Bloomsbury Cultural History Lesson Plans


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The Body and Modernity

The Body and Modernity
DOI: 10.5040/9781474209465.002

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Modernity has involved profound changes to human bodies. As a subject, the body has been central to developments in legal regulation, political debate, medical interventions, scientific understanding, personal experience, cultural representation, and social interaction. This course gives students the opportunity to critically explore some of the many ways in which changes relating to the body were tied to the Enlightenment era and the emergence of modernity. Themes to be addressed include identity and nationhood; health and disability; selfhood and psychology; sex and reproduction; science and art; display and embodiment; and race and gender. Our pursuit of these themes will focus on what historians have identified as a key period for change, 1650 to 1850. To reflect the distinctly interdisciplinary character of historical research on the body, we will use a variety of approaches and materials in this course that includes studying museum objects, reading literary sources, reviewing legal records, analyzing visual material, and more.

Students who complete the course successfully will have:

  • gained a fuller understanding of the body as a historical subject;

  • become familiar with the Enlightenment period and the emergence of modernity;

  • engaged diverse and interdisciplinary historiographies and methodologies;

  • planned, developed, and executed a major piece of writing.

Unit Outline

This ten-module lesson plan is intended to be spread throughout a full semester. The content is aimed toward upper-level undergraduates or graduate students who specialize in either history or a discipline focused on the body, such as health-related topics, and can demonstrate a solid understanding of modern history and the fundamental historical methodologies needed to succeed in this course.

Lesson 1

The Body as Historical Subject

This introductory session will bring into play the themes, perspectives, and criticisms that run throughout the course. We will begin by scrutinizing some key definitions—the body, the Enlightenment, and modernity—and then turn to the readings and discussion questions.

Texts to be read before the lesson

Bynum, Caroline. 1995. “Why All the Fuss about the Body? A Medievalist’s Perspective.” Critical Inquiry 22, no. 1: 1–33.

Reeves, Carole. 2010. “Introduction: Enlightenment Bodies.” In A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Enlightenment, Volume 4, edited by Carole Reeves, The Cultural Histories Series, 1–12. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049758-006?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory

Stafford, Barbara Maria. 1993. “Introduction.” In Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1–46.

Discussion questions

  • In brief, what is the historiography of the body as a focal subject?

  • How do different disciplinary backgrounds affect how the body is approached and understood?

  • What can an examination of bodies in the past tell us about a historical period such as the Enlightenment era?

  • How do we expect the body to relate to modernity?

  • What ethical problems and considerations might we encounter?

Lesson 2

Legal and Political Bodies

The body is a fundamental idea in politics and law. As instanced by seventeenth-century philosophical inquiries into the body politic, the creation of the Georgian bloody code in, and the body-centric propaganda of the Revolution, this two-century period encompassed profound challenges to the meaning and integrity of human bodies.

Texts to be read before the lesson

Hobbes, Thomas. “Introduction” and “Chapter One: Of Sense” in Leviathan. Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1909, pp 8–18.

Melzer, Sara E., and Kathryn Norberg.1998. “Introduction.” In From the Royal to the Republican Body: Incorporating the Political in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1–10.

Outram, Dorinda, and Londa Schiebinger. 1991. “The Body and the French Revolution: Sex, Class, and Political Culture.” Journal of the History of Biology 24, no. 2: 331–338.

Rice, Stephen P. 2010. “Picturing Bodies in the Nineteenth Century.” In A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Empire, edited by Michael Sappol and Stephen P. Rice, 213–236. The Cultural Histories Series. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049765-ch-009?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory

Discussion questions

  • What is meant by “the body politic”?

  • How were bodily metaphors involved in various political discussions—including topics like monarchy, empire, revolution, citizenship?

  • What legal changes regarding the body developed over this period?

  • What do different forms of punishment reveal about understandings of the body and its value?


Browse and search the Old Bailey Online database for cases resulting in corporal punishment. Bring one case to class to briefly present about how the body is represented in the recorded legal proceedings.

Lesson 3

Healthy and Unhealthy Bodies

Health ultimately defines the condition of a person’s body. Yet, there have been many historical shifts in how health is understood, how it is embodied, and who is responsible for it. In the Enlightenment, the role of medicine and medical practitioners underwent many changes. How the body was perceived by healers and patients was at the heart of many of those changes.

Texts to be read before the lesson

Pilloud, S., and M. Louis-Courvoisier. 2003. “The Intimate Experience of the Body in the Eighteenth Century: Between Interiority and Exteriority.” Medical History 47, no. 4: 451–472.

