Category Archives: Law and Social Practice

John Dee & Ursula Kemp

By: Erik P.
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My semester long research project was focused on the question of witchcraft and what laws and social polices were made against them. But while researching witches, I also encountered a man named John Dee (1527-1608-9), who was a natural philosopher, occultist, and a widely respected scholar who was called “The Queens Conjuror” (Ankarloo 153). Well known for his book Monas Heiroglyphica, he worked for many years  to speak the language of God (Peterson). In his text, he claims event to have been at the peak of a twelve day mystical state that would revolutionize “astronomy, alchemy, mathematics, [and] linguistics” among many others topics (Peterson).
How did such a man, who performed occult magic literally in an attempt to speak with Angels and learn the language of God, avoid the persecution and accusations of witchcraft that women performing the  same magic experienced (Ankarloo 153)? This question drew me  to contextualize this disparity using the case of a woman who was executed because she was accused of being a witch. Ursula Kemp of St. Osyth was hung in 1582 (Serpell 57) and, according to James Serpell, the accusations against her included “a malicious tongue, loose morals and a harmless friendship with two cats” (57). This was sufficient to justify Ursula’s death; yet Dee, who publicly documented and discussed his efforts, was spared from such punishment.
In order to understand why this occurred, we can look at the time period’s social norms. John Dee was a man; he was very well educated and respected. His work was centered around Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and his book De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres, or, Three Books on Occult Philosophy (Ankarloo 150). For Agrippa, the occult was meant to perfect knowledge and philosophy by understanding the first cause of existence, which is beyond human comprehension (Ankarloo 148). Dee sought this aim and believed that the world was ending (Ankarloo 153). To save mankind, Dee’s work, including the Monas Heiroglyphica, attempted to bridge the “terrestrial and super celestial and ascend true wisdom by means of divine revelations from angelic intermediaries and messengers” (Ankarloo 153).
There were religious objections to this kind of work. Augustine and Aquinas were unequivocally against it occult magic (Clark 219). What Dee, and others like him, did to justify this work was to say that their magic is aimed at Angels and not at demonic power; but Dee and his peers were aware they were skirting a line (Clark 219-20). What Dee and his peers had to protect them were wealthy patrons who supported their work (Ankarloo 153).
As for Ursula Kemp, she was a victim of her community’s suspicion of older, lonely women who took care of cats. As Serpell points out, anyone in possession of a cat, or seen taking care of one, was in danger of being labeled a witch; these animals could be ‘familiars’ or animals with the spirit of a demon (57-8). As for wealthy people owning pets, such as cats or dogs, Serpell says, “they were quite literally above suspicion” because of their ranks (58). These communities targeted older, impoverished women; and what makes it harder to accept this cruelty is that these women were alone and took care of these animals to ease their solitude (Serpell 58).
During this research, I often found that women like Ursula and men like John Dee were separated as two different topics. It is of interest to me, and possibly others, to bring to light what made John Dee so valuable and women like Ursula Kemp as an easy target. By bringing these two people together, we can further quantify how Early Modern culture functioned within law and social practices.
Images Cited: “Frontispiece” in John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica (Antwerp, 1564). Reproduced at Esoteric Archives,
Ankarloo, Bengt, Stuart Clark, and William Monter. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The period of the Witch Trials. Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Print.
Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1997. Print.
Peterson, Joseph H. “John Dee: MONAS HIEROGLYPHICA (‘THE HIEROGLYPHIC MONAD’).” Esoteric Archives. Web.
Serpell, James. In the Company of Animals: A Study of Human-Animal Relationships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

Sodomy Then & Now: “Unnatural” Sexual Practices

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 6.40.49 PMBy Kali E.

