Reading Body Language: Digestion, Boundaries, and Community in the Middle Ages

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Danielle Wu, Cornell University
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In the Norwich heresy trials, a Lollard named Margery Baxter shocked her interrogators by claiming that, if the Eucharist were the body of Christ, then one could find Christ's body in pieces in all the local privies. In her reply, Baxter shrewdly recognizes that the test of heresy in the interrogators' questioning is a test of the body - whether Baxter takes in the body of Christ as they do and so belongs in their community of like bodies. Baxter's response, by identifying the bodies of her interrogators and their community as foul, turns around their attempts to define and expel her from the body of the Church.
Baxter's claim, provocative as it may sound to the modern reader, enters into long-standing medieval debates about not only the nature of the Eucharist but also one's physical body and its place in the formation and maintenance of community. This panel focuses on how medieval communities were defined and constituted by single and multiple bodies, which were in constant negotiation and coordination with one another. How, for instance, do individuals like Baxter and her interrogators stake out their respective communities through the singular body of Christ and their own multiple bodies? How is individual and corporate identity established in relation to other bodies--that of the polity, the monastery or the comitatus? How are the bodily processes - from the down and dirty bodily waste to the elevated "digestion" of ruminatio - considered and called upon to make a community of bodies cohere?
This panel, by calling attention not only to the external practices of the body but also its internal processes, asks for further thought on how bodies in their very basic functions are imbued with meaning, to the point of granting membership to a spiritual or other community. The question we would like to raise is not only how individual bodies are construed, but also how the body of their community is problematized in turn. We seek to challenge critical practices that often examine bodies in singular ways – whether metaphorical or literal – and open up discussion about multiple, co-existing bodies, which can be meaningful simultaneously in even contradictory yet productive ways. We believe this panel also affords a middle ground between debates of medieval selfhood and medieval bodies by making a distinction between the two, such that you can have a unitary body and yet an individual sense of self. Issues of communal embodiment become especially pressing, for instance, at moments of conquest or migration, when one body is incorporated into another, and raise concerns about annihilation, revulsion, and boundaries. At the same time, we hope that this panel offers an interdisciplinary way for scholars to bridge sometimes separate interests, from medieval medicine to the virago and transvestite saints, as well as give an opportunity to generate new thought within contemporary theory.