Charivari - Performances of Violence, Justice and Subversion

Charivari - Performances of Violence, Justice and Subversion

I’ve always been fascinated by the use of performance as a means of seeking justice. Whether that be through art, plays, music, or theatre. Western society has always been strongly performative by nature and has only grown more so with new technologies, the internet, the focus on acting out a persona online versus irl (in real life). The initial strong distinction people made between Online and In Real Life was akin to the way you distinguish between an actor on and off stage. However, that line has long since blurred, and for the best, with people coming to understand that Online is In Real Life.

Part of internet culture is the group mentality that comes with it where each corner has a sort of “village” feel to it. No matter which platform you are on you have “your people”. This is very much a natural part of being human but it is fascinating to watch recreations of village or neighbourhood life acted out digitally where one person makes a faux-pas and then the “village” must either correct that person’s course or purge them.

In the early modern period on through the early twentieth century one of the most distinct forms of correcting behaviour was known as the charivari.

Charivari (aka Skimmington Ride, Stang Ride, Rough Music, Shivaree or Chivaree) was a method of maintaining moral and social norms within society. Through public shaming people who acted outside of what had been decreed as “correct” behaviour, such as punishing adultery or other acts of sexual and social deviance, were punished. While a charivari could be used to punish any range of social “sins” it was most usually focused on “incorrect” marriages. This includes adultery, widows marrying again too soon after a husband’s death, a husband or wife who exceeds the social acceptable amount of spousal abuse, or any other form of deviancy.

The nature of the charivari varied depending on where you were. In England, Skimmington Rides, or Stang Rides, were the most common form of this social censure although the rides were performed elsewhere including France and Germany. A Skimmington Ride involved the guilty parties being placed on a donkey or a pole and carried around the town while being beaten with skimmingtons, which are large wooden ladles. Accompanying this would be loud music, people banging on pots and pans, and singing of various cacophonous songs.

A relief from the Great Hall in Montacute House, Sommerset, England portraying a Stang Ride

A relief from the Great Hall in Montacute House, Sommerset, England portraying a Stang Ride

We have an account of a charivari from Samuel Pepy's Diary date June 10, 1667: the afternoon took boat and down to Greenwich, where I find the stairs full of people, there being a great riding there to-day for a man, the constable of the town, whose wife beat him...

In France, the charvari sometimes took a darker, theatrical turn with the guilty parties being dressed as stags or deer and the villagers, dressed as hounds, would “hunt” them. In some cases animal blood was spilled on the doors of the guilty parties.

There were times when, at the end of the charivari and the guilty had admitted to their crimes, they would be dumped in the local water source as a form of re-baptism back into the community. In other cases it was their effigy that was paraded around and in severe cases, burnt. What was universal was the noise making (hence, “rough music” being one of the names for it), general discord, and deep public humiliation and shame.

What was universal was the spontaneous nature of the charivari and the integral role it played as an act of social cleansing.

Here is an excerpt from the memoirs of Esprit Flechier (1632-1710), quoting an old man who complained about the decay in good conduct of charivari since the days when he used to participate in the them.

…But now all this courtesy [of the charivari] has passed away … All that remains of these old games is a right of exaction, and an imposition of tribute on certain occasions. When a stranger marries a woman from the town, the princes tax him … in order to make him pay for the departure of the nymph whom he carries away. When a widower marries a girl, or a widow a boy, they are taxed according to their condition, for having removed the nymph or young lord who ought to have belonged to some other. These were the only taxes spoken of in past ties. Each enjoyed his goods in peace and owed nothing until his marriage. The imposition was very moderate, a reasonable time was given to pay, and thank God all the taxes were the same! It is true that after a pre-arranged time, people went to collect the sum, and that if payment was delayed a little too long, the custom was that the prince’s officers hurried along to the debtor’s house with a great deal of folly, following their brief, took down the tapestries, disarranged all the furniture, and as was the order of the day, threw everything out of the window. This was done with such good grace that it was an entertainment, and not an act of violence.

Charivaris also had political connotations. When invoked in political situations it was used as a means for those traditionally disenfranchised and with minimal to no access to a political voice to make their sentiments known. Either by acting out on the actual person who warrants their discontent or on an effigy of that person.

These rituals, as violent and shaming as they were, allowed average people of the early modern period to perform a form of justice when they had no access to the justice system. The language of charivari was one of ritual and subversion. It presented an “up-turning” or “inverting” of the world as an act of setting it right again. It was necessary for them to turn the world inside-out, to see the sins of it, to see each other plain, before they could go about setting their lands back in order.

