We assume that many of our bodily functions—sleeping and smiling, for example—are 'natural' and culturally invariant. But their characteristics and expression are heavily influenced by their cultural milieu. Professor Karen Harvey explains how attitudes to the body in the 18th century were radically rethought in the light of changing scientific and cultural views of its nature and function.
Before we get onto your books on the body, I wonder if you could tell me just a bit about how you developed your interest in the subject. Why is it an interesting topic to study as a historian?
The body is something that we all take for granted. The most exciting histories are ones that help us unpack and question what we take for granted.
I’m interested in the body because I think for many of us, bodies are the touchstone of our identity: both a personal identity or sense of self, and also our public identity, how other people see us. From the way that we stand, to the way that we move, and, of course, the way that we look, we’re all trying to project things about who we are and who we want to be. People are also judging us and expecting us to conform to certain expectations about who they think we are and who we should be. All of this takes place in an ever-changing social and cultural context; therefore they are rightly the domain of historians.
“Historians see the body not as unchanging, but as changing”
Essentially, historians see the body not as unchanging, but as changing. I’m interested in particular in the 18th-century body. That’s the period of British history that I work on. For many historians, that period sees some really important changes in the way that people thought about the body—changes related not just to the way that bodies were supposed to look and behave, but also the role that the body played in forming identity.
Historians generally agree that the physical body becomes much more central to both personal and public identities in this period. Perhaps the best example is in relation to race. Historians of race tend to concur that before the 18th century, differences between people tended to be thought about in terms of their different culture, their different languages, or the way they behave. After the 18th century, with the emergence of the discipline of racial science, these differences are now rooted and seated in a body that is defined differently, that is unchanging. Race comes to be seen as rooted in not only colour of skin, but also types of hair, even down to differences in skeletons. So, the 18th century is often regarded as a period where the body becomes even more important—as a kind of naturalised, physical thing—in defining who we are.
We’ll discuss that in more detail when we talk about your books on the body, the first of which is Smell in Eighteenth-Century England: A Social Sense by William Tullett. What story does this book tell us about the body?
This is a great book. It’s the first book by the author and it’s a tour de force. What Tullett tries to do, essentially, is recreate people’s physical experiences of something that is apparently immaterial, sense and smell. And it really succeeds. On that theme of historically exploring things which we often take for granted, the first thing this book does is recreate the landscape of sense in 18th century Britain. It talks of changing ideas about air. It discusses sanitation and mucky smells on the street, drugs, tobacco and perfume. But what’s most important for me about this book is that it shows how, contrary to what we might expect, the story of smell is not one of ‘deodorization’.
“The smile is second nature to some of us. We just assume that it is some kind of almost involuntary reaction to a real emotion … This books blows that out of the water”
In 18th-century Britain, with these new refined towns and culture of politeness, we might expect smells to be stamped on and removed. But actually, Tullett shows that people are using the sense of smell in new ways, and so odour becomes even more important. One of the ways in which it becomes more important is that it is used to help people distinguish between one another. Scent is part of this new world of increasingly demarcated social distinctions, particularly of rank. In this story, the body is both the key to detecting social distinctions through the nose, but also, the way the body smells is key to expressing social distinctions. Different ranks have different scents, and different ranks have different capacities to smell, if that makes sense.
Yes, it does. The whole idea of ‘taste’ in the 18th century covered absolutely everything, didn’t it?
Yes. That’s very interesting. Taste is an aesthetic category in this period. Of course, it works for houses and architecture and works of art, but it also works for smell and food and drink. With the rise of luxury trades, consumer culture, cosmetics and perfume in this period, there are ever more possibilities for divisions and distinctions of taste. Tullett’s book is a really successful social and cultural history of how those distinctions were exploited and used to express other sorts of distinctions between people. It’s very much about identities and the body.
Did upper-class men and women smell the same way and the lower orders smell differently, or was there a big difference in how the sexes perfumed themselves across the board?
Gender is expressed through different sorts of odours, but I think Tullett is more interested in rank. Different orders do have different sorts of odours associated with them, but the author makes the important point that it’s not just the middling and elite orders that smell better—because actually those ranks also delight in different kinds of body odours.
