In the news this week: historical heart beats – including the recorded and recovered heartbeat of a Frenchman born in 1769! Just like the photo  that returned me to the eighteenth century, so too does this heartbeat take me back to what has, for a long time now, been “my” era.

One of the fascinating things that I’ve found about studying embodiment is how people’s perceptions of their bodies have shifted across time and space. An eighteenth-century body may have looked very much like a twenty-first century body, but it was not at all experienced the same way. Bodily workings are never just neutral things; it’s never just about tissues and organs and blood flows. Rather, it’s about the meanings that we attach to all of these things. And those meanings emerge in the ways that we understand and live our lives. Eighteenth-century people lived in a completely different world. They dressed in a completely different way (wigs, wigs and more wigs!). They moved through their days in different patterns (no showers! My 9-year-old would be delighted). They ate different foods (although Tissot regularly counsels a diet of moderation….). They sat on different furniture. Their belief systems were different.

Unsurprisingly, their bodily understandings were different, too.

We can laugh at what they thought about their bodies. We can chuckle when we learn that one suffering individual thought his problems were caused by excessive masturbation. We can laugh at what doctors and scientists believed, too. What, indeed, was Tissot thinking when he argued that menstrual blood transformed into breast milk during pregnancy?

But if we’re being honest with ourselves, then we need to laugh at our own beliefs and understandings as well. As Lauren Slater, in Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, reminds us: “Illness, medicine itself, is the ultimate narrative; there is no truth there, as diagnoses come in and out of vogue, as fast as yearly fashions.” (221). What will researchers giggle about two centuries from today?

So why does it matter that we can hear the heartbeat of a 100-year-old Frenchman born in 1769? What can that tell us? Why might it matter? To me, it matters in the way that archival materials matter. The way that historical buildings, paintings, furniture, streets, cups, and teapots matter. They give those of us interested in the stories of the past something to hold onto. Something tangible to touch, to hold … a space through which we can imagine the materiality of past lives.

A heartbeat reminds me that these were real people. That they lived, loved, raged, dreamt, and died. And those tangible reminders are important.


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