The subversion could be seen in different elements of the public mocking and they ranged from gender swapping, adulterers riding backwards on a donkey or mule (ass backwards), a man being emasculated in some way by his wife, the music being a cacophony instead of pleasant. Charivari is a form of “for the people by the people” justice.

William Hogarth's engraving "Hudibras Encounters the Skimmington"

William Hogarth's engraving "Hudibras Encounters the Skimmington"

That said, there were accounts of charivari's going too far resulting in the death of particpants or their accomplaces. Most usually by their own hand due to the shame of it. When living in a small community, a damaged reputation could be drastically life altering. However, as there are few extant records relating to deaths resulting from charivari's, much of what was recorded was hear-say ("I have a friend who knew a guy whose brother killed himself" sort of story). Still, I have no doubt that charivaris resulted in the untimely death of some of the people forced to go through it.

An interesting complication to the charivari as a rural-justice-for-the-powerless view comes to us from Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian Campaign. In 1798 a 29-year-old Bonaparte embarked upon the ill-fated Egyptian campaign and at one point during it ordered a charivari to be performed on Boyer, a French surgeon. Although Boyer was innocent of the charge laid against him, that of cowardice, and ultimately he was not made to perform the following order, this event outlines an interesting attempt to use charivari as state/army imposed punishment.

The order given as follows by Bonaparte:

“(Order.) Citoyen Boyer, surgeon, who has been so cowardly as to refuse help to some wounded because they were supposed to be infected, is unworthy of being a French citizen. He is to be dressed in women’s clothes, and paraded through the streets of Alexandria on a donkey, with a board on his back, on which shall be written: Unworthy of being a French citizen - he fears death. After which he is to be placed in prison, and sent back to France by the first ship.”

This order contains expected elements of a typical charivari: swapped gender roles, riding on a donkey, a parade is made of his humiliation, and the cause of his punishment made clear. In this case, by the placard he must wear as opposed to symbolic images or tokens which were sometimes used. What is interesting is that by having Boyer paraded through the streets of Alexandria Bonaparte not only included French soldiers in the act of public shaming but also extended the performance to Egyptians as well.

Bonaparte, ever the master of propaganda and public displays, had the order printed up in a bulletin and shared publicly. While Boyer was eventually exonerated and not made to perform the charivari, the printed nature of the order meant that not only did all soldiers in Egypt read it but also the general public back in France. This meant that even though Boyer was found to be innocent, the charivari in absentia was still experienced by citizens back home at Boyer’s expense. While this can be seen to be merely a simple act of control and humiliation used to maintain order in a rapidly deteriorating political and military situation, there remains a tension between the bottom-up nature of a traditional charivari and the order given in a military setting.

Indeed, Bonaparte, as General-in-Chief of the Egyptian Army, represented the typical authority figure most often on the receiving end of political charivaris. Or, at the least, his effigy would have been at the receiving end. As one who lived through the French Revolution he would have been familiar with the use of the charivari by the powerless against their oppressors. Therefore, his use of the charivari as a form of authoritative, regimented punishment was an act of inversion. He took a subversive form of justice and “legitimized” it thereby robbing it of its power; making the untamable act of anger and justice tame.

I’ve not found any other recorded instance of Bonaparte using the charivari again as a form of punishment. Perhaps it was deemed too parochial as upon his return from Egypt he was desperately trying to fashion himself as a society Gentleman. He was also deeply committed to distancing himself from anything too “provincial” in an attempt to remove the association of Corsica from his identity. Or, perhaps, it was simply that charivari at the end of the day was an unwieldy weapon of control.

Charivaris continued to be practiced well into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in the more rural areas of Europe. Photographs taken of the 1902 Corby Pole Fair in England show a man being carried down the street on a pole in the Stang Ride fashion. Indeed, incidents of charivari were recorded as late as 1945 - most usually (and rightfully) performed against Nazi sympathizers.

While the charivari has dissipated in popularity - aided by an increasingly interconnected society, a more accessible justice system to right civil wrongs, and in some places the outlawing of such practices - we still maintain some forms of it. Only, they’ve gone digital.