So, it’s not that certain ranks and certain odours go together to the exclusion of other possibilities, but there’s an increasing articulacy or expressiveness about the kinds of smells that are being deployed. And they’re being deployed in a new social world where there are new kinds of public spaces, where people of different ranks are mixing for the first time. It can be quite hard to distinguish between those different kinds of peoples. Smell is one tool that people are using to not only express difference, but also detect difference.
One of the chapters is titled “Metaphoric Odours: Political Corruption and Heavenly Scent”. Were there parallels drawn between this new physical world of odour and the political realm? Did people start to think about politics in an olfactory way? Of course, the idea of corruption in politics and it reeking is much older than the 18th century. But did things change as a result of these new nuances in the 18th century?
That chapter about metaphoric odours is about the way that the language of smell, the ability to smell, olfactory skill and knowledge—that language and those discourses—are deployed in political debate. The language of ‘stink’, for example, was used in criticisms of politicians, particularly visual satires in the government of Robert Walpole. While I’m not sure that’s new, Tullett is showing us yet another way in which the language of smell is important.
Your next book on the body is Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography by Cllifton Crais and Pamela Scully. What story does this book tell us about the body and how it was viewed?
This is such an important book. Its subtitle ‘A Ghost Story and a Biography’ really expresses the challenge that these authors set themselves. It’s an epic micro-history, if you can have such a thing. It tells the story of one woman, Sara Baartman, but also tells a much bigger tale about the black African diaspora and about changes in European ideas of race, all through the narrative of this one woman and her body.
Sara Baartman was born in what is now South Africa in the 1770s, we think. She was brought to Europe, went through Holland to England and finally to Paris, where she died in 1815. Along that journey through Europe, she’s displayed as a physical specimen and as a bodily curiosity. She had very large buttocks and, contemporaries said, distinctive genitalia. There was an interest with her body generally, as a black woman, and she is displayed virtually naked in public. But the interest is in particular parts of her body. And that interest is both scientific, asking questions about what her body tell us about race, but also clearly prurient.
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One of the shocking things about her story is that when she dies in Paris in 1815, she’s dissected by a leading anatomist because her body was thought to hold secrets about what distinguishes black people from white people and, in particular, the Hottentot peoples from everybody else.
The story is quite familiar to 18th-century and early 19th-century historians, and it’s a shocking one. But one of the things that I value about the book is how they move past the really disturbing details and try and tell a much broader history, not just about Baartman, but also about other people like her. For example, when they talk about her years in England, they try to reconstruct the black British community in London. When she arrives in the early 19th century, there are already between 5,000 and 10,000 black people in London. The book is important not only because this is a really extraordinary case, but also because it’s trying to explore histories that are still largely hidden—for example, the story of the black British community in the 18th century.
Tell us a bit about why and how this idea of racial difference based on distinctions like skin colour, rather than culture or religion, emerge in the 18th century. Was that a result of European overseas adventures or misinformed scientific ‘discoveries’? What produced that shift?
It’s all of that. It’s partly that differences become a point of interest because of the increasing frequency of cultural encounters. If you travel and meet people who display what you see as differences, you’re likely to become interested in thinking about the origins of those differences and the causes of those differences.
But cultural encounters were not new in the late 18th century, so that’s not a sufficient explanation at all. This is about the way in which we understand the material world; it’s a much longer story of changing forms of knowledge, in particular changing scientific knowledge, and within that, in relation to the history of the body, changing medical knowledge. It’s a very broad generalization, but in this period, investigators in all sciences are becoming more and more interested in details of the material world.
“Differences become a point of interest because of the increasing frequency of cultural encounters”
Whereas once, all material in whatever form it took may have been thought to express in quite direct ways God’s will, now, different kinds of materials are subject to natural laws, and scientists are interested in determining the differences between these different components of the natural material world. That informs the way that scientists see everything. And medicine is becoming a science, which it hasn’t always been, so it’s subject to that empirical interest in the material world. You see this in so many ways, but it’s very clear and direct in the way that it feeds into understandings of race, gender and (to some extent) rank. Researchers are trying to pin down these identities and categories in something that’s not immaterial but absolutely grounded in the natural, physical world and therefore having a kind of permanence in its materiality.
