Devoted to the Body: Devotional Practices and Performances in Feminine Spirituality (Session at IMC Leeds 2018)

deadline for submissions: 
September 18, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
Godeline Perk and Lieke Smits, Leiden University


Bodily practices played an important role in medieval devotion, some particularly associated with female believers. One need only think of how devout women kissed manuscripts and rosaries, Beguines performed series of prostrations and genuflections, and nuns constructed own meditational processions through their convents. Some mystics are represented as engaging in more extreme bodily performances. For instance, according to her vita, thirteenth-century beguine Elizabeth of Spalbeek imitated Christ’s Passion in public, resulting in stigmata erupting on her body.    

These different performances can be seen as embodied memory practices. As Mary Carruthers stresses and both modern and medieval thought on memory argue, such patterned movements imprint and arise out of visceral memories. For example, according to embodied mind models in modern psychology, these practices embody, extend and enact memory, embed it a social and cultural context, and imbue it with affective valence. Furthermore, medieval gender theories saw the embodiment of memory as differing by gender: the female mind was thought to be literally more impressionable. Considering this, what can devotional performances tell us about medieval memory, sacra memoria (the sacred memory arts) and the role of gender and the body in these? What embodied experiences do these practices make the performer and spectator remember or forget, and what understanding of God and the (female) body and mind do these practices promote?

Focusing on the twelfth to sixteenth century, this session examines this interplay between interiority and exteriority in gender-inflected devotional performances. It thus nuances the association of feminine spirituality with the body and illuminates medieval women’s devotional strategies and lived experience. We invite papers that explore topics including but not limited to:

- the role of the senses, emotions and imagination in devotional performances

- the relation between outer and inner experience and between immanence and transcendence 

- the reciprocal influence of instructions, performances and accounts

- gendered dimensions of devotional performances, including divergences and conversions between male- and female-authored representations and instructions

- (the interaction between) liturgical and private practices

- devotional practices as part of everyday life, both in lay and monastic contexts

- the role of images and material objects in devotional practices

- medieval responses to the somatic nature of these devotional performances

We welcome papers drawing on a wide range of methodologies and from any discipline. Please send your abstract (up to 300 words) for a 20-minute paper and a short biography, stating your academic affiliation, to both Godelinde Perk ( and Lieke Smits ( by September 18, 2017.
Please feel free to circulate among interested parties.