Movements such as #MeToo can be seen as a form of modern charivari. Unwieldy as any movement is, they are a means for those who have little power to enact some form of justice against those who the system in place protects. To invert the traditional balance of power, even if it is only for a little while. Instead of burning the effigy of the king or church, names become hash-tags. Instead of making an abuser or rapist ride ass-backwards on a donkey while being beaten by their victims, they are publicly shamed in a digital forum.

While the internet making the world increasingly smaller it is no wonder that some form of the charivari has erupted and taken on a similarly global approach. As with the charivari, there are detractors to these wide movements. However, those participating in these social movements would argue, just as those who engaged in charivari would argue, it is sometimes necessary to turn the world inside-out, to see the sins of it, to see each other plain, before you can begin to set things back in order with the aim of creating hopefully a more just and compassionate world than existed before.

Discussed: Richelieu and Cats, or, Displays of Opulence

As many of you know, some of my favourite things are dead people, cats, and ridiculous stuff that happened to aforementioned dead people (and cats). Today we're combining all of this to bring you: dead cat people! My personal favourite historical cat person is Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis, 1st Duke of Richelieu and Fronsac (more commonly known as Cardinal Richelieu or The Red Eminence).

Richelieu is perhaps best known for his role as antagonist, and occasional ally, in Dumas’ Three Musketeers. The historical man had a phenomenal career as not only a prince of the Catholic Church but also as France’s Foreign Secretary and eventual “First Minister” to the Crown.

In his role as First Minister he sought to modernize and centralize the French state – focusing it around the monarchy and Paris as opposed to more dispersed units of power that had existed previously. He worked tirelessly to balance the powers on the European stage, particularly those of the Habsburgs who controlled both the Spanish and Austrian thrones. To that end he, and France, were heavily involved in the 30 Years War and other disturbances on the continent. For better and worse he supported French exploration and eventual colonization of what is now Canada. Richelieu was also the headmaster of the Collège de Sorbonne and worked to modernize the institution. He was also the founder of various intellectual and academic societies such as the Académie française.

While his reputation has been that of a quasi-villain, the historical personage is obviously more complicated. In the end, Richelieu’s policies eventually led the establishment of France’s absolute monarchy – brought to the fore by Louis XIV – and France’s hegemony on the European stage.

However, the most important thing to all of us is that the Red Eminence was a crazy cat man.


Displays of Wealth and Cats 
During his lifetime Richelieu (1585-1642) absolutely leaned into the displays of wealth expected of the upper classes. If you did not live like a nobleman then how could anyone take you seriously?

As Hobbes writes in Leviathan, “For let a man (as most men do,) rate themselves at the highest Value they can; yet their Value is no more than it is esteemed by others.”
This was not a world where one’s worth was determined by one’s love and respect of self but by one’s ancestry and rank. Indeed, part of having self-respect was ensuring others were able to see your standing within society and respecting you and your status accordingly. Therefore, how one displayed wealth in the early modern period demonstrated, in a symbolic manner, how one ought to be treated.
An extant letter from a young Richelieu in Paris: “Since I am a bit glorious, I wouldn’t mind showing off more, but for that I would need a lodging [in Paris] where I could be more at ease. What a pity to be a poor noble.” (Richelieu, Lettres, vol. 1)

One way of ensuring that the respect and homage due to one's rank was preserved and not infringed upon was to implement sartorial laws. These laws dictated what each class and profession was allowed to wear. In Florence, for example, only members of certain ranks were allowed to wear kid-leather gloves. Certain colours and fabrics were relegated to certain classes and professions in order to maintain distinction. Sartorial laws were also a means to segregate those perceived as Other from the rest of the population – this particularly impacted sex workers and lepers.
Another manner of displaying wealth was through patronage and charity. Richelieu was a renowned patron of the arts employing, or displaying artwork of, artists such as Philippe de Champaigne, Simon Vouet, and the architect Jacques Lemercier (who designed and built the Palais Cardinal which has been renamed Palais Royal. It houses part of the French government – I believe the Ministry of Culture and the Conseil d’Etat are there but don’t quote me).

With regards to displays of charity – like the Robber Barons of the United States' Guilded Age and Christmas-Time-Only Charity in modernity – it was both a means of securing one’s salvation as well as a means of self-serving display of rank and wealth.


