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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


FR Early Modern: Searching for Happiness

FR Early Modern: Body and Soul: Sensory Connections in the Early Modern Period

Course Convenor: Prof Emma Gilby, Section of French (

Increasingly, the humanities are engaging in conversations and collaborative work on the subject of mental and bodily health and wholeness. It is acknowledged that the World Health Organisation definition of health – ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ – needs to be tested and questioned in all the many diverse fields in which we study corporeality, the senses, and the interconnections between body and soul. Precisely because concepts such as health and disease can be difficult to define, embodying value judgements and activating a metaphorical, sensory language, we need to consider their history: how they have been articulated over time. Early modern France offers us a particularly rich set of resources for considering sensory experience and how it frames concepts of wellness or disease (etymologically, ‘lack of ease’). Montaigne uses his own body, in sickness and in health, as a source of knowledge. Descartes’s meditating subject foregrounds the subject as sensitive even in tracing the paths taken by the intellect: his ‘I’ is a thing that thinks, affirms, denies, wills, imagines and senses. The wider philosophical and religious writing of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is marked by a conflict between this-worldly and divine conceptions of infirmity and health: the senses are a key battleground here. Literary traditions such as Petrarchism and neo-Platonism advance the claim that sensuality and the expression of love are central to human experience and development, and a potential source of comfort – though often an actual source of suffering when, against a standardly Stoic view, one’s own sense of self seems dependent upon another person’s attitude. Writers for the stage explore the full agitation of our feelings and emotions, activating sensual experience through the eruptive energy of sound and music. They ask what it might mean for us to be ‘touched’ by what we see and hear, and whether this can do us good. Meanwhile, taste and smell conjure up shared pleasures and connections to previously alien worlds. Throughout, engagement with other cultures, along with the sensory shocks this brings with it, leads to self-interrogation about European ideas of fulfilment. We look forward to discussing how the early modern period conceptualizes the senses across body and soul.
There will normally be a maximum capacity of 14 for this module.

Preliminary Reading
Jordanova, L. (2021). Medicine and the Senses: Towards Integrative Practices, European Journal for the History of Medicine and Health, 78(1), 155-180. doi:
Roodenburg, ed. A Cultural History of the Senses in the Renaissance:
Vila, ed., A Cultural History of the Senses in the Age of Enlightenment

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