Porter, Roy. 1991. “Bodies of Thought: Thoughts about the Body in Eighteenth-Century England.” In Interpretation and Cultural History,edited by J. H. Pittock and A. Wear. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 82–108.

Riskin, Jessica. 2010. “Medical Knowledge: The Adventures of Mr. Machine, with Morals.” In A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Enlightenment, edited by Carole Reeves, 73–92. The Cultural Histories Series. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049758-ch-004?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Discussion questions

  • How were health, disease, and illness understood during this 200-year period?

  • What kinds of medical practitioners were there, and what were their social identities and roles?

  • How did laypeople approach their health?

  • What kinds of medical interventions were introduced that altered self-knowledge and experience of patients’ bodies?

Lesson 4

Normal and Abnormal Bodies

How bodies are supposed to appear and function determines the lives and livelihoods of all people in society. During the period in question, the concept of monstrosity incrementally shifted from one of divine intervention, to a curiosity of nature, and then to a medical diagnosis. Other related concepts such as perfection/imperfection and able-bodiedness/disability also changed dramatically.

Texts to be read before the lesson

Daston, Lorraine, and Katherine Park. 1998. “Monsters: A Case Study.” In Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 173–214.

Hitchcock, Tim. 2010. “Cultural Representations: Rogue Literature and the Reality of the Begging Body.” InA Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Enlightenment, edited by Carole Reeves, 175–192. The Cultural Histories Series. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049758-ch-009?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory

Todd, Dennis. 1995. “What the Body Says.” In Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the Self in Eighteenth-Century England. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 217–268.

Discussion questions

  • How did monsters—their definition and cultural presence—change?

  • How did changing notions of monstrosity related to broader historical developments?

  • What are the wider implications of emergent biological perspectives on bodily deformity?

Lesson 5

Scientific Bodies

Anatomy, physiology, and pathology were among the foremost sciences of the Enlightenment. No bodily nook or cranny was left unexposed to scientific scrutiny and demonstration. Those closely related scientific fields were essential to changes in health, knowledge about the body, and the display of body parts. The influence of these sciences pervaded not only such institutes as hospitals, medical schools, and public museums, but also legislatures, theater houses, and art schools.

This session will involve a visit to a special collections library to view and discuss historical anatomy texts.

Texts to be read before the lesson

Guerrini, Anita. 2004. “Anatomists and Entrepreneurs in Early Eighteenth-Century London.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 59, no. 2: 219–239.

Richardson, Ruth. 2010. “Popular Beliefs about the Dead Body.” In A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Enlightenment , edited by Carole Reeves, 93–112. The Cultural Histories Series. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049758-ch-005?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory

Sawday, Jonathan. 1995. “Execution, Anatomy, and Infamy: Inside the Renaissance Anatomy Theatre.” In The Body Emblazoned. London: Routledge, 54–84.

Discussion questions

  • In brief, how did anatomy, physiology, and pathology change over the period in question?

  • How was the work of anatomists influential beyond their discipline and natural philosophy?

  • What precipitated the waning of humoralism?

  • How was the body re-imagined through anatomy and physiology?


Explore Bloomsbury Cultural History images, the Wellcome Collection’s image database, the National Library of Medicine’s Dream Anatomy, or an analogous online resource. Select an illustration from this period of an anatomized body or body part to briefly present and analyze in class. http://www.bloomsburyculturalhistory.com/museum?docid=BCH_images_wellcome

Lesson 6

Sexed, Sexual, and Reproductive Bodies

Sex, the division between male and female, was fundamental to enlightenment visions of the world. This session will consider the social, scientific, and medical perspectives and categories regarding sex, and especially in relation to approaches to “generation.”

Texts to be read before the lesson

Harvey, Karen. 2002. “The Substance of Sexual Difference: Change and Persistence in Representations of the Body in Eighteenth–Century England.”Gender & History14, no. 2: 202–223.

Rousseau, George. 2011. “Sex, Medicine and Disease.” InA Cultural History of Sexuality in the Enlightenment, edited by Julie Peakman, 133–158. The Cultural Histories Series. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049697-ch-006?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory

Stephanson, Raymond and Darren N. Wagner. 2015. “Introduction.” In The Secrets of Generation: Reproduction in the Long Eighteenth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 3–36.

Discussion questions

  • What was generation?

  • How was sex defined? And by whom?

  • What is embodiment, and how does it relate to ideas of sexual difference?

  • What were the medical and social implications of sexual definitions?

Lesson 7

Mind, Body, and Sensibility

One of the prevailing cultural movements in the eighteenth century was sensibility. Closely connected with neurophysiology, dramatic expression, emotional responsiveness, and fellow-feeling, sensibility pervaded the arts and sciences. Ultimately striving to reconcile the mind and body, sensibility can be understood as a crucial step toward psychology and modern notions of the self.