John Donne on excessive displays of charity: 

“In thinks that belong to Action, to Workes, to Charity, there is nothing perfect … there is no worke of ours so good, as that wee can looke for thanks at Gods hands for that worke; no worke, that hath not so much ill mingled with it, as that we need not cry God mercy for that worke. There was so much corruption in the getting, or so much vaine glory in the bestowing, as that no man builds an Hospitall, but his soule lies, though not dead, yet lame in that Hospitall; no man mends a high-way, but he is, though not drowned, yet mired in that way; no man relieves the poore, but he needs reliefe for that reliefe. In all those workes of Charity, the world that hath benefit by them, is bound to confesse and acknowledge a goodnesse, and so call them good workes; but the man that does them, and knows the weaknesses of them, knows they are not good works.” (Donne, Sermons 7, 265) 

[NB: Donne was Protestant (though he was raised Catholic) therefore his views on charity are particular to that school of thought. Catholic and Protestant approaches to acts of charity diverge theologically on what it means for your soul and impact on the afterlife. That said, the above still captures the importance that charity was used to show wealth and rank.]

Donne was not against charity, of course, but he cautioned that overly ostentatious displays of it manifested less civic goodness and duty and more aristocratic ceremonies of display.

This shift on excessive displays of wealth, therefore status, via charity and other civic pageantry is a change wrought about in the early modern period (Medievalists correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure this is a 16th-17th century shift). And it is one that is more an English phenomenon than French.
Richelieu, throughout his life, very much understood and engaged in opulent displays of wealth which corresponded to his social, political, ecclesiastical and personal identity. Much of this stems from his awareness of the importance of appearance and his previous inability to display himself appropriately: What a pity to be a poor noble.

Informing some of his personal anxiety around wealth was the economic instability experienced by the noble classes due to inflation, warfare, and a bankrupt monarchy. Economic stability and security – and the respectability that came with it – were clear realities in Richelieu’s lifetime. Both in his peers at court but also from his own family’s vacillating fortunes.
Aside from his clothes, which were always immaculate and opulent, his Palais Cardinal is one of the more famous displays of wealth and identity. Richelieu initially purchased l’hôtel de Rambouillet for 90,000 francs in 1624 with the intent to construct a much larger and finer house from it. The planning phase began in 1629, led by Lemercier, and construction commenced in 1633 finishing six years later in 1639. The Palais was equipped with sumptuous apartments, a theatre (Richelieu adored theatre and attended shows regularly), but the crowning glory was the galerie des Hommes Illustres which displayed his exemplary art collection. Included in the gallery were four statues and thirty-eight busts from antiquity and twenty-five portraits (including that of Louis XIII and his own) painted by Philippe de Champaigne and Simon Vouet, among other works.

But do you know what the most important part of the Palais was? The Chatterie. 

Yes, dear readers, Richelieu had a room built and dedicated entirely to his cats. There is no way to say: I Am Very Rich than to dedicate a portion of your palace to your cats.


He enjoyed having the animals around like to watch them “gambol about” on his papers. It is a miracle we don’t have extant documents from his tenure with cat paw prints across them. We know that at least in the 1640s he had fourteen cats. That is a goodly amount of cats to own.

Here are some examples of the names Richelieu bestowed upon his beautiful furry friends:
Racan (a famous poet)
Lucifer (just asking for trouble)
Gazette (why, Richelieu?)
Perruque (means “wig”)
Did he adopt the cats or did they adopt him? Unclear. Irrelevant, really. I’m assuming any time he named his cat something like “Mounard the ferocious” it means they were the sweetest thing on the planet and just wanted cuddles. This is the way of cats.
Sadly we know very little about only a few of his blessed companions. There was a museum in Paris dedicated to Richelieu and his cats but is closed in 2007 which is a loss to the world.

Some Cat Facts: 
Rubis sur l'Ongle liked to scratch everything
Pyrame and Thysbe would sleep together with their paws touching, hence why they were named after the famous lovers.
Serpolet enjoyed sunning himself everywhere.
Soumise was Richelieu’s favourite and just wanted cuddles.
Ludovic le Cruel was the resident rat-killer, very important role in rat-infested 17th century Paris.
Ludoviska was rat-catcher's “mistress” which means we all know what Richelieu walked in on one time.
Mounard le Fougueux was a suck for love but simultaneously capricious so he was one of those cats that was like “pet me, pet me, now I attack!”

Upon his death in 1642 Richelieu left the Palais-Cardinal and his art collection to the Crown (the Crown probably would have taken it anyway) but also in his will was money set aside for the safety and well-being of his cats, including the naming of a dedicated cat-care-taker for them.