What was sodomy in Early Modern England, and how does it relate to homosexuality today? In order to understand the laws and social policies regarding sodomy in in the past, we must first understand the difference between definitions of sodomy then and sodomy now. Sodomy today, as critic Bruce Smith describes it, is “a precise bio-legal term that denotes one particular sexual act” (3). However, in Early Modern England, the term sodomy meant much more than just same-sex sexual acts. According to critic Katherine Crawford, it included “masturbation, several forms of same-sex sexual behavior, bestiality, non-procreative sex (oral or anal most commonly) between a man and a woman, or any form of sex in which conception was impossible” (4). It was more broadly used as a religious offence, a category covering a wide range of transgressive acts including any activity that challenged the “nature” of the church-state authority. Sodomy came under secular state control through the Buggery Act of 1533. This act sentenced anyone found guilty of sodomy—particularly men—to death. The laws against sodomy and other forms of sexual deviance during this time emphasized that those who acted outside the “prescribed” social standards were less human and more animal-like than those who obeyed. For example, in his book, Smith details a journal entry from a man, Henry Hawkes, who traveled to Mexico in the sixteenth century. The journal entry relates some of the sexual practices of the Mexican natives, with Hawkes reporting that the natives “‘are soone drunke, and given to much beastlines, and void of all goodness. In their drunkenness, they use and commit sodomie'” (3). Hawkes believed that what he saw the nativeswas a crime, referring to it as “beastlines” and equating sodomy with the actions of animals.
According to Smith, “For us, sexual activity is a psychological and sociological phenomenon. […] the Renaissance was a period of transition, a time when sex as a moral preoccupation was changing into sex as a subject for self-reflection and intellectual analysis” (10). We have to understand that sexuality for them was much different than it is for us. No one in that time would refer to himself as a “homosexual,” “gay,” or “straight.” Those identities of sexuality simply did not exist. Critic Alan Bray notes that “To talk of an individual in this period as being or not being ‘a homosexual’ is an anachronism and ruinously misleading. The temptation to debauchery, from which homosexuality was not clearly distinguished, was accepted under the common lot, be it ever so abhorred” (16-17).
Essentially, people during the Early Modern era were fearful of what they didn’t understand. They thought any kind of sexual act outside of the social “norm” to be unnatural and bestial; any kind of sex that wasn’t specifically for procreation, did not fall within that social “norm.” Critic William Naphy states that “in practice even procreative sex could be considered unnatural if it was any position other than the missionary (face-to-face, man on top, woman on her back)” (103-104).
Bruce Smith also brings up the argument that “we need to investigate not just what was prohibited but what was actively homoeroticized” (13). He argues that there is a “disparity” between the punishments of law and the apparent “tolerance” displayed in the visual arts and literature. The picture displayed is an engraving from 1506 by Marcantonio Raimondi. Smith comments on the piece in his book. “What are we to make of a culture that could consume popular prints of Apollo Embracing Hayacinth and yet could order hanging for men who acted on the very feelings that inspired that embrace?” (13-14).
Kali is a Senior Creative Writing major at Ball State University. Her specific interest is creative nonfiction writing. She also served two years as the Secretary of Spectrum, Ball State’s LGBTQSA.
Image: Raimondi, Marcantonio. Apollo and Hyacinth. 1506. Engraving. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. Legion of Honor. Web. 29 April 2014. <;.
Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. London: Gay Men’s Press, 1982. Print.
Crawford, Katherine. The Sexual Culture of the French Renaissance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.
Naphy, William. Sex Crimes: from Renaissance to Enlightenment. Tempus Publishing, 2004. Print.
Smith, Bruce. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991. Print.

Public Law & Perceptions of Bestiality

By Emily C.

Prior to the Buggery Act of 1533, the church and its courts handled cases of bestiality, or sexual relations between humans and animals. As Susan Amussen notes regarding English law, “Ordinary law enforcement was local, not national; most punishments were imposed by the quarter sessions and assizes” (11). Therefore, punishments for any criminal activity varied according to location, severity of the crime, and other situational factors. In terms of bestiality, English attitudes were ambiguous at best. Erica Fudge suggests that unwed young men were often the perpetrators of this crime, although there recorded cases against women do exist (22). The church expected young men to wait until marriage to have sexual intercourse. In reaction to the strong body policing, men turned to the only other available option within their rural communities: farm animals.

