Conference Agenda

10E: Healing Bodies
Friday, 10/Sept/2021:
3:00pm - 4:15pm

Session Chair: Prof. Kaat Wils, KU Leuven


Self-injury and autonomy in early modern religious culture

Skuse, Alanna

University of Reading, United Kingdom

In the middle of the seventeenth century, surgeon Hugh Ryder attended a woman who had been stabbed ‘obliquely in the epigastrium’. Her case was a simple one, remedied by bleeding and medicines. It was noteworthy, however, because the woman in question had inflicted the wound herself – one of a surprising number of early modern people who required medical intervention after acts of self-injury.

This paper examines religious attitudes toward people who injured themselves in early modern Britain. Drawing on medical texts, plays and ballads, I will show that self-injury had a surprising variety of meanings in this period, all of which were coloured by religious belief. Self-wounding might evoke sympathy for a person afflicted by madness or condemnation for one attempting the sin of suicide. However, the figure of Origen also supplied a Christian blueprint for self-injury as a means of self-control, and this precedent was reflected in tales of people (both real and fictional) who injured themselves as a means of protest, persuasion, or self-expression. In contrast to the clear prohibition on suicide, religious attitudes toward such people were far from clear. The complex debate which they provoked raised far-reaching questions about the rights of individuals over their own bodies.

'Tortured by Vermin': Parasites and Sanctity in Medieval Europe

Harvey, Katherine

Birkbeck, University of London, United Kingdom

This paper explores the religious significance of bodily parasites (i.e. lice and worms) within the context of later medieval Christianity (c.1100-1500). In particular, it considers the stories of holy men and women who suffered from chronic infestations, such as Thomas Becket (whose lice-ridden hair shirt was discovered in the aftermath of his martyrdom) and Henry of Suso (who was 'tortured by vermin' for much of his life). The physical condition of such individuals provoked repugnance (since, contrary to popular belief, most medieval people were not dirty), but also reverence: parasites were often recorded in hagiographies, and were interpreted as proof of their host's sanctity.

These case studies are placed within the wider religious context, considering the contemporary association of parasites with divine punishment and with demons, as well as highlighting the long tradition of self-neglect, suffering and pain as signs of sanctity. They are also viewed through the prism of medical theory, and it is suggested that these accounts were shaped by authorial medical knowledge. It was widely believed that parasites were not caught, but spontaneously generated in or on the human body, whilst medical writers highlighted the apparent susceptibility of clerics to such problems- a vulnerability which was linked to their adherence to pious ideals such as poor bodily hygiene and a heavily restricted diet. Whilst it has often been assumed that religion and medicine were opposing forces in the middle ages, this material thus suggests that medical knowledge was skilfully deployed by clerical writers to strengthen saintly reputations.

A Presence that Heals: Bodily Gestures and Words in Medieval Medicine

Salmon, Fernando

University of Cantabria, Spain

In his book The Seductions of Psychoanalysis (CUP, 1990), the historian of science, John Forrester, points out that when psychoanalysis was created the medical profession reacted strongly against it, not because it was thought to be just foolish chatter, but because it revealed the naked essence of the healing encounter. With no instruments for diagnosis, with no prescription of drugs, a disarmed therapist makes it plain that these latter were dispensable and that the cure was himself. For the nineteenth-century physicians who advocated the new hospital and laboratory medicine, the exposure of medical practice as a form of embodied healing seemed without any doubt too dangerous in their fight for pairing their trade with that of the scientists.

They could have been less threatened though if they had taken shelter under the flag of the Western medical tradition. Some 600 years before, when medicine become one of the four branches of institutional knowledge taught and learnt at the European universities, the medical student was trained to become part of the cure by promoting trust and hope in the patient.

In my contribution to this conference, I will explore how, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a university medical model based on humoralism was able to understand physicians’ gestures and words as healing devices and how it also warned about their use.