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The Variable Body in History


Edited By Chris Mounsey and Stan Booth

The essays in this book explore the different ways the body has been experienced and interpreted in history, from the medieval to the modern period. Challenging the negative perceptions that the term ‘disability’ suggests, the essays together present a mosaic of literary representations of bodies and accounts of real lives lived in their particularity and peculiarity. The book does not attempt to be exhaustive, but rather it celebrates the fact that it is not. By presenting a group of individual cases from different periods in history, the collection demonstrates that any overarching way of describing bodies, or unifying description of the experience of the myriad ways of being in a body, is reductive and unhelpful. The variability of each body in its context is our subject.
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Laughing about and Talking about the Idiot in the Eighteenth Century



The position of the ‘idiot’ in eighteenth-century public discourse cannot be dismissed as marginalized and liminal. Idiots lived before the eyes and in the minds of their communities. They were often the butt of jokes and mocked in slang language, but in an age where raillery and ‘rattle’ (mockery) were valued and universally applied to all sectors of society, this was more a signal of community visibility than an indicator of objectification. In this period, to be seen as lacking in mental faculty was not an inevitable precursor to social exclusion, as it would become in the nineteenth century.


When the Prussian military man, historian and social commentator Johann von Archenholz visited England in the 1780s, he was impressed with London’s street lighting, the affluence of the poorer classes and the growing industrial power of the country. However, he was particularly struck with something more ephemeral: the good humoured tolerance shown towards those who ‘stood out’ in appearance or behaviour. He commented, ‘There, [in England] as everywhere else, they laugh at a ridiculous person, but they treat him with a great deal of indulgence; and they do not esteem a gentleman less on account of his oddity, provided he hurts no one.’ ← 99 | 100 → 1

It was an insightful point. In Britain, which saw itself as the epicentre of a golden age of ridicule and satire, the citizens seemed at times to value and practice above all others...

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