Original Introductions

Religion and Authority: Defining Humanity through Patriarchal Dominance

(Team 1)

Jenn C., Marc K., Sarah N., Brittany S.

Our works examine the prevalence of animal trials during the Renaissance through the present.  Throughout the semester we have investigated how these trials first developed out of a need to maintain the separation between human and animal, as defined by religious and social practices. Religious and legal authorities consistently demonstrated the desire to define categories legally; crimes which blurred the line between human and animal, such as bestiality and sodomy, earned the harshest of punishments.  From this information and the concerns it uncovered regarding human and animal, we conducted further research into definitions related specifically to comparisons between animal and female categorizations in society. Our research included how normative definitions developed out of religious ideas, contributed to objectification, and resulted in negative views of the female throughout legal proceedings. This information led us to conclude that religious belief systems and the overarching ideologies that shape their doctrines complicate issues regarding human and animal, male and female, dominance and subordinance. During the Renaissance, animal trials and anti-feminine sentiment were consistently used as methods of reasserting patriarchal dominance in situations where the balance of power  was upset through conflict or disaster. For example, in one village, mice were called to trial for destroying wheat in a season of bad harvest. The need to maintain the separation between the human and animal is not an issue that has been solved. Modern society still grapples with these issues, and the consequences of such practices, even in what is considered the Western or “developed” world, are widely considered as “cultural” issues as opposed to “human” rights violations.

Transformative Stages: Defining Humanity through Transformations on the Elizabethan Stage

(Team 2)

Allison J., Molly M., Miranda W.

Questions about the nature of humanity pervaded Elizabethan culture and society.  The fear of individuals straying from assigned behavioral models was highly prevalent.  In science and medicine, Galenic theory posited a single-sex model of humans in which women’s genitalia were hidden inside the body and the violation of gender models of behavior could alter an individual’s body.  The introduction of blood transfusions raised questions about altering beliefs, behaviors, and physicality through the transfer of blood.  In the face of these issues, Renaissance society struggled to define and understand the seemingly amorphous notion of “humanness.”

Authors of the period demonstrate the struggle to define humanness in their works, especially through the transformations of characters.  As young boys attended Latin grammar schools, which educated students under the humanistic model, they were encouraged to reflect on individuality and to utilized classical texts by Virgil and Ovid in their explorations.  Many 16th and 17th century writers draw on these classical stories within their works, especially tales of transformation and metamorphosis that raise questions about the nature of humanness.

Throughout our research process, the thematic concept of transformation and metamorphosis guided us. We have focused primarily on Elizabethan drama.  Our hope is that an examination of the physical, behavioral, and psychological changes that occur in literature of the period will help further our understanding of “humanness.”  We attempt to construct a definition of “human” in relation to the physical or emotional states used to contrast humanity.  Because most transformations alter individuals from a human state to a non-human state (or vice versa), we chose to examine what differentiates those two states—what qualities and characteristics classify an individual as human?  A common question that runs through much of our research is how transformation and metamorphosis reflect aspects of individuality, such as gender, personality, and behavior.  Understanding how and why individuals transform provides insight into how Renaissance playwrights and audiences distinguish humans from non-human entities.

The Moral Creature: Animal/Human Context in Cautionary Tales and Mythic Vision

(Team 3)

Amy B., Alisha L., Elysia S., Ben S., Sarah W.

Through the span of this course, we have found ourselves continually drawn to the effects and meanings of transformation in Renaissance literature as it regards the human/animal context. Does transformation suggest an upward or downward movement on the scale of humanity? Does it promote religiosity? Was it used as propaganda? Across our variant individual interests, which engage witches, cannibalism, werewolves, and mermaids in fairy tales, we noticed the growing importance of transformation as a means of connecting human characters to the law, as well as to religious dogma.

