Conference Agenda

3A: Bodies out of Control
Wednesday, 08/Sept/2021:
1:30pm - 2:45pm

Session Chair: Kristof Smeyers, University of Antwerp

External Resource: Click here to join the session.

Bodies out of control

Chair(s): Smeyers, Kristof (University of Antwerp, Belgium)

This panel is about unruly bodies in Europe from the Enlightenment to the Second World War, and about some of the twining forces that attempted to control them: supernatural, medical, historiographical. Undead, bewitched and possessed, these bodies acted seemingly independently from the minds of their owners. Each paper interrogates medical approaches to extraordinary bodies. We also examine how those forces impacted how people experienced their own bodies. Together, these papers historicise experiences of the body as well as medical attitudes to ‘bodies out of control’.


Presentations of the Symposium


To Believe or not to Believe? Medical and Religious Debates on the Undead in Enlightenment Europe

Solyomvari, Timea
Newcastle University

In Eastern Europe, vampirism was understood within a disease-based explanatory system in the context of epidemics for hundreds of years. In times of plague, cholera, or swine fever, with the agreement of the village, corpses were dug up and destroyed by means of specific rituals. During the eighteenth century, medical reports of these cases provoked a heated debate in the learned Protestant circles of Halle, Jena and Leipzig. Secular representatives of the Enlightenment persecuted superstition with equal fanaticism instead of ignoring it as inefficient practice. The body became a topic of discussion, raising questions such as: where is the line between life and death, the animate and the inanimate, and the normal and abnormal corpse?

This paper will assess the specific physiological dimension of the belief of the dead returning to life, and the relationship between a new belief that arose in the context of new medical knowledge and the budding Enlightenment in Central and Eastern Europe. The participants of the debate regarding vampires blamed the Orthodox clergy of inspiring superstitious fear into people’s hearts about the rising dead. The central question will be what role religion played in the interpretation of belief in a physical rather than spiritual afterlife, especially from the point of view of the challenge of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.


Itchcraft: Feeling Cursed in France, 1790-1940

Pooley, Will
University of Bristol

Did it feel different to be cursed in 1940 than it had in 1790?

Bodies are historical. Not simply at the level of representation, but in the very feelings and experiences of the flesh. Yet it has proven much easier to write the histories of elite experiences of the body than those of the working population. This paper turns to a particularly ‘popular’ medical tradition – the fear and fascination of witchcraft – to ask: how did experiences of embodiment among the masses change in this period?

Since the 1990s, there has been a steady rise in interest in the histories of European witchcraft after the end of the witch trials. Historians now know that the decriminalization of witchcraft in different jurisdictions at different times in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries did not put an end to disputes over witchcraft. After decriminalization, courts still heard cases of fraud, slander, assault, and murder connected to sorcery. Between 1790-1940 in France there were close to 1,000 cases of this type. Yet historians of witchcraft after the trials have done little to historicise witchcraft itself. This paper asks how being bewitched may have felt different in 1940 than it had in 1790. From flea infestations to ingested reptiles, it surveys the diversity of itchy, exhausted, nauseous, frozen, cramped, restless, burning, and paralyzed sensations that the bewitched described. And it charts the appearance of new cursed experiences, such as electrifying sensations and nervous complaints.


Bodies Besieged: Ethics of the Possessed in Interbellum Europe

Smeyers, Kristof
University of Antwerp

When the Devil enters a body, it sets in motion a series of invasive acts: curious and clinical eyes gaze; gloved hands touch; the priest exorcises; the needle pokes; the stethoscope listens; the generator whirs and zaps; the camera clicks; a public opinion, fed sensational(ised) snippets of information, judges – fraud, narcissism, insanity!

The bodies of the possessed have been under attack for centuries.

They have suffered from supernatural as well as natural forces, even from those that called the possessed ‘victims’ – whether of Satan’s malice or mental struggle – and tried to heal them. This paper hones in on the nature of medical invasions of possessed bodies in interbellum Europe to ask what the ethical implications were: on those medical disciplines that engaged with possession, and on their bodily subjects. Methods of prodding and probing possessed bodies increasingly provoked criticism in the first half of the twentieth century, especially in those prolific cases that involved young women.

Whose body did doctors, psychologists, and psychical researchers examine when they examined a body in which demons housed? And who claimed ownership over these bodies during medical inquiries: the doctor, Satan, the public, and/or the possessed themselves? Studying the growing concerns about the ethics of examination reveals another side to possession cases, in which the bedevilled body could become a vessel for discussions about a more humane, less invasive medical science. From this perspective, it is hoped, possession history can help recover some of the historical agency and ethical urgency of the examined body.