The Buggery Act of 1533 changed the relatively laid back public perception of bestiality. It made bestiality “a felony without benefit of clergy, and anyone convicted of the offence would ‘suffer such pains of death and losses and penalties of their goods, chattels, debtors, lands, tenements, and hereditaments’’’ (Fudge 20). The law revealed the many anxieties regarding bestiality and the potential half-animal, half-human offspring such relations could produce. Such anxieties were largely religious in nature. But religious officials were not so much concerned with the safety and well-being of the animals (as they did not think that animals had souls at all) as they were with policing human bodies. Many in early modern England considered bestiality a “species pollution” (Thomas 150). In a colonial world, lines between animal and human became sufficiently blurred. As Fudge notes, “The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time when many of the previously held assumptions about humanity were coming under threat. Colonists were bringing back stories of monstrous races which appeared to confirm medieval ideas, and which upset many of the establish perceptions about the final work of the Creation” (22). For the first time, English people had access to the unknown, and they brought back stories of the odd places, often misconstrued and inaccurate narratives. That fed into anxieties about bestiality and the product of animal-human relations, many of Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 6.32.44 PMwhich were the stars of the stories in question. Would a human still be human if he mated with an animal? These anxieties accelerated the criminalization and strong public stance of bestiality, though it was not actually that common. As Courtney Thomas remarked, there was “… [a] discrepancy between the low number of people actually prosecuted for the crime and the comparatively high number of printed materials decrying bestiality as an oft-committed violence” (151). There were several cases of bestiality documented, but not as many as the religious extremist pamphlets would lead one to assume.
As a result of these churning times, the English regarded bestiality as the ultimate sin; unable to comprehend how humans could blur the human-animal divide. Throughout my research, I have returned to this question: did this shift in public perception and opinion happen because bestiality, being a hideous sin, created such a strong negative reaction (along with other sexual crimes like sodomy and masturbation)? Or because religious influences, motivated by extreme anxiety about the growing world, forced the issue? If religion had not been present in policing sexuality (i.e. not allowing church members to engage in masturbation, sodomy, and bestiality), some of the people persecuted for bestiality perhaps would not have done so. After all, it was an extreme form of deviance that happened in situations where there was no sexual reprieve for young unwed men. The church, by policing bodies and sexuality, encouraged what they aimed to destroy.

Emily  is an English literature student at Ball State University. She hopes to go onto graduate school to pursue being a librarian.


Image: “Half Dog, Half Human.” n.d. “Monstrous Acts: Bestiality in Early Modern England.”, Aug. 2000. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.


Amussen, Susan. “Punishment, Discipline, and Power: The Social Meanings of Violence in Early Modern England.” Journal of British Studies 34 (1995): 1-34.


Fudge, Erica. “Monstrous Acts: Bestiality in Early Modern England.” History Today 50.8 (2000): 20-25.


Thomas, Courtney. “‘Not Having God Before His Eyes’: Bestiality in Early Modern England.” Seventeenth Century 26.1 (2011): 149-73.


Law & Deviance: Defining Human Value(s)

By Emily C., Kali E., Sam I., Lisa K., and Erik P.

Our understanding of law and social policies in Early Modern England became clearer as we examined the legislation that intended to identify and punish sexual or religious deviants. With an eye to legal policy, the following research series focuses on intersections among bestiality, sodomy, lycanthropy, witchcraft, and fairies. Our collective research shows that the presence of these seemingly disparate categories of deviance ties figures in each group together, insofar as each threatened English communities’ social conventions and their perception of what constituted a wholly human body under law.

This collection of research looks at the following deviancies and what questions arise. For example homosexual and bestial acts, both considered sodomy under English law, were punishable by death because they violated religious expectations linked to human sexuality. These acts were “unnatural,” as they could never result in the birth of children; worse, they could result in the production of prodigies, or of human/beast hybrids. Laws on lycanthropy resembled sodomy to some extent; but differed in that the deviance was considered a mental rather than physical illness. Still, like sodomy, it could warrant the death penalty.