The figures within our study represent the consequences of breaking laws or neglecting societal structures, as the tales represent losing human status as a punishment for engaging in acts that violate moral or ethical codes. For example: werewolves consort with the devil and possess the capability to transform from animal to human. However, their choice of form is not their own will. It is a marker of their inherent evil or their pact with satanic powers. Through the writing of Perrault in late 16th century, we discovered that such a concept links into the cannibalistic traits of witches. Perrault’s cautionary tales urge readers away from such behaviors and  provide a hierarchy to help children begin integration into the spheres of law and religion. Mermaids, while tied to transformation, do not consort with the devil. However, they are often representative of unbridled female sexuality and were even used by the Catholic Church as examples of shamed women through artistic rendering in cathedral wood cuts.

As literary bodies, these figures complicate the animal/human context by entering into scholarly conversation with each other and with existing criticism regarding Othered bodies. A few of the perspectives we have employed are religious contexts and what transformation can mean as a moral consequence; feminist contexts and what gendered bodies represent before and after transformation; and finally medical contexts and humeral theory as a means of inducing transformation. These ideas have shaped our thoughts and will continue to shape our posts as we push the boundaries of “animal” and complicate our definitions of what it means to be human.

Art and Science During the Renaissance

(Team 4)

Kathleen C., Rachel K., Samantha P.

Aptly encapsulating the spirit of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, “Nothing can be loved or hated unless it is first understood.”    The desire for knowledge served during the period  as a ‘gateway’ into humanistic theory and scientific inquiry, which sought to discover the inner workings of the human body and gain new knowledge of the circulatory system. Although medicinal books increasingly recorded new information about the circulatory system and the  internal organs, primitive concepts of disease survived.  Magical remedies for headaches and evil spirits causing sickness, for example, permeated scientific journals.

Depictions of demons reflected human fears regarding common ills and malicious behaviors related to these queries.   To cope with fears about the human body, Renaissance art depicted spirits and demons to help the humans understand the outside influences manipulating their own  health.  Paintings portraying images of Hell are arguably paintings representing fears of repression or the unknown. Such topics became increasingly grounded in reality as artists began to use perspective to generate realistic and well-defined structures.  The human body was studied for medical reasons but was also studied for artistic reasons as well.  Due to these progressions the human form was a popular subject.

Renaissance music advanced as well.  Women were banned from singing for Masses, though the soprano vocalization became popular.  To accommodate this trend the Church supplied itself with castrati, who maintained their tenor voices even after puberty.  This seemed a brilliant solution to foreclose women’s performance; however, it raised questions of morality within the Church and created a problematic new subsection of humanity within Renaissance society.  Meanwhile, the popularity of madrigal songs within noble circles allowed women to perform in secular spaces and generate names for themselves as musicians and artists.  This too troubled human categories.

Our work explores several these ideas, connecting music and the godly, exploring humanity’s identity through dissection, and examining the demonic in paintings.  We wish to challenge preconceived notions of Renaissance art and science and show how they relate to society today.

Insides and Outsides: Depicting the Body and Complicating Humanness in Early Modern Artistic and Scientific Practice

(Team 5)

Jordan J., Jordan W., Esther W.

Our contemporary world posits science and art as almost entirely separate spheres of knowledge and study, but this perspective was not shared by early modern scholars. Rather, early modern scientific and artistic thought and practice interacted within a dynamic and often liminal space, influencing and reflecting one another’s development as well as shaping emerging social thought. The understanding of this dynamic relationship forms the structural framework for our research and the conclusions drawn in our individual posts. Within this framework, we address how artistic and scientific practice in the Renaissance was actively engaged in distinguishing and complicating definitions of human and animal. Our investigations have brought forth several significant research topics. In our articles, we will address the following: How science and art interact with social anxieties surrounding distinctions between human and animal; How science and art serve as spectacles of human vs. animal value; And how Renaissance artists and scientific minds depicted bestial sexuality and eroticization of female-animal relationships. These individual posts also bring into conversation a number of fascinating historical and social contexts, including the science of witchcraft trials, early modern corpse medicine practices, and attitudes surrounding female beauty, sexuality, and reproduction. It’s a weird a wonderful world, and we hope you enjoy exploring it as much as we have.




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