Richelieu might have run France but that didn’t stop him from loving his cats. Let that be a lesson to us all. 


Early Modern Amputation

I get asked a lot about early modern amputation over on my tumblr so I thought I'd share here some bits and pieces on early modern and Napoleonic amputation. 

In terms of amputations, and learning to live with the end result of such a surgery, by the 18th century there were a lot of advancements made. Both in terms of prosthetics and the surgery itself. This is unsurprising considering the ongoing Seven Years War and resulting number of amputees in need of physick (many arms and legs were blown off by canons).  

Amputation was always a last resort. A sort of “you’ll die if we don’t, and you might die if we do, so your call.” That said, given the limited options at the time amputation did serve as a life-saving operation in many cases. 

If you had a good surgeon the amputation would have been relatively quick, although still painful and dangerous, especially without general anesthetic. Field and naval surgeons were well versed in amputations and had it down to a science. As a soldier or sailor you were in good hands. If you were a common labourer and an accident befell you that necessitated amputation it would depend on your proximity to a large enough town that would have an experienced surgeon. Not that the local barber-surgeon wouldn’t be able to do it; they would! But the efficient removal of the limb might uh … not be efficient. For every surgeon who had it down to a minute and a half there is an equivalent horror story. 

According to Joseph Charriere in his 1712 treatise on surgery, it is recommended for surgeons to 'cut quick with a crooked knife [saw] before covering the stump with the remaining skin.’

Post-surgery, they would stitch and bind the wound. The first four to five weeks would be spent with a very swollen leg and phantom limb-pain might begin to occur at this time. Not everyone experienced it; but it was (and is) not uncommon. 

In general, the healing process would vary depending on infection. Many didn’t survive amputation, either due to shock or gangrene. Napoleon's close friend, Jean Lannes, is one of the more famous cases of an amputee dying post-surgery due to gangrene. If the amputation went poorly people would die anywhere from immediately after to upwards of seven to twelve days later.  

An account of Lannes’ amputation: 

Marshall Jean Lannes, a favorite of Napoleon and someone much admired by Larrey, who was hit by a three-pound ball during the battle of Essling on May 22, 1809, which shattered the left knee and also injured the right thigh, and left Lannes in extremis. Larrey was taken aback by the challenge of this situation. “How my situation was so difficult,” he later recorded. He wanted to offer hope to this brave leader, and yet he could see that the eventual outcome was at best questionable. Larrey knew and admired Lannes, who had been his great friend and his patient also in Syria and Egypt. “I swear that this was one of the most difficult circumstances of my life.” All agreed that an amputation was needed, but no one dared to try it, given the precarious state of the patient. Finally, Larrey quickly amputated the leg, taking less than 2 minutes, and this was well tolerated by Lannes. Lannes was to die at daybreak on May 30, 1809.

–David Welling, “The influence of Dominique Jean Larrey on the art and science of amputations,” Journal of Vascular Surgery, 2010. 

Presuming you’re lucky, and have access to clean bandages and no lingering infection, you could begin moving around a month-or-so after surgery. There was no concept of physical therapy in the modern sense of a strict program to retrain muscles after trauma, but people absolutely made up their own version. 

To get back up to full speed it would take anywhere from six months to a year depending on how quickly the wound healed and support from family and medical professionals. Amputation was a collective endeavour guided as much by communal concerns as by medical ones.

If you were wealthy enough to afford a prosthetic you could start practicing with one around three weeks after the amputation, again, provided there’s been no infection. That said, custom  prosthetics took time to make so you might not have one to work with that quickly after surgery. 

Lingering after effects would possibly have included continued phantom limb syndrome, itching scar tissue, numbness from damaged nerve endings, and increased stress on the cardiovascular system. Grief over the loss of a limb was also a common struggle. These are only a few of the long-term effects of limb loss. 

An aside on the cardiovascular stress: if an amputee lost a large enough limb, let's say the leg from the hip down, that would put a lot of stress on the patient's heart which could lead to significantly lowered life expectancy. In contrast, a below-the-knee amputation still leaves the thigh, an important large muscle needed for circulating blood properly. So if you lost your entire leg you'd face risk of not only infection but also cardiovascular shock and a lowered life expectancy than if you had a below-the-knee surgery. 

