Workshop: The Legible Body

The Legible Body: Skin, Paper, Parchment in Early Modern Europe

Workshop (closed event)

Due to the nature of this working group, this event is for invited participants only.

In early modern Europe, skin – both human and animal - formed part of the spirited world of matter. As leather, animal skin took on a vast array of forms, from shoes to buckets, wallpaper to book bindings. Human skin, by contrast, was often less visible but its reach extended into objects of daily consumption, particularly in the manifold uses to which bodily waste and effluvia were put. Considered as matter, skin spoke to a broader continuity between the body and the material world. At the same time, in the context of use, consumption, and handling, the material culture of skin gradually changed the way in which the human body's skin was interpreted and read.

This shift was particularly evident in the relationship between skin, paper, and parchment, which was literally, conceptually, and materially composite in the Renaissance. The continuity between animal skin and parchment (made of hide) guided its preparation, as well as its use, as bookbinders, artists, and scribes worked with the natural membrane, fibres, and textures to inscribe and decorate surfaces. As paper gained popularity, the continuity of its association with skin only became more pronounced. The role of bodily waste, particularly linen rages in the making of paper, bled into and infused material understandings of paper. Like skin, paper could be wrinkled, folded, punctured, handled, torn, peeled back, and inscribed. Also like skin, it was marked by such actions into a textural surface with particular, though often ambivalent, meanings. The emerging relationship between paper and skin in terms of meaning and message thus maps and problematises the body's legibility in early modern Europe.

The papers presented in this workshop consider the relationship between skin, parchment, and paper across a variety of geographical regions, material forms, and conceptual purposes. They examine the material construction of paper and parchment, and its uses, both functional and literary, across art, anatomy, popular medicine, popular culture, and material consumption. Considering genres as diverse as amulets, almanacs, and anatomical illustrations, and users from sixteenth-century artisans in Germany to dramatists in seventeenth-century England, they show the way in which correspondences between skin, paper, and parchment offered opportunities for representation and interrogation of the human body. While use of paper depended on understanding of the body, taken together these papers also ask how the underlying continuity between paper, parchment, and skin gave rise to or supported a conception of the body's surface as legible.

  • Katherine Dauge-Roth (Bowdoin College), Skin, Paper and Parchment: Healing Words in Early Modern Europe
  • Anna Reynolds (University of York), Skin transparent as oyl'd paper: Paper Bodies in Early Modern Almanacs
  • Caroline O'Fowler (Yale University), Paper, Palimpsests and Passions in Early Modern Print-Making
  • Maria Alessandra Chessa (Royal College of Art/V&A), Thinking Skin and Handling Paper in Early Modern Italy
  • Megan Baumhammer (Princeton University), Skin and Fabric in Anatomical Knowledge
Roundtable discussion and comments to be led by Evelyn Welch (KCL), Anna Maerker (KCL), Jill Burke (Edinburgh), and Bill Sherman (Warburg)