Laws on witchcraft and the occult were complicated because some figures identified were charged while others were not. For example, John Dee was a prominent philosopher, but also an Occultist. While others of less educational or social status were punished for similar activities, John Dee was free to do as he pleased. Similarly, people could be accused of associating with fairies. In this time period, fairies were thought to be ‘devil spirits,’ often termed familiars, with the ability to corrupt the human soul. Those accused of interacting with fairies were, by definition, corrupting their souls and threatened the sanctity of their human bodies.

What all of these research topics have in common is that a social minority  posed some sort of threat to what was considered mainstream. Our research aims to clarify why, how, and to what extent did these laws  effect the people they targeted.

Inspiring Change by Ending Female Genital Mutilation

By Ahabwe Mugerwa Michael

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women, in part because it constitutes an extreme form of discrimination. Within the practice, girls between eight and fourteen years of age are cut by elderly women who are untrained in medicine and often use unsterilized razor blades or knives. The practice, allegedly, initiates these girls into womanhood and subsequently leads to early marriages.Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 11.16.51 AM

FGM has no health benefits, and the harm it causes victims has both short and long term health consequences, including infection such as HIV from unsterilized instruments, psychological trauma, and, in some cases, death from excessive bleeding. Later in life, FGM can lead to complications in childbirth and increase the risk of the mother and infant mortality (1).

In East Africa, FGM is practiced by several tribes with proponents arguing that it initiates girls into womanhood and increases their chances of being married off. Other tribes believe that cutting off some of parts of the females genitalia like the clitoris reduces cases of girls and married women engaging in sex outside the boundaries of marriage. Promoters of FGM have little regard (if any) for girls and women’s lives lost or for the suffering that they experience after undergoing this cruel and life-threatening ordeal.

Despite the recently passed legislation against Female Genital Mutilation in some East Africa Community member States, hundreds of infants, girls, and women are still forced to undergo the knife. Young girls run away from their homes for fear of undergoing FGM and miss school while others drop out of school. Local political leaders shy from publicly condemning the practice for fear of losing elections; and in some cases they have even helped offenders escape being prosecuted in Courts of law. Girls and women are not informed about their rights and protection provided by the available legislations (2). My visits to communities that practice FGM in Eastern Uganda have exposed to me to the need to continuously inform communities about the dangers of the practice and to empower communities directly to take part in projects and efforts that end FGM. Such community empowerment emerges from increased investment in girls’ education, assisting local rights activists in leading anti-FGM activities, and continuously exposing the dangers of FGM through locally preferred forms such as film, and dance and drama performances, which can easily be used to engage illiterate communities.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 11.20.30 AM During my most recent trip in February to a community that practices FGM in Eastern Uganda, I met girls who had been forced to undergo Female Genital Mutilation and needed collective surgery. As a result of unskilled surgical cutting, many of the girls pass urine uncontrollably and require surgery to fix their fistula. My trip inspired me to work to create positive change in these communities; and I am to help girls live in safer communities that promote their full potential as individuals. I decided to produce a film documentary about girls and women forced to undergo Female Genital Mutilation in order to bring personal stories to the world about girls and women who are either at risk of being forced into FGM or those who have experienced health complications or death as a result of undergoing FGM.  I am now in my final stages to travel to Eastern Uganda, and Western and Central Kenya between April through to May to film and produce the documentary. Via Indiegogo I am raising funds to make film, organize public screenings across  East Africa, and carry out FGM campaigns that organize a procession of hundreds of Activists to deliver a petition to the East Legislative Assembly in Arusha Tanzania.  I am excited by the prospect of reaching to millions of people and inspiring change through film a to make a difference.

