This year’s RSA meeting took place in the beautiful city of Berlin at Humboldt University. This was my first visit to Germany and, of course, the city and I was immediately struck by how friendly and welcoming everyone was. My taxi driver had some free time and so she kindly took me on a tour of some of the city’s famous sites before delivering me safely to the towering Park Inn hotel on the famous Alexanderplatz.
During the conference I attended a range of interesting panels and papers. I started with a panel given by the ‘Domestic Devotions’ project at the university of Cambridge. Maya Corry kicked off proceedings with an investigation of the images produced and intended to help infant boys develop their piety. Corry explained how these images often featured the infant Christ as a mirror to the infant boys who viewed them, and tapped into children’s innate tendency to seek out sensual pleasure and gratification. They were thus markedly different from the devotional images produced for adult women, for example, which focused on the sufferings Christ had endured. Having focused on the role of images in devotion Katie Tycz then explored the ways in which pregnant women utilised ‘breivi’ to protect themselves from harm in labour. ‘Breivi’ she explained were small pouches worn on the body that might contain some herbs but mainly featured holy inscriptions designed to access divine power and grace. They were prayers designed to protect the body that gained further potency through their contact with the body. Finally Deborah Howard considered whether widows in this era developed their own distinctive forms of domestic devotion. A new revelation to me in this paper was the idea that in various parts of Europe widows who remarried were expected to leave their children with the family of their deceased husband. This meant that in certain cases they were configured as cruel and unfeeling. They were also encouraged therefore to remain chaste, celibate, and living in the family home until their children were grown. Through three case studies Howard revealed that widows experiences of devotion were varied and reflected their personal circumstance. This was in contradiction with the advice of the Church who recommended a strict and austere widowhood. This paper beautifully illuminated the ways in which devotion was malleable throughout the life-cycle and was adapted and moulded to fit particular moments of crisis and change.
I moved from devotion and piety to plants and herbals. Dominic Olarin gave a splendid paper investigating the use of impressions to create accurate renderings of plants in the sixteenth century. Leaves from various plants were coated in ink-like materials and then pressed onto a page leaving a clear impression of their outlines and venous systems. Olarin revealed some interesting features of this method though, highlighting that in some cases one leaf would be repressed in order to ‘create’ the image of a plant. Where necessary roots might be pressed but their shape and size, like flowers, meant that these were often painted in after the initial impression. In the second paper in this panel Sefy Hendler revealed that Bronzino Nano’s painting of Morgante, a dwarf from the court of Cosimo in the 1550s, known to show Cosimo’s fondness for hunting small birds with owls, also contains numerous depictions of plants. These plants not only reflected the area in which Cosimo was influential but emphasised Morgante’s physical condition. They metaphorically highlighted Morgante’s contradictory situation as a marvel, monster and beautiful creature. Overall the panel emphasised the need to consider representations of plants across a range of genres, herbals and paintings to understand the meanings they were laden with in early modern society.
Sticking in my areas of interest I also attended a panel on sexual crime in the renaissance. This opened with a fascinating paper by Leah DeVun who revealed the ways in which Lanfranco of Milan and other surgeons approached the difficult question of hermaphrodites bodies. She eloquently explained that in looking at these ambiguous bodies surgeons struggled to understand where sex was in the body. In response surgeons focused not just on the physical shape of the genitals but on their receptiveness to the genitals of others. For Lanfranco excessive female growth was disgusting and a problem because it impeded penile access, and thus inhibited ‘normative’ heterosexual intercourse. This combined with the fear that excessive protuberances stimulated women’s lusts and prompted them to have sex with other women. Attitudes towards hermaphrodites in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, she suggested, became more stringent and it was expected that someone of this nature would choose an active or passive role and stick rigidly within it. To avoid illicit sex they should not use both. In reflection of this surgery adopted a language of naturalness, where they framed their inherently unnatural interventions in the body as a means of restoring nature and the naturally intended body. Surgical discussions of hermaphrodites were not just about sex and gender but were intrinsically bound to discussions about sexuality.
Perhaps my favourite panel of the conference explored the fashion for codpieces in the renaissance. Gaylord Brouhot, in a lavishly illustrated talk, explained the ways in which the codpiece inherently implied stability and peace by highlighting the sexual vigour of European princes. These men, as their codpieces showed, were clearly capable for propagating heirs and maintaining stable dynastic lines. They were thus more exaggerated and were emphasised in portraits produced in troubled times. Codpieces, he argued, used the rhetoric of the anatomical body and its sexuality to show social power and enhance dignity. The upright shape of the codpiece reflected the straightness of body, kingliness of behaviour, and rightness of judgement of the princes of Europe. Victoria Miller, from Cambridge University, then explored the way in which the codpiece gradually diminished over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at the same moment that the peasecod belly came into fashion. The visual focus thus moved from being directed at the genitals themselves to the area just above. However, the new peasecod belly still pointed to the all-important male parts, and was itself a sign of virility and sexuality. Shelling peas, she noted, was a euphemism for copulation and the peasecod was another name for the testicles. Thus even though the actual focus of attention shifted the overall message remained the same. The only difference was that the peasecod belly was also thought to signify wealth and status as its billowing shape emphasised that its wearer was wealthy and could afford to eat voluminous amounts of food, which then created a suitable paunch.
In addition to these papers I also attended an excellent panel on pain and medicine, in which Paolo Savoia convincingly argued that masculinity was a central feature of sixteenth century discussion of the pain associated with plastic surgery. Cowardly men, he explained, were thought to be unsuitable candidates for such procedures. The inability to grin and bear it was a sign of being ignoble. Moreover, surgeons played on this framework to suggest to their potential patients that it necessary to forebear such pain in order to restore the perfection of the face, which was crucial for daily interactions and the maintenance of status.
A close contender for my favourite panel was one about chronicles in early modern Europe. I am not that familiar with this genre but a paper from my doctoral supervisor Alexandra Walsham was enough to tempt me in, and the panel did not disappoint. I learnt a vast amount about an intriguing genre of texts and the ways in which they were used and manipulated by authors and readers. Walsham emphasised that they can be read for snippets of personal memory and self-identification in the same way as diaries. They had a polyvocal quality when produced in the lay and civic realm. In particular looking at the silences and omissions can reveal a lot about what events people wanted associated with their own lives and memories that would be passed down through the generations. The panel was concluded by Judith Pollmann who showed us the delightful drawing of a pig eating a baby, and who revealed the motivations of those keeping and producing such texts. She showed how chronicles were particularly used to record disasters, violence and disruptions to daily life. They were used to record continuity and to try to understand the present and predict the future. They were thus multifunctional and multi-authored documents. Rather than declining over time, she argued, they gradually adapted to the new era of print culture. Now material contained in printed books no longer needed to be included for posterity and instead snippets of interesting and relevant news might be collected and sorted.
My final note shall be on my favourite paper, which was I think given the touch competition, John Gallagher’s paper on language, education and travel in the seventeenth century. In a vivid and engaging paper Gallagher showed how young men travelling to Europe immersed themselves in local life in order to learn the language. They listened to beggars, gathered news from nuns and observed local customs in swearing, eating and drinking. Their method of learning a language was thus based in the everyday as well as in attending universities and church sermons. Gallagher evoked such a clear image of young men travelling that it was hard not to reflect on how poor my own language skills were in this new land. Perhaps next time I come to Germany I will have to spend more time listening and learning from the everyday.