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A Cultural History of the Human Body

Discover the complex history of the human body with this carefully curated collection of content which brings together key research tools and learning resources from across the Bloomsbury Cultural History platform, looking at the topics identity, gender, race, science, fashion, and more. From a Lesson Plan on the body and modernity and eBook chapters on the performing body in Japan, to the digitally exclusive A Cultural History of the Human Body reference work, as well as digitised images from the Wellcome Collection, this Featured Content is your gateway into the cultural history of the human body through the ages.

Image showing Greek open air shower baths for men.
Greek open air shower baths for men (© Wellcome Collection)

A Cultural History of the Human Body

The digitally exclusive multivolume reference work A Cultural History of the Human Body presents a historical overview with essays on the centrality of the human body in birth and death, health and disease, sexuality, beauty and concepts of the ideal, bodies marked by gender, race, class and disease, cultural representations and popular beliefs, and self and society. This chapter from A Cultural History of the Human Body in Antiquity by Brooke Holmes delves into the complex history of the human body as a site of identity and self, and the physical attributes as marks of constructed gender.

Image showing the <i>The Proportions of the Human Figure</i> (Vitruvian Man)
The Proportions of the Human Figure (Vitruvian Man), Leonardo da Vinci, 1490. Pen, ink, and watercolor over metalpoint (Wikimedia Commons)

The Body and Modernity

Bloomsbury Cultural History offers an exclusive Lesson Plan by Darren N. Wagner to give 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 addressed include identity and nationhood; health and disability; selfhood and psychology; sex and reproduction; science and art; display and embodiment; and race and gender. Each week-by-week section examines the human body within a different historical framework and offers selective key reading, thought provoking discussion questions and suggested homework tasks. Explore the full Lesson Plan, a helpful research tool for students conducting independent study, as well as tutors creating their own academic programme.

This image shows the crimes of corset and how it cripples and restricts the bodily organs in women.
The Crimes of the Corset (© Wellcome Collection)

The Crimes of the Corset

This digitised engraving from the Wellcome Collection illustrates the physical effects of the corset and ‘denounces’ the internal disfigurement it inflicts on women’s bodies. In A Cultural History of Dress and Fashion in the Age of Empire, Ariel Beaujot traces the origins of the corset back to the aristocracy in the first half of the sixteenth century, and explores the use of such fashion items as an act of gendering. Beaujot points out that the French word for corset is “corp” meaning body, demonstrating linguistically that clothing and woman’s flesh and bone were one and the same.

This image shows Lorenzo Niles Fowler’s detailed system of phrenology shown on this phrenological head.
Fowler’s Phrenological Head (© Wellcome Collection)

Fowler’s Phrenological Head

The digitized image collections made available on Bloomsbury Cultural History offer a rich and enticing insight into the cultural history of the human body. In this photo from the Wellcome Collection, Lorenzo Niles Fowler’s detailed system of phrenology is shown on a phrenological head. Phrenologists believed that the shape and size of various areas of the brain (and therefore the overlying skull) determined personality. For instance, the area under the right eye was thought to relate to language and verbal memory; the desire for foods and liquids was thought to be located in front of the right ear. Fowler led a revival in phrenology after its decline in the 1850s, and his system was just one of many during this period.

Image shpwing Gekidan Kaitaisha. <i>Bye Bye Phantom</i>. Colony (Miyauchi Katsu)
Gekidan Kaitaisha. Bye Bye Phantom.  Colony (Miyauchi Katsu)

The Performing Body in Japan

Adam Broinowski’s Cultural Responses to Occupation in Japan examines how the performing arts, and the performing body specifically, have shaped and been shaped by the political and historical conditions experienced in Japan during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. This study of original and secondary materials from the fields of theatre, dance, performance art, film and poetry, probes the interrelationship that exists between the body and the nation-state. This chapter looks at Gekidan Kaitasha, a theatre company that uses performance to deconstruct ‘what is’ at the site of the body.