By the early 19th century prosthetics were advancing nicely. The intricacies, and attempts to make them as multi-functional as possible, continued to be developed. Some names of pioneering designers of prosthetics included, but is not limited to, Kriegseissen, Jen-Frederic Leschot, and Pierre-Joseph Laurent de Villedeuil.

Circa 1800, James Potts invented a prosthetic leg made of wood for the main leg with a steel knee joint. The foot was articulated and controlled by catgut tendons from the knee to the ankle.

(NB: Catguts are cords made from fibres found in animal intestines [usually goat or sheep]. It was most commonly used as string for instruments as well as for early sutures.)

Obviously, the more money you had the greater access to medical advances you had. Average Jean-Pierre made do with crutches and no prosthetic. If an amputee had some money, but not enough for a tailored prosthetic such as what Laurent and Leschot developed, they’d be able to turn to more “mass market” prosthetics.

E.g: 1811 Maelzel began advertising wooden legs and feet that would allow the wearer to climb steps and mount a horse. In 1813 Prevost advertised hands, arms and legs that were light weight, and equally important, silent. (Prosthetics were noisy. Also, how lightweight is lightweight? Not known.)

Further back in time in the 1690s Pieter Verduyn’s invented the first below-the-knee prosthetic that didn’t lock. This meant it could bend as opposed to Ambrose Pare’s famous 16th-century device that locked at the knee when the person stood so when you walked it was the stiff “peg-leg” walk we think of for pirates. Pare did amazing work in advancing the field of prosthetics and is an interesting figure in the history of medicine, worth reading up on if interested.

The idea of wholeness was very important in the early modern period on through the 19th-century. There was a lot of conflation between mental, physical and spiritual selves and so if you’re not physically “whole” can one therefore be mentally or spiritually? 

As Hillman and Mazzio write on the medieval and early modern view, “Because corporeal parts have individuated functions, locations, and differentiated relations to the body as a whole, they can become concentrated sites where meaning is invested and often apparently stabilized.”

A person's faith also informed their relationship with amputation. Catholics venerated saints and martyrs who were often dismembered. Religious relics were made of severed parts and the body of the saint was often that of a broken body – sometimes made whole by God but not always. That conflation of saintliness with a broken body serves to complicate the perception of wholeness of body and spirit mentioned above.

Amputation highlights the body as a space for fragmentations and dissolution which is both holy and unholy; a representation of the fragmenting person and the fragmenting state, church, and the larger civic body.

Some notes on Early Modern Bodies and Modern Diet Culture

Welcome to Tiny Histories which aren’t as tiny as I expected them to be. The end of August brings us some thoughts and notes on early modern bodies and our modern day diet culture. Each Tiny History will come towards the end of the month and will vary in length and seriousness. If you have any questions or topics you’d like me to explore drop a line and I’ll see what I can do.

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NB on Dates: When I say “early modern” I’m referring to the period running from roughly 1400-1800. I know some medievalists would like to claim the first fifty years of the 15th-century but I won’t let them have it. They can fight me for 1400-1450. I’ll win. I would personally argue that the early modern period ends in 1820/30 but it’s more traditional to have it end in the late 18th-century (late 1700s).


In Devotions upon Emergent Occasions John Donne writes, “man consists of more pieces, more parts, than the world.”
Today we distinguish between theological understandings of the human body and medical; the early modern period saw no need for delineation. That said, one can parse between the two but in doing so we are creating an arbitrary distinction that would not have existed in the minds of the average person from 1400-1800. (And before, I believe the Medieval period also had a similar approach wherein the spiritual and medical were bound up in one another.)
Theologically, the body was believed to be an imperfect representation of God. The body, however imperfect, housed the soul and these two things were both separate and discrete from one another while, simultaneously, being intimately bound up in each other.
Donne’s poem, “The Extasie,” addresses the fraught union of body and soul:

“Our bodies why doe wee forbeare?
They are not ours, though they are not wee, Wee are
The intelligences, they the spheare.
So must pure lovers soules descend
T’affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies.
To’our bodies turne wee then, that so
Weake men on love reveal’d may looks;
Loves mysteries in soules doe grow,
But yet the body in his booke.”

Donne’s union between body and soul is ecstatic but rather a necessary, yet fraught, marriage. For Donne the body has a dual identity – it is negative in that it is a prison and it is positive in that the soul’s experience in the body is necessary to ascend to heaven.
The tension between the body as necessary prison and the body as a representation of God complicates the understanding of physicality. If we are like God, and God is a cosmic whole, our physical forms then necessarily must represent a cosmic whole. Yet, we know from the Original Sin, the human form is corrupted and incomplete. The human body is corrupt yet at the same time it represents God since we were made in his likeness.
There is no gentleness in this duality.