Texts to be read before the lesson

Barker-Benfield, G. J. 1992, “Sensibility and the Nervous System.” In The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1–31.

McMaster, Juliet. 2004. “Physiognomy: The Index of the Mind.” In Reading the Body in the Eighteenth-Century Novel. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 42–68.

Vila, Anne C. 2014. “Introduction: Powers, Pleasures, and Perils of the Senses in the Enlightenment Era.” In A Cultural History of the Senses in the Age of Enlightenment, edited by Anne C. Vila, 1–20. The Cultural Histories Series. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474233125.0006?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory

For reference

Barrell, John. 1995. “Introduction.” In The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1–69.

Cohen, Sarah, and Downing A. Thomas. 2014. “Art and the Senses: Experiencing the Arts in the Age of Sensibility.” In A Cultural History of the Senses in the Age of Enlightenment, edited by Anne C. Vila, 179–202. The Cultural Histories Series. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474233125.ch-008?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory

Discussion questions:

  • How is sensibility defined?

  • How were the principles of sensibility variously expressed in medicine, natural philosophy, literature, moral philosophy, and other realms?

  • What are the core questions about bodies that the so-called culture of sensibility centered around?


Visit a local museum featuring an exhibition of 1650–1850 art, such as Baroque, Rococo, or neoclassical painting or sculpture. Alternatively, if no suitable exhibition is available, browse Artstor, the Getty Collection online, or art history reference texts from the university library. Write a 1000-word essay exploring how ideas about the body are resonant in a selected work or works of art.

Lesson 8

Other Bodies

People and their bodies have been historically defined in relation to others from different places, societies, and cultures. This session will explore the kinds of exoticism that came with colonialism, imperialism, exploration, trade, and tradition. Many of the themes from previous sessions will be given new dimension as we consider how perceptions of other bodies related to the western European notions of bodies we’ve hitherto examined.

Texts to be read before the lesson

Behn, Aphra. 1688. Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave. London: William Canning.

Nussbaum, Felicity. 2003. “Black Women: Why Imoinda Turns White.” In The Limits of the Human: Fictions of Anomaly, Race and Gender in the Long Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 151–189.

Sappol, Michael. 2010. “Introduction: Empires in Bodies; Bodies in Empires.” In A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Empire, edited by Michael Sappol and Stephen P. Rice, 1–36. The Cultural Histories Series. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049765–006?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory

Discussion questions

  • What events and media brought the bodies of others into notice?

  • How were others and their bodies characterized? How were they displayed?

  • To what ends were depictions of other bodies used?

  • How do these other bodies relate to previously discussed themes of punishment, sensibility, sex, anatomy, law, and normality?

Assessment Options

  • An essay (~2500 words) as the major assignment for assessment

  • Presentation and analysis of one assigned reading

  • 1000-word essay on a chosen art work

  • Presentation of an anatomical illustration

  • Presentation of an Old Bailey record

Further Reading

Blakemore, Colin, andSheila Jennett, eds.2001. The Oxford Companion to the Body .Oxford:Oxford University Press.

Curran, Andrew, andPatrick Graille.1997. “The Faces of Eighteenth-Century Monstrosity Eighteenth-Century Life 21, no.2:1–15 .

Duden, Barbara.1991. The Woman beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany ,translated by Thomas Dunlap.Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press,1–49.

Laqueur, Thomas.1986. “Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology Representations 14, no.1:1–41 .

McGowen, Randall.1987. “The Body and Punishment in Eighteenth-Century England The Journal of Modern History 59, no.4:652–679 .

Morgan, Gwenda, andPeter Rushton.2005. “Visible Bodies: Power, Subordination and Identity in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World Journal of Social History 39, no.1:39–64 .

Moravia, Sergio.1978. “From Homme Machine to Homme Sensible: Changing Eighteenth-Century Models of Man’s Image Journal of the History of Ideas 39, no.1:45–60 .

Paton, Diana.2001. “Punishment, Crime, and the Bodies of Slaves in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica Journal of Social History 34, no.4:923–954 .

E-books in Bloomsbury Cultural History:

A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Enlightenment , Volume4, edited byCarole Reeves(London:Bloomsbury Academic,2010).DOI:10.5040/9781350049758

A Cultural History of the Senses in the Age of Enlightenment , edited byAnne C. Vila(London:Bloomsbury Academic,2014).DOI:10.5040/9781474233125.0006.

A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Enlightenment , Volume4, edited byJulie Peakman(London:Bloomsbury Academic,2011). DOI:10.5040/9781350049697.