FGM is not only a women’s issue. Men must also actively take part in ending Female Genital Mutilation instead of promoting it, as is the case in communities that practice FGM, where men argue that it produces better wives. By educating about the dangers of Female Genital Mutilation and assessing our community needs, we can then shape our own plans to completely stop Female Genital Mutilation. It’s our communal duty to protect and observe women’s rights and human rights, to end the social, cultural, and political causes of Female Genital Mutilation, and, above all, to demand for action from governments.  I am committed to lead the call for change and help girls live healthier lives.


Ahabwe Mugerwa Michael is the founder of two nonprofits in Uganda: ICOD Action Network and Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies. He is the Uganda Ambassador for Global Minorities Alliance.

Currently he serves as an associate consultant with Praxis Consult International, working on a girl-child education program in South Sudan. He previously volunteered with Lawyers Collective as a Uganda research partner in charge of identifying, summarizing, and translating court cases that impact the right to health in Uganda.

In addition to working on ending Female Genital Mutilation in East Africa, he is a food rights advocate and change maker, and he and has 10 years in the non profit sector. Ahabwe is an experienced public speaker with who has shared work both Uganda, South Sudan, and the U.S.


Works Cited:

(1) The World Health Organization, “Female Genital Mutilation,” Fact Sheet No. 241 (February 2014):

(2) Center for Human Rights and Policy Studies:

Image Credits:

Tracy McVeigh and Tara Sutton, The Observer, 24 July 2010.


History Carnival 129: A Brave New Year

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Here at Performing Humanity, we’re thrilled to have a chance to kick off the new year in collaboration with History Carnival.  Over the past month you have nominated some of the most exciting history blogs and articles of December 2013; and we were fascinated to locate trends regarding the human body, its interiority, and what we learn when those interiors are publicly exposed. Some historians were intrigued by the reverse: what do exteriors teach us about humans and their interiors? Furthermore, what relationships do individual bodies have to the systems they build, participate in, control, and are controlled by?

George Campbell Gosling examined the relationships among internal medicine, nutrition, and human compassion during wartime in Japan, telling the story of Cicely Williams and her roles in the Changi Gaol and with the World Health Organization.

Concerned the adornment of the surfaces of human bodies, Mark Patton posted at English Historical Fiction Authors about a cache of 16th-17th century jewels lost during the Great Fire and unearthed in London in 1912. His reflection suggested that such ornaments reveal a great deal more about their owners’ interior sympathies and alliances than one might expect.

Recent work at Women’s History Network continues the trend of focusing on female bodies; in this case, the blog tracks stories from female refugees during WWI and considers the challenges they faced in owning their  bodies, having social agency, and claiming space within their families while confronting international conflict.

A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England highlighted the inside/outside realities of prison, focusing on the role Holloway Prison played for men and women accused of crimes.

With a similar interest, Nancy Bilyeau of English Historical Fiction Authors, considered the Westminster Gate-House Prison and the famous poets and adventurers it once housed.

The Smithsonian’s blog Past Imperfect took us back to the 1980s to consider the emergence of the AIDS epidemic and how a variety of ad campaigns for safe sex dealt with issues of race and sexual orientation. Similar considerations were occurring at Nursing Clio, where Rachel Epp Buller explored the history of the epidemic and how, as a result of changes in social behavior and medical treatment, safe-sex and health advertising campaigns have been able to shift their message from the community and towards individuals.Screen Shot 2013-12-27 at 12.15.58 PM

Ken Owen, at The Junto Blog, discussed how opening American history to acknowledge slavery, contact narratives, and cross-national interactions both helps us to educate our students responsibly about our complex human past, but also poses challenges to survey courses facing time constraints.

While The Junto was concerned with how opening history effects current communities, The History Vault featured an interview with Adrian Teal — the questions du jour emphasized the personal nature of historical studies and research methods.

