Conference: The Porous Body

The Porous Body in Early Modern Europe


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In early modern medical theory, skin was imagined as a porous boundary. Plato, Hippocrates and Galen all agreed on the permeable quality of the skin, which the sixteenth century physician Mercurialis described as a 'fisherman's net', easily pierced and difficult to protect. Its porous nature invited speculation about sweat, urine, blood and tears, and its susceptibility to disease focused civic debates about the environment, atmosphere, humours and astrology. Treatments like blood-letting, cupping and purging sought to maintain its integrity through the counter-intuitive manoeuvers of piercing it, while, as a canvas upon which the signs of disease could be read, it invited medical participation from lay and learned alike. Écorché models, anatomical illustrations and artistic representations of flayed skin spoke to the ease with which skin could be set aside, even while new genres of portraiture, and artisanal cosmetic practices valorized it as a cultural determiner of beauty, purity and individuality. The malleability of cutis in early modern artistic, medical and artisanal discourses called into question not just the healthy, moral individual's relationship with skin, but the boundaries between medicine, the individual and their environment as well.

Within this interdisciplinary conference, we aim to consider the porousness of the early modern body as physiologically, emotionally, and socially constituted, depicted in art, debated in print and played out in a dizzying array of social practices. Historical focus on skin has often been highly anthropocentric; but bodies were not just human; nor were the porous properties of skin defined by medicine alone. As flesh it was eaten, as fur it was worn, as leather it was worked. In considering the broad dimensions of porous bodies, and the many reasons these ideas changed, this conference investigates boundaries between nature and culture, animal and artifice, human and other.

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Image: Detail of Queen Henrietta Maria, Anthony van Dyck, before Aug 1632(?). Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017