Our body is a fraught place upon which to read identity, relation to space, spirituality and community. It’s even a difficult space to read understandings of sexuality and gender, two aspects of our modern concept of identity we think would be intimately tied to the physical being. And they are and they are not.
The body as a space to achieve perfection is not new in Donne’s lifetime. His poem was merely expressing a common theme wherein we are understood to be imperfect yet were made in the image of perfection. Donne’s poetry long struggles with the marriage of the spiritual and physical and what this means for life-after-death. The need to render perfection when humans by our nature are imperfect is a phenomenal amount of stress to hold within ourselves.
In modernity it’s more often physical perfection we seek rather than spiritual. Although the two – physical and spiritual perfection – have historically been linked. The belief that someone’s physiology reflected their spiritual and moral self has a long and sordid history. The better looking you are the more moral and spiritually correct you must be. This approach, where morality is expected to be represented in our physical being, is what lead to the Cult of Monstrous where people born with differently shaped bodies were thought to be representations of God’s ability to create evil. Thus “ugliness” is “monstrous” which is “evil.”
This concept of outward beauty equating spiritual perfection would later inform racist scientific practices which sought to explain “white superiority” by seeking to show how the white body was more perfect than non-white bodies. This would then give birth to the horror that is eugenics and so on and so forth.
Currently, Western society’s view of perfection most often seeks to conform bodies to a model that is white, thin, able-bodied (not handicapped), “unblemished,” “whole,” and youthful looking. This is what it means to be “good.” Diet literature is the most egregious when it comes to linking self-worth and goodness to the physical form. Especially diets that marry any form of faith to eating habits. We remain like John Donne, reading a desire for purity and perfection into and onto the physical being.
To achieve perfection we have stuffed our bodies into girdles, corsets, stomachers, and compressors of all types. We have worn hair shirts, flagellated ourselves, starved ourselves, gorged ourselves, cut off chunks of ourselves, deposited our body onto hospital floors because we think it undesirable. We think of our body incessantly. We inflict pain on ourselves in order to be more like God, whatever God looks like to you. There’s a strong chance God resembles some unattainable, Western, white beauty standard with no room or acceptance for diverse bodies.  
In doing all of this, we become monstrous to our bodies and each other. How often are we taught to compare ourselves to one another, itemizing how we are less or more perfect than the person next to us. This undermines friendships, family relationships, and causes untold amounts of harm – most often to the people we care about the most.  


Like their Classical and Medieval predecessors, early modern medical professionals (such as they were) subscribed to the humour theory, which informed and was informed-by the theological view of the body.
The humour theory states that there are four humours that make up the human body and in order to achieve perfection one must balance all four. On top of that, and borrowing from the Platonic notion of Ideal Forms, early modern medicine believed there to be only one human body. However, the one human body could exist in two possible forms which were differentiated according to their supposed degrees of perfection (which was informed by the balance of their humours).
In On the Nature of Man, a treatise believed to have been written by Hippocrates, he describes the human body in the following terms:

“The Human body contains blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These are the things that make up its constitution and cause its pains and health. Health is primarily that state in which these constituent substances are in the correct proportion to each other, both in strength and quantity, and are well mixed. Pain occurs when one of the substances presents either a deficiency or an excess, or is separated in the body and not mixed with others.”