Did all the analysis at that time about the nature of the material world favour making a big deal of racial distinctions, or were there scientists or philosophers who were saying that actually, if you look at this, all of these differences are fundamentally trivial?
I think it depends on who you read. There are two important caveats. One is that there’s a difference between theory and practice. In medicine, for example, you will find scientific and medical theories about the body which argue that the black African body is completely different to the white European body, right down to its bones.
But in terms of medical practice, there are many practitioners—in Jamaica, for example—who have both black and white patients and they treat them in exactly the same way, or treat them in ways that are particular to the individual, regardless of his or her race or sex. They’re not treating them with reference to these bigger categories, but dealing with the person standing in front of them, that person’s particular disposition and demeanour. So, there’s a difference between theory and practice, even within medicine.
Then there’s the second caveat—and this is the one on which I think historians need to work more. Medicine does not determine the way that everybody thinks about the body; it’s just one set of ideas and practices around the body. In fact, in the work I’m doing at the moment, reading lots of 18th-century letters, the body is understood not through medicine, but through their family knowledge of the body and their personal experiences of it. They’re not drawing on doctors’ ideas to understand what’s going on in their bodies. There are real limits to the extent to which these ideas affect the way people really thought and acted and behaved with one another.
I wanted to ask you a couple other things about Sara Baartman. She was put on display in London, but there was a court case brought against the people who put her on display. I wonder if you could explain a bit more about the reasons the people brought the case against her ‘owners’? Was it because people were appalled that a human being was being treated like this, or was it that they were appalled that people had a prurient interest in her?
It was about her mistreatment. Zachary Macaulay was involved in bringing the case. So, the bigger context of the case is the abolition of slavery. It’s very much about the mistreatment of this black person.
But trying to reconstruct Sara and her personal experiences and her own perspective, when we have so few documents about her in the historical records, is very difficult. The document in which she appears to condone her treatment has to be taken with a huge pinch of salt. Whatever choice she had in the situation, if she had any, was severely circumscribed by her dependence on her owners/masters. I wouldn’t set too much store by her apparent agreement with that declaration.
In 2002, her remains were sent back to South Africa by the French government, weren’t they?
Yes. There’d been growing pressure on the museum to do that.
Pressure within France, or South Africa?
Both, I think. The history of the body as an object is really illuminating—looking at whose bodies are allowed to be objectified in this way. You said it’s a very sad story, and it is a very tragic story, but I don’t think we honour her by focusing just on the tragedy. That’s why I think this book is so important: other people have discussed this case, but this is the only book that really tries to get past the tragedy and to try to understand where she came from, get to some of her experiences, and tell the whole of her story in as much detail as is possible.
And the ‘ghost story’ of the title is a nod to precisely that problem, that she barely exists in the record?
Exactly. This was one of those books that I had in my mind as a model for the one I’ve just written about Mary Toft. You can’t really write a biography of this woman because there just aren’t the documents in the historical record to allow it. It’s a ghost story as well as a biography. It’s a fantastic attempt at both.
Let move on to the next of your books on the body: The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution by Faramerz Dabhoiwala, who we’ve interviewed on our site before. Tell us about this one. What is the sexual revolution that he’s talking about?
I think it’s a valuable synthesis for a public audience, as well as containing lots of the author’s own research, but to talk about this as the first sexual revolution, with this flowering of sexual liberty, raises lots of questions. The first question is, ‘For who?’ And the next, ‘at what cost?’
What story does it tell? What is he suggesting?
Essentially, the story he tells is of the removal of sex and sexuality from the context of religious morality and discipline to the private space of the individual, where the individual has the ability to make personal choices, not based on theology or doctrine, but based on their own desires. So, it tells a tantalizing story, one that appears to uncover the roots of the Western world’s apparent sexual liberty. That’s the first revolution. It comes before the 1960s. For Dabhoiwala, it happens from the middle to the end of the 18th century, but it’s a long process.
