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From Body Beautiful to Body Politic: The Politics of the Body in Early Modern England, c.1500-c.1740 - HIS00002M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Mark Jenner
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22

Module summary

Does the body have a history, and if so how do we write it? How do we understand a culture in which it was thought that a woman could turn into a man, or smallpox could morph into plague, and in which it was commonly agreed that a fright might leave you with permanent marks on your skin?

The body and ideas of embodiment have become central themes in social and cultural history, and this course explores them within early modern English culture. It is widely argued that during this period major religious, political and intellectual shifts produced far-reaching shifts in the meanings and significance of the body. The gradual discrediting of Galenic physiology is often thought fundamentally to have altered understandings of sexual difference and health; the execution of Charles I is often reckoned to have transformed understandings of the body politic and the sacrality of kingship.

The course will not simply survey or catalogue early modern understandings of the body. Rather it uses "the body" as a way to open up and explore understandings of identity, selfhood, gender, power and social distinction. It also introduces students to a wide range of the sources and the ways in which they can be read and interpreted.

In each seminar we discuss a selection of texts, and sometimes images and objects, relevant to that week's theme. These sources - drawn from medical, natural philosophical, religious, didactic, satirical and literary texts, as well as diaries, court depositions and other manuscript sources - will be discussed alongside the wider historiography of early modern England and works of social and literary theory which may assist us in interpreting their meanings. We will use the conceptual tools contained in the latter to explore our sources, and we will make employ primary materials to test and challenge interpretive models.

As one aim of the course is to familiarize students with the use of primary sources, the course is designed to be taught in the Borthwick Institute’s seminar room and uses early printed materials in the seminars. Students will thus make “hands-on” use early printed books from Special Collections in the JBM library and in York Minster Library and examine the physical traces on those works as well as working with online resources. For example, seminar discussions of early modern understandings of sexual difference might not only examine what historians have argued about these themes, but also study anatomy texts, popular sex advice literature, private letters and court depositions.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2021-22

Module aims

The module aims to:
• Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation;
• Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
• Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing

Module learning outcomes

After completing this module students should:
a) Be conversant with important recent historiographical, cultural and theoretical debates about the body in early modern culture
b) Have knowledge of some of the most significant forms of writing and thought about early modern bodies
c) Have knowledge of approaches to a range of early modern texts
d) Be able to write in a critical and informed fashion about early modern representations of the body.

Module content

Students will attend eight weekly two-hour seminars in weeks 2-9.

A provisional outline for the module is:
1. Restraining the Body: Civility and Control?
2. The Carnivalesque and the Body Politic
3. One Sex, Two Sex, Three? Sexual difference in early modern England
4.Knives of Wisdom? Anatomical knowledge and Anatomical Practice
5. Birthing Bodies: Pain and Subjectivity
6. Cultures of the Monstrous: From Giving Birth to Rabbits to the “Boy with three Cocks”
7. Animal Bodies
8. How to Taste, Feel, andSmell like an Early Modern: Bodies-in-the World


Task Length % of module mark
4,000 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will complete a 2,000-word essay for formative assessment, due in week 6 or 7 of the spring term, for which they will receive an individual tutorial. They will then submit a 4,000-word assessed essay for summative assessment in week 1 of the summer term.

For further details about assessed work, students should refer to the Statement of Assessment for Taught Postgraduate Programmes.


Task Length % of module mark
4,000 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback consisting of comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission. They will also receive verbal feedback at an individual tutorial. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their formative work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. Supervisors are available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment for Taught Postgraduate Programmes.

Indicative reading

N. Elias The Civilizing Process
L. Gowing Domestic Dangers
T. Laqueur Making Sex
L. Roper Oedipus and the Devil

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.