The humour theory was popularized by Galen, a 2nd century Roman physician, who laid out the foundations of the theory in his work, On the Temperaments. Medieval and early modern writers built out from there.
The nut-shell version is that there are four humours: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Each of these then corresponds to a temperament.
Black bile = melancholia
Yellow bile = choleric
Phlegm = phlegmatic
Blood = sanguine.
Alongside temperaments, the humours correspond to elements, qualities, age, and organs.
A rough breakdown is below:
Black bile = earth & cold and dry & adulthood & gallbladder
Yellow bile = fire & warm and dry & youth & spleen
Phlegm = water & cold and moist & old age & brain and lungs
Blood = air & warm and moist & infancy & liver
If you were ill it was thought that there was an imbalance of the humours and so treatment focused on restoring balance. Much of the early modern person’s understanding of the world was based on the four humours. It informed what they ate, how they understood gender, medical advice provided, pregnancy, animal taxonomy, and more. Food and rank were also bound up in each other so if you ate above or below your station it was believed that you were increasing your possibility of becoming ill.  
An example comes from the late 14th-century diarist Gregorio Dati who wrote his son advice on how to best avoid the plague. One of his strictures was to encourage the young man not to eat melon. His logic was that melon grows close to the ground and is therefore cold and wet which could cause an imbalance to the man’s natural hot and dry humours making him susceptible to illness. If he must eat melon let him have it with either a dry red wine (which corresponded with hot and dry qualities) or with prosciutto (also hot and dry) to counter balance the negative effect of the melon.
This is, coincidentally, possibly why we eat prosciutto with melon today.
For health diet advice from the early modern period included eating within your rank so as to not become ill. If you’re poor eat food that grows closer to the ground such as turnips, lentils, cabbage. If you’re wealthy eat food that is further from the ground – apples, swans, anything that flies, and so on. Your humours will be better balanced if you eat according to your rank which means your body will be closer to perfection. If you’re ill remedies will depend on your malady – so if you’re feverish you might be advised to eat fish which is cool and wet, if you’re faint you might be advised to drink a warm, dry wine. Weight was rarely a consideration for the early modern person, rather the balancing of your body.


Although we might think it odd, early modern diet advice reads as little different from our modern approach to perfection. The variance is in the end purpose. They sought spiritual purity and to avoiding illness; ours is to perfect the physical aesthetics of our body based on some arbitrary standard imposed upon us by some higher being (HBO’s bad sex scenes; Laguna Beach; Biggest Loser; “Body positive” Instagram accounts run by very tiny white girls). Altering what you intake is key to both approaches.
One common cure for illness from the medieval period through to the 19th-century was purging. This could come in the form of bleedings, inducing vomiting, cuppings and enemas. It was believed that doing so would rid you of the excess humours that were causing an imbalance. Later, as the humour theory went out of fashion, it was believe you were removing general “impurities” that made you susceptible to illness. To purge was to make yourself more balanced, more pure, more perfect.
This is little different than modern “cleanses.” The “juice cleanse’ is perhaps the most ubiquitous. Juice cleanses can range in extremity from drinking only hot water with a little honey and hot pepper flakes in it to having a complex, intense schedule of juices you drink throughout the day. In the end, almost all dieting is about “purging” yourself of “toxins” or fats or carbs in order to make your body more balanced. This form of thinking is right in line with our early modern and medieval ancestors. Both exhibit the belief that purging is a form of perfection and both also exhibit a lack of understanding of how the human body works.


“Ideal” health attained through kale smoothies or leeches. Perfection to be attained through controlled eating whether it’s to balance your humours or to fit arbitrary beauty standards.
Hilary Mantel calls our obsession with extreme dieting a “Holy Disorder” equating our quest to disappear our bodies with the spiritual quests starving nuns went on in the early modern period. Indeed, the length to which we push ourselves in order to achieve spiritual, physical, moral perfection is often unhealthy. This is the case for ourselves and our ancestors. For John Donne and his spiritual counterparts across Christianity – from Protestant to Catholic – hurting yourself physically was a way to become more like Christ. To achieve some piece of God by sharing in the pain of the crucifixion. Suffering in such a way was also a means to alleviate the sins of others. Saint Margaret of Cortona once said, "I want to die of starvation to satiate the poor."
The spiritual and humoural purification through achieving balance is no different in its rituals as our diet culture. We seek to conform in 1418 the same as we seek to conform today. We look at bodies and judge them for their failings. I’ve sat in rooms with women flipping through Facebook pages judging the bodies of relatives saying “I can’t look at her she’s so fat.” I’ve sat in rooms with women lamenting girls who are anorexic, or have other disordered eating, staring at their bodies which are now too skinny.
Hilary Mantel asks us, “Are we threatened by flesh or its opposite?”
“Our bodies why doe wee forbeare? They are not ours, though they are not wee […]” Bodies are not ours, Donne means to speak of God, but we in modernity can look at those lines and understand that our bodies are not ours in that we cannot control them. Our bodies are also not us (though they are not wee). They need not be our only sense of worth and definition. We remain entangled in that fraught relationship between physical and the not-physical; our flesh and our morality.
There will be no perfection.
After all, man consists of more pieces, more parts, than the world. How can anyone think to contain that?