It’s a really ambitious book, and he has to be congratulated for its range, because it talks about this change across the 17th and 18th centuries. He uses a huge range of different kinds of historical documents: art history, visual culture, print culture more broadly, court records, diaries, letters, autobiographies. He argues that along with sexual liberty goes sexual expressiveness, but also sexual explicitness. For example, he discusses changing ways of talking about sex, and of depicting sex, including what he calls mass culture and pornography. Much of this feels very modern and very familiar to us. This is about a flowering. It is as if the lid is taken off, and people are at liberty to follow their personal desires.
“The 18th century is often regarded as a period where the body becomes even more important, as a kind of naturalised, physical thing, in defining who we are”
There are some important caveats to the story, though. Very importantly, Dabhoiwala is careful to show that this kind of sexual freedom isn’t actually just a liberation of human sexual urges. He says that the shape of sexual expression is socially constructed, and perhaps most importantly that this newly open, sexually expressive culture is both gender- and hetero-normative. In other words, embedded within this apparent free-for-all and liberty are quite deep-seated and inflexible ideas about gender, masculinity and femininity, and also very powerful ideas about who one should properly desire. That is, one should, of course, really only properly desire a member of the ‘opposite sex’. For example, towards the end of the book he discusses the increase in the persecution and disciplining of homosexuality as part and parcel of this Enlightenment ‘freedom’.
In other words, this is a story that appears to show the origins of our free Western culture, but it’s a distinctively 18th-century modernity and the freedom is not for everybody. Not everybody is at liberty to enjoy sexual liberty. That liberty is much more easily accessible if you’re a man. And liberty is not accessible to you—at least not without fear of persecution—if you desire somebody of the same sex.
Could you say a bit more about what the book says about female sexual liberation? Did views of women’s sexuality and its legitimate expression change in the course of this first sexual revolution?
I find that hard to answer, because the book talks about lots of different types of women, and how this story affects them is just vastly different. He does talk about ‘harlots’ and prostitutes, and actually a lot of the author’s early work was on prostitution, so he knows a lot about the subject. This category of ‘prostitute’ is a crucial element of the story, because it’s the prostitutes who were thought to serve this apparently natural male libido. They’re essential, if men are going to have their release.
Other women have different roles to play in the story. In the chapter on celebrity, for example, there are women who can manipulate their sexual attractiveness in ways that can bring them benefits—fame, celebrity, a fantastic leading role on the stage. We might see those women as being empowered by this sexual expressiveness. But of course, as ever, for women to present themselves as sexual objects is a very limited kind of agency. In the end, it feeds into this deeper idea that women are there for the pleasure of men. I would be really interested in seeing a history of female pleasure; not just sexual pleasure, necessarily, but we could start with that. As yet, there isn’t one. I suppose I would’ve liked to have seen more attention to female sexual desire and sexual pleasure in this work.
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One of this book’s limitations is that he buys into an Enlightenment idea of what sexual liberty actually is. For many people at the time, sex, sexual relationships, and sensual relationships were actually very properly situated within the institution of monogamous heterosexual marriage. Whilst we might see that as conservative, for the vast majority of people in Europe, certainly in Britain, it was the route to personal fulfilment, as well as emotional and financial security.
That was also the route to a religiously satisfying life. The idea that in the 18th century, sex, sexuality and the body could be removed from a religious and moral context is, I think, an over simplification. There’s a great book that I could have chosen by Joanne Begiato and William Gibson, Sex and the Church in the Long Eighteenth Century: Religion, Enlightenment and the Sexual Revolution. It’s a big, wide-ranging book and the piece of the picture that Dabhoiwala doesn’t account for, which is that still, for almost everybody in British society at this time, the Christian Church—and usually a protestant one—is the way in which they view the world. And that includes what they do under the covers with the people that they love.
I get that. But was their thinking at the more radical end of the Enlightenment—among people like Mary Wollstonecraft, perhaps or Godwin—who were actually pointing out that women have a libido, that it was a perfectly healthy thing for it to be satisfied?
