The Embodiment of Devotion: art, music and affect in late medieval England

People involved in this project

Principal investigator:

School Humanities
Department History of Arts
Dates 01 January 2011 - 01 Oct 2011
Funder AHRC
Contact person Dr Beth Williamson

More about this project

This project proceeds from the conviction that a proper understanding of medieval religious activity cannot be approached without a consideration of the effect that embodiment, or corporeity, had upon experience. A medieval devotee’s experience of a religious object or a religious space was necessarily visual, sensual and corporeal as much as intellectual. Reconstructing what Paul Binski has called ‘the imaginative universe’ of medieval art and architecture therefore involves acknowledging that imagination itself is embodied, and that all that a human being can imagine, think or feel is conditioned by that individual’s physicality. All that is true for every field of experience, secular as well as religious. But in medieval Christian culture embodiment had an extra dimension: God had become human in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. His physical death on the cross was the central visual sign of Christianity, and the process of his re-incarnation in the Eucharist was its central sacramental event. For that reason, embodiment – being, or becoming, ‘in the flesh’ – carried a particular charge in medieval Christianity. During the last twenty years or so historical constructions of the body and bodily practices have become the subject of serious scholarly investigation. In recent years a greater awareness of the multifaceted nature and implications of ‘embodiment’ have emerged, so that historians of medieval religious culture have become more aware that the body could be not only a fleshly burden, an obstacle to true holiness, but also a vehicle through which to identify with the incarnate Christ and by which to attempt to approach the divine. This provides a good starting point for an investigation of the relationship between embodiment and the affective piety of the late medieval period, and for a consideration of the ways in which medieval Christians negotiated the potentially difficult boundary between physical and sensual opportunity on the one hand, and physical and sensual danger on the other, within their religious practice.