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The Social Body
During the medieval period, society distinguished its people according to their function. Thus, one could be a part of the clergy, a noble, or a worker. Each group had its privileges and duties. At first, the higher titles were hereditary. However, with time, money became more powerful than inheritance. Some individuals agreed to sell noble titles to commoners to gain more wealth. Rich and powerful merchants and judges were allowed to become parts of noble families, while female commoners were given an opportunity to marry into nobility (Wiesner-Hanks 282). Thus, the race to the top began among lower-level people. Having a title meant receiving various opportunities, freeing oneself from taxation, and gaining some actual power over others. While some bought their titles, others tried to earn them by serving in courts.
Over time, the percentage of hereditary nobility lessened more and more, while the classes mixed. This intermixture prompted many people to separate themselves from others. Social classes dressed according to their position, noblemen started to build houses that allowed them to have some privacy from servants and family members. Thus, many tried to honor their status and made it so that refusing to conform to one’s class distinction was seen as a sign of rebellion.
The Writing Body
Personal documents became one of the sources of information not just for historians but for people of that period as well. After becoming literate, many people wanted to share their knowledge, thoughts, or details of daily life with each other through letters and diaries. Many of them were published publicly. One of the documents that give much information about people’s daily activities is Samuel Pepys’s diary, in which he recorded his everyday life and political events. As can be seen in the diary’s entries, Pepys tried to write down every detail, documenting his dinners, travels, and work (Wiesner-Hanks 291). It is interesting that these everyday activities give one an insight into political life as well as Pepys, for example, talks about the Parliament debates.
The Inner Body
Emotions and passions in the minds of medieval physicians and scholars were connected to people’s health. Thus, melancholy was viewed as an illness that could be treated with magic, prayer, music, and other ways of treating other diseases. Love was also perceived as a strong emotion that could significantly affect one’s health. Moreover, all emotions were gender-coded as stereotypes about female and male appropriate emotions formed in the minds of people. For example, passionate love was seen as feminine, while anger as masculine.
The Studied and Treated Body
Medicine and medical theory adhered to many beliefs about the human body. A doctor’s status was not granted to surgeons that participated in treating physical illnesses. On the other hand, physicians that dealt with the internal conditions of the body were called doctors. Women were allowed to become midwives that helped women during birth. However, male doctors later challenged women in this profession as well and were seen as more professional due to their medical education (Wiesner-Hanks 302). However, just as educated physicians, male midwives were expensive. Therefore, rich people were the ones who could afford these specialists and receive the best treatment.
The Deviant Body
People’s religious beliefs along with a created system of norms influenced people’s views on subjects of sex and body. Sexual intercourses were regarded as unlawful not only by individual persons but also by governments. Thus, prostitution, as well as sex and pregnancy outside of marriage, were seen as crimes punishable by law. It should be noted that these crimes mostly affected women as they were deemed criminals for not acting according to their supposed purpose. Moreover, male contraception was initially created not to prevent pregnancies but to help men avoid getting sexually transmitted diseases (Wiesner-Hanks 304). Other crimes included homosexuality and masturbation, where men were punished more severely due to society’s view of sex and reproduction.
Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789. 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2013.