Conference Report: The Porous Body in Early Modern Europe

A belated report on The Porous Body in Medieval Europe. Trish and Emily had the pleasure of attending the first conference for the Renaissance Skin project led by Professor Evelyn Welch at King’s College London. The conference aimed “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”. The face, as the most exposed part of the skin in everyday life, unsurprisingly made several appearances.

Jemma Field (Brunel University) and Erin Griffey (University of Auckland) discussed the skincare regimes of queens Anna of Denmark and Henrietta Maria, respectively, drawing attention to the wide range of cosmetic and reparative recipes their used on their faces, along with protective measures such as veils, masks and hats. Giffey also drew attention to a profile portrait of the queen painted by van Dyck in 1638–the same period in which her physician, Sir Theodore de Mayerne, records treating a rash on her right cheek. Van Dyck records significant trouble in getting Henrietta Maria to sit at this time, leading Giffey to suggest that she may indeed have been putting him off until her temporary disfigurement had subsided. Along with the third paper in their panel, from Romana Sammern (University of Salzburg), these presentations provided ample material to stress the importance of the female face and the efforts put in to maintain beauty.

During the discussion following this panel it was noted that the historians of skin were often thwarted by a lack of first-hand accounts of skin problems. This was especially true of ‘everyday’ routines and occurrences, which no one thought to write down in their letters, diaries etc. As an example, Welch remarked on the absence of records for teenage acne. Does this suggest that teenagers in early modern Europe did not actually experience the same level of acne as now? Or that it was so ubiquitous that it was not worth mentioning, and became invisible? Or…? (Oh for a renaissance Adrian Mole, I thought!).

The management of hair was another area that overlapped with some of the Effaced team’s interests. Kathryn Woods (University of Warwick) traced changing conceptions of hair and the extent to which it formed ‘part’ of the body, including the relationship of such ideas to the acceptability of wigs made from another person’s hair. Meanwhile Alun Withey (University of Exeter) outlined some of the many ‘technologies of the body’ employed by eighteenth-century people to shape their bodies and especially their faces into socially acceptable forms.

The Renaissance Skin team are only one year into their Wellcome Trust funding, so we look forward to following their progress.

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