“It’s International Book Week,” many of my Facebook friends’ status updates proclaim this week. They then invite me to take part in the latest meme: going to page 52 or 53 or 54 of our nearest book and typing out the fifth sentence.
These sentences, taken out of context, are sometimes amusing, sometimes curious, and sometimes, just plain gruesome. One friend hastened to clarify that “her” sentence, which featured a woman apparently stroking a sinewy male arm, was not taken from the erotic bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey. Others, it seems, have also taken care to present themselves in a flattering light. The sentences are all miniature masterpieces. It’s clear that not just any book was chosen; rather, these sentences appear to reflect the personalities of their tellers.
It’s a careful balancing act, to be sure. Take my own case, for example. When I noticed the request, I was getting final touches ready for my graduate seminar in Feminist Methodologies and Epistemologies. Among other readings, we’re using Allison Jaggar’s edited collection, Just Methods: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Reader for that course. But I had also just returned from the library, where I’d picked up a brand new book, the 2011 English translation of Michael Stolberg’s 2003 book, Homo patiens. Krankheits- und Körpererfahrung in der Frühen Neuzeit.
Now it’s pretty obvious – at least to me – which book would have the tastier morsel to share. By sharing, I also ensured that my name – and my identity – aligned themselves neatly with Stolberg’s conceptual world. And so I pulled Stolberg into the meme-web and shared sentence five from page 52:
“Tongue biting, which is considered typical today, was hardly ever mentioned, but many patients and their relatives did report foaming at the mouth, and, as a particularly characteristic symptom, thumbs turned inward toward the palm.”
Ten minutes later, I received a satisfyingly disgusted response from my friend. Presentation of self through the words of others successfully completed. You see, it’s all in the packaging. I also carefully used Stolberg’s German title. After all, in North American climes, a German title sounds much more exotic and, indeed, scholarly and intellectual, than this decidedly prosaic English title: Experiencing Illness and the Sick Body in Early Modern Europe. Serviceable, yes. Scintillating, not so much. As a marker of identity, German tongue biting was by far the best option.
So what does Prof. Dr. Stolberg have to say? In essence, he lays out groundwork that will be essential for my own project. Examining a formidable array of primary source documents, among them extensive letter collections, Stolberg paints a picture of how it was that patients experienced and understood their illnesses, and further, how their understandings intersected with those of medical professionals during the early modern period. In this, he extends terrain originally explored and mapped by Barbara Duden in her still revolutionary book, The Woman Beneath the Skin. It also contributes to ongoing conversations in the history of medicine and the history of the body in the early modern period.
With its impressive archival foundations – drawing on material from archival collections in Amsterdam, Arnhem, Avignon, Bamberg, Basel, Bern, Bologna, Bremen, Dresden, Erlangen, Frankfurt, Geneva (phew! I’m exhausted and I’m only at ‘G’!), Hamburg, Köln, Lausanne, Leiden, London, Munich, Nürnberg, Paris, Regensburg, Schwerin, Stuttgart, Utrecht, Weimar and Wiesbaden (and now, I’m definitely out of breath) – this book offers a fantastic overview of the situation across Europe during the period that concerns me most, while still leaving untouched the ideas that interest me most; namely, the role of the body in the construction of political virtue. Body politics. That’s where my heart lies. Unsurprisingly, it’s also where a lot of my blog postings seem to go. Like the fifth sentence of page 52, they, too, function as a sort of autobiographical repository…