THP Research Project 2021

The second call for applications to award fellowships for advanced studies on

Political Thought and the Body: Europe and East Asia, ca. 1100-1650

Medieval and early modern historians of Europe are familiar with the metaphor of the body politic. A given community (the city, the church, the kingdom, the guild, the state, the nation etc.) is imagined as a body (mystical, human, animal, monstrous…) and the parallel thus established provides speakers and writers with tools to argue a variety of political points. The body metaphor could evoke ideas of unity, interdependence, hierarchy, biological need, illness, integrity, fertility, and so on, and transfer such ideas onto the political plan. The body politic was also gendered, and gendering expanded in specific ways the socio-sexual implications of the metaphor. An elaborate theoretical use of the metaphor is present already in the Greek and Roman tradition, as well as the Pauline epistles; Muslim thinkers steeped in the Aristotelian tradition, such as al-Farabi (872-950), expanded its political meaning, particularly with medical connotations. From the twelfth century onwards in Europe the body metaphor underpinned theories of the corporation in legal thought, where imagining a collectivity as a corpus played a fundamental role in developing an idea of legal personhood separate from human individuals, scholastic ethical-political theory, ecclesiastical discourse about and against heresy and conciliarism, as well as early modern political thought and