Yes. Absolutely. You mention Wollstonecraft. She’s a great example. People completely understood that women also had sexual desires and there are lots of intimate sources—diaries and letters—where you see women and men, husbands and wives, talking about this. Sometimes they’ll talk about it covertly, and sometimes they’ll talk about it more explicitly. Well, if they’re doing that in letters, they’re certainly doing that when they’re together. So, I think it’s absolutely the case that people understood this.
But again, it’s about an appropriate and fulfilling context in which those desires and those kinds of pleasures can be satisfied. And that is still, for most people, marriage. Wollstonecraft is a really interesting example, because one of the things that that Mary Wollstonecraft talks about in really powerful terms is the way that women’s bodies and sensuality have been perverted by trying to satisfy the eyes of men. She gives us a wonderful account of the damage women do themselves when they objectify themselves for the pleasures of somebody else.
In A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she doesn’t talk about what women should do to cultivate their own sexual pleasures or let them flourish in any explicit way. But she’s writing directly to women, irritated with those who assist in their own objectification. She’s very clear that she thinks they should stop behaving in this way. She wants them to think of themselves as independent agents and stop preening themselves for the eyes of somebody else. Wollstonecraft is an excellent example of someone who—probably implicitly—wrote about women’s own desires and pleasures and satisfactions away from how they might be constructed by men.
Let’s move on to Sleep in Early Modern England by Sasha Handley. I’d assumed that sleep would be something that was culturally invariant. But tell me why I’m wrong. What does this book tell us about changing views of the body?
As I said at the start, one of the reasons I love history and one of the reasons that I’m interested in this history of the body is because it often unpicks things that we take for granted. This book really surprised me with its range. Sasha Handley talks about medicine and medical practice. She talks about the material culture of sleep. There are some great discussions, for example, of beds and places where people would sleep, and she also tries to reconstruct people’s physical and emotional experiences of this thing called sleep, which let’s face it, is tricky. Reconstructing any kind of embodied experience in the past is very difficult. But when it’s an experience during which we’re unconscious, that makes it that much more complicated!
The elements of the book I’m interested in are what sleep means and the changing meanings of sleep, because they do change. She talks quite a lot about the spiritual role of sleep, and the role that sleep plays in religious or devotional practice. Then, closer to my own interests, she tells us—it’s a kind of running thread throughout the entire book—what changing understandings of sleep tell us about the body. Before the 18th century, the body is seen as a sort of fleshy container of different sorts of substances called humours, and those humours were thought to determine absolutely everything about your body and your person. There were four humours, each with a different quality and directly related to the environment. Blood, for example, is a hot humour, linked to the elements of fire.
That shifts during the period covered by this book to an understanding of the body that isn’t so much based on humours, but instead on nerves. The nerves of this body are connected to a brain. The body is now a different kind of entity. It’s perceiving the environment through the senses, rather than being directly part of it.
“In 18th-century Britain, with these new refined towns and culture of politeness, we might expect smells to be stamped on and removed. But actually, odour becomes even more important”
One of the wonderful things that Handley does is show how the idea of sleep illuminates that change really neatly. By the end of the book, she’s talking about sensibility and dreams; she’s looking at whether people have sense perception when they’re asleep, and what this tells us about the mind. Sleep is now not merely a physical, ritual process, but more of a psychological practice.
This isn’t a story of a revolution, unlike two of my other book choices, but it is about a changing understanding of the body, and a changing understanding of sleep in that context.
Your final book on the body is The Smile Revolution in 18th-Century Paris by Colin Jones. I suppose the obvious question to ask about this book, provoked by the title, is about the relationship between the smile revolution in 18th-century Paris and the slightly bloodier affair that kicked off in 1789. What’s it about? Is the ‘invention of toothpaste’ part of the story?
This is the only book on my list that’s not about Britain, but it’s going back to this idea I mentioned earlier of unpicking things that we take for granted. The smile is second nature to some of us. We just assume that it is some kind of almost involuntary reaction to a real emotion. Therefore, we might expect it to be ever-present and unchanging in the past. This books blows that out of the water. It really is the story of the changing nature of the smile in 18th-century France, and 18th-century Paris in particular. Jones argues that the relaxed, open-mouthed smile became a more commonly practiced and increasingly acceptable form of bodily communication in Paris over the course of the 18th century.
The smile revolution can be explained through a number of different stories, all of which he tells beautifully. And yes, it is partly about dentistry. Certain people’s teeth are looking better, and this means that a big, open-mouthed smile becomes more permissible, partly because humans have more teeth for longer and they’re in a much better state than they used to be. So, dentistry is really important. But it’s also about other things: it’s about new codes of politeness, which counsel people in very detailed ways about how to use their body—on quite an intimate level. There are lots of discussions about whether you should fart, or can you burp. There’s a lot of detailed advice on how to use your body and how not to use it.
A full, open-mouthed smile becomes more permissible within this culture of politeness, specifically the culture of sensibility, which valorized someone’s open expression of genuine feeling. Again, this is partly about a new urban world of public sociability. But of course, there are only certain people who can or should smile, delimited by wealth, culture and status—all of which provide access to dentistry and thus fantastic, clean, white teeth, or false teeth. So, one uses one’s ability to use this form of bodily communication in expressing your cultural and economic resources quite openly.
Jones also makes the point that this is not just about individuals. It’s about a buoyant, thriving, globally successful French culture, and the smile revolution expresses that. That’s the rise, the Smile Revolution. The fall happens after the French Revolution proper, the advent of the Terror (from 1792) and the closing down of public life. The smile is almost discredited in this dreadful world, in which the promise of later 18th-century France hasn’t delivered. It’s a terrific account that brings together politics and gesture.
I was going to ask about the smile and the decline in courtly culture over the 18th century. Originally, I imagined that there was this artificial, courtly culture that reached its apogee under Louis XIV. Then, in the middle of the 18th century, Rousseau comes along and says, ‘No we need to be natural and get away from this false, alienating civilization.’ And the smile was seen as something that was ‘natural’ and ‘honest’. But what you’re saying is that the smile emerged within that courtly culture. It wasn’t an overt rejection of it.
No, you are right. The French court at the start of the 18th century did not favour open-mouthed smiling, or much facial expression at all. But the elite and middling classes in public life away from the court increasingly favoured a different kind of ‘facial regime’. You point to a really interesting tension that’s characteristic of discussions about the body in this period: the tension between something that is obviously crafted, performed and not genuine, and something that is natural.
I mentioned at the outset that there’s an increasing interest in the naturalized body; nature is a really important concept in 18th-century discussions of the body. It becomes increasingly important through the writings of people like Rousseau, but also others, that all these public expressions of politeness, of sensibility, stem from genuine feeling. Codes of behaviour and of politeness present people with a catch-22: people are trying to practice good taste and good manners by trying to learn how to behave, and at the same time hiding all of that learning and presenting the most natural and genuine expression of feeling that one can muster.
In a way, this is a story about how people try to make a particular sort of practice—the smile, in this case—habitual. It is about repeated bodily habits. Of course, once they’re learned they do appear natural because they are second nature. If you flick through the book, many of the images that Collins picks as exemplifying good smiles are not extreme smiles, because that would be unmannerly and uncultured. They are slightly more visible than the Mona Lisa’s smile, but they are relaxed and easy and suggest a lack of affectation. They are rather genuine, immediate, unmediated responses to fine feelings, positive feelings.
I think Lord Chesterfield, in his letters to his son, says that one shouldn’t laugh audibly.
Yes, and the emphasis on the natural in sensibility is partly a response to Chesterfield’s letters.
And was this just a polite bourgeois or aristocratic thing? Did the lower orders just carry on smiling and laughing unaffectedly with toothless grins throughout the 18th century, or is he suggesting that there’s a broader story about the whole of society?
No, he’s not attempting a general history of society. That’s partly because of the nature of the historical records and the sorts of sources that he’s working with. This is very much about ‘polite society’, the elite and middling ranks in Paris. The kinds of smiles he’s talking about are not sort of bawdy guffaws. And that’s important because he’s talking about the smile as a marker of not only natural, fine feeling, but also of culture and appropriate behaviour. It’s the smile as a marker of social distinction.
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