Across multiple blogs and Twitter, the past, present, and future of the academic profession came under debate, with particular attention to the crisis surrounding contingent and adjunct faculty. In response to news emerging from UC Riverside about its timeline for notifying interview candidates, Rebecca Schuman of Pan Kisses Kafka called a search committee to task for assuming that past approaches to the MLA attendance hold true for scholars emerging into an evolving and increasingly strained market. Claire Potter, of Tenured Radical, responded by drawing attention to the ways social media has changed past approaches to conflict, conflict resolution, and discourse surrounding in-field tension. Chiming in as well, Post Academic in NYC asserted that such debates at times lose sight of the treatment of contingent faculty and graduate students — “unconscionable” treatment that might lead us to question academia’s position qua profession.

Finally, the passing of Nelson Mandela prompted The National Archives’ Rediscovering Black History to repost Tina L. Ligon and Michael Arzate’s post celebrating the leader’s last birthday. Here, the writers performed a photo and narrative retrospective of the fight Mandela led for human rights. Not afraid to tackle the difficult questions of posturing, positioning, and historical revision surrounding Mandela and Apartheid, Jamie Miller asked at The Imperial and Global Forum why our knowledge of the system remains incomplete and what responsibilities we have to fill the lacunae.

Thanks to the talented bloggers whose work we’ve featured, to those who provided nominations, to History Carnival for its collaboration, and to all of our readers for their support!

History Carnival: Call for Submissions

Performing Humanity will be proud to host the first History Carnival edition of 2014!

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Beginning December 1, 2013, we invite you to nominate the most influential, compelling, and otherwise intellectually stimulating history posts from the month of December. In particular, we encourage submissions that promote dialogue that queer conceptions of humanness.

Please fill out this form to submit. We look forward to sharing with you in 2014!

“Blurred Lines” in Popular Culture

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

In Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Louis Althusser asserts that the social process of interpollation offers individuals specific identities and encourages them to accept certain social roles. Rather than functioning through violent force, oppressive ideologies encourage individuals to view and accept themselves as dominant or submissive, for example, with education, mass media, and religion shaping how the individual behaves within the larger group. Ideologies are most effective when they proliferate quietly and invisibly, seeming so much a part of daily life that we simply don’t question them.

Certainly the animalization of women — and women’s sexuality in particular — provides an example of this. As past posts have discussed, early modern women were often described as hyenas, harpies, nags, and horses; the animalistic language associated with women had material effects, and it became socially justifiable to treat women as those animals, disciplining them through the use of the scold’s bridle or through beatings allowed by the Rule of Thumb. While these concepts at times shock modern readers, they aren’t as foreign as they seem. Indeed, these vocabularies persist in political debates regarding women’s sexuality, rape, and reproductive rights. Appearing in overtly public spaces, animalistic language often generates protest reactions: how dare politicians, the state, or other dominant groups belittle women’s humanness? Yet as Althusser noted, we ourselves aid in its perpetuation — interpollated as we are to see popular culture as a “harmless” space.

Take, for example, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” in which the male speaker addresses the “good girl” who, he is convinced, “must want to get nasty” with him (1).  Featured at clubs and on the AT40, the song is also number one on Spotify. Yet the song is more than a simple, catchy tune. As recent  feminist criticism has discussed, the lyrics’ repetition of “you know you want it, you know you want it” echoes the kind of victim-blaming that still accompanies sexual assault in court rooms and the media.  Such debate opens us toward acknowledging that Thicke’s song does more than “blur lines” between the social and sexual expectations placed on men and women,  as  Thicke insists in interviews; it further blurs our ability to identify consent and non-consent and troubles the dichotomy that attempts to define neatly  “good” and “bad” girls (2).

These issues are of clear interest to us at Performing Humanity. Even more relevant to our work is that these arguments get pushed further when we consider how Thicke’s song addresses the lines between animal and human — and human women most of all:

Ok, now he was close, tried to domesticate you

But you’re an animal, baby it’s in your nature

Just let me liberate you

You don’t need no papers

That man is not your maker (1)

In an Althusserian sense, the song taps into and perpetuates conceptions of sexual women as animalistic — language of domestication, taming, breeding, and pedigreeing are part and parcel of this. “Blurred Lines” is, of course, not unique in this sense (one only need turn on the radio, for example, and listen to the lyrics of Flo-Rida’s “Wild Ones”). Things become increasingly complicated, though, when we consider how songs like these also undermine the structures in which they participate. What empowering possibilities exist when we consider that domestication or pedigreed breeding are presented as undesirable? What happens when the voice expressing desire for domination, as in the case of “Wild Ones,” is a woman’s? (3)  After all, in recent scholarship the work of queer theorist and renaissance specialist Melissa Sanchez and, in popular culture, novels such as Fifty Shades of Gray, have drawn attention to the empowering possibilities of transgressive and violent sexualities.

