworms (teredo navalis) attacked the hulls of those ships that brought these sailors to distant lands. This talk examines how such maritime concerns found a reflection in works of natural history of the period, and how natural historians, maritime administrators and projectors attempted to find panaceas against both types worms. In the process, these practitioners came to view the human body as analogous to timber. Humans and trees had similar anatomical structures, they were attacked by the same parasites, and they could be cured by the same methods. This was an ideal and economical solution from a naval perspective because it allowed for the application of the same method to two different problems to keep ships afloat. Under the administrative eye of the navy, sailors and ships became an indivisible unit. The talk relies on examples from the Netherlands and England, connecting naturalists and physicians, such Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Hans Sloane and Richard Mead to entrepreneurial projectors, such as Charles Ardesoif, and to naval administrators from the board of the Dutch East India Company to Samuel Pepys.

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