Performing Humanity invites further discussion on all sides of the issue — in Comments or through formal Submissions.



(1) Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines,” Blurred Lines (Star Trak LLC, 2013).

(2) Bruno Nessif, “Robin Thicke Slams ‘Ridiculous’ Criticism Over ‘Blurred Lines’ Lyrics,” E! Online (July 9, 2013).

(3) Flo-Rida, “Wild Ones,” Wild Ones (Atlantic Records, 2013).

History Carnival 122: Humans in the “Natural” World

This past month, Performing Humanity  had the pleasure of reviewing and annotating the most compelling, insightful, and (at times) downright strange blog posts for History Carnival.  Screen Shot 2013-05-12 at 10.55.11 AM

As a site engaged in questions of animal-human definitions, we were unsurprisingly fascinated by the number of sites exploring how humans interact with the natural world–and how such interaction shaped human behavior, blurred categories of natural and unnatural, led to battles for control, and generated fact and  fiction. For example, Terri Windling of Myth & Moor provided a historical overview of the origins and cultural traditions associated in Britain with wild folklore and the figure of “Jack the Green,” who blends natural elements with human form. Lisa Smith at The Sloane Letters Blog detailed the long-standing early modern tradition of linking epilepsy to the cycles of the moon–which suggests an intense tie between human bodies and the wider universe.  For Many Headed Monster, Laura Sangha reported on early astrological traditions and the methods through which humans have traced the stars’ relationship with nature to provide daily advice about topics from crop-planting, to horse-gelding, to avoiding scabs and melancholy.  Also concerned with humans’ knowledge about the universe, Meg Rosenburg of True Anomalies  took up historical approaches to the moon, its geography, and how we have measured and mapped it.

Several blogs drew attention toward humans’ interactions with each other’s living bodies as social and scientific phenomena. Romeo Vitelli, writing for Providentia, explored the strange case of Elizabeth Canning, whose accusations of abduction against her neighbors continues to raise questions about human-to-human violence and the  desire for fame. Dr. Alun Whithey examined how one early Welsh doctor’s childhood curiosity about medicine and the human body led  to a successful surgical career and to his role as  a founding member of “a global super-power” that we now call the US.

Over at The Repository for the Royal Society, Felicity Henderson focused specifically on scientific repositories and the use of animal and human artifacts for early exploration.

The month was also exciting for anyone with a devotion to historical queens and courts. Attending to how queens’  lives mixed high political intrigue with animalistic desires, Get Lost in a Story provided an overview of recent queens’ novels as well as an interview with  fiction writer Barbara Kyle.  More information on Kyle’s work–in addition to a discussion of the role of reason and emotion in the governing styles of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots–appeared at Historical Novel Society.  Historical Tapestry hosted Gillian Bagwell’s report on the events at the Restoration court from July 1660. Engaging history actively through experimentation, Molly Taylor-Poleskey recounted (and recreated) Prince Friedrich Wilhelm’s regular breakfast of beer soup for The Recipes Project.

Discussion also abounded regarding the university’s humanistic traditions and our shifting ethical roles within them. At  Air Minded, independent historian Brett Holman sought to draw further attention and debate toward A. D. Harvey’s recent scholarly transgressions. Michael D. Hattem of The Junto considered how views of the American Revolution have changed in Americanist scholarship. Meanwhile, guest writer David J. Gary also addressed readers of The Junto, considering the moral and pedagogical positions of librarians, the intersecting roles of MA, PhD, and MLS degrees, and provided advice for students emerging in the field.

“An Animal”: Human Behavior, Labels, and Governance

In December of 2012, a lone gun-man walked into an elementary school at Newtown, CT and killed a group of over twenty people that included the school principle, several teachers, and a range of students under the age of 10. As news coverage informed Americans of the tragedy in their midst, pundits, politicians, and activists also began dealing with two large, weighted questions:

What role did gun control play in this event?

Is it too soon to consider the role of gun control in relation to this event?

Representatives from the NRA released several statements, with vice president Wayne LaPierre asserting that the organization stands by its beliefs: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Meanwhile, gun-attack victim Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) visited with the families of victims in order to share communal stories of pain and loss, and several gun-shows in the region were canceled out of respect for survivors in the community.

Students of the humanities will recognize that the debates surrounding both the Newtown shooting specifically and the issue of gun control more generally tap into larger, more long-term vocabularies that questions the foundations of humanity and, in connection, the levels of need for human governance.

Emerging from the bloodshed of the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes composed The Leviathan as a credo on humanity and its governance.  According to Hobbes, human beings struggle with a need for a social contract that will bring them out of a State of Nature and into a cooperative order.  Such order is constructed and can only exist with enforcement because humans are by nature selfish and violent, they share a common tendency to war with others in order to achieve individual survival. In such a situation, life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Clearly cooperative order is more desirable; the problem is that the social contract can only function when all behave according to its law.  So how do you effectively urge such violent creatures to trust one another and to avoid breaking rules when it suits their individual desires?  For Hobbes, the answer is the Leviathan: a singular tyrant whose absolute power coerces the masses into performing the social contract together.

While Hobbes’ approach to human nature and political governance echoes in our own lives (one need only listen to recent debates regarding gun control, for example), he is one of myriad philosophers whose work shapes attitudes toward human nature. Writing 38 years after Hobbes, John Locke posited in his Two Treatises on Human Government that human beings were devoid of violent survival instincts because they were born tabula rosa: blank slates.  Together in the State of Nature, individuals could live in “perfect equality.” Screen Shot 2013-01-05 at 11.19.53 PMThrough socialization and education, humans learn how to generate individual and collective identities; and, for this reason, a humanistic education can teach human beings to create balanced, free societies wherein each individual’s rights count.  Much like Hobbes’ views, Locke’s persist.  Students of American history and politics undoubtedly hear his voice in the Constitution’s assertion of the inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

When we consider contemporary political and legal discussions in our own country and worldwide, what does it mean that two such drastic approaches to humanness exist?  In what ways can they be used to triangulate as we navigate our own humanity?  And to what degree might these debates also signal our role as animals?

After all, humans are not unique in their squabbles, feuds, and power struggles. Animal communities across species experience the same challenges. Wild and domesticated horses turn to the leadership of an alpha-female, who is powerful enough to provide direction and protective strategies and gentle enough to care for weaker omega horses at the lower ends of the herd.  Wolf packs and lion prides, meanwhile, function under the governance of alpha-males who can protect from attacks, lead aggressive strikes against intruders, organize breeding, and direct members toward good hunting. Amidst these groups, leadership is never stable. As documentaries such as Meerkat Manor remind us, even in the animal kingdom there is the odd coup d’etat and a variety of allegiances surrounding them.

Performing Humanity invites submissions from philosophers, cultural theorists, anthropologists, sociologists, and scientists with interest in further discussion of these issues.


Dr. Miranda Nesler is the editor of Performing Humanity and is an assistant professor of Early Modern & Medieval Literature at Ball State University in Indiana.


Image: Shannon Hicks, The Newton Bee (via The Atlantic Wire,


Katy Steinmetz, “The NRA Responds to Newtown.” Time: Swampland (

John Christoffersen, “Gabrielle Giffords’ Newtown Visit.” The Huffington Post (

Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan (London, 1651).

John Locke, The Two Treatises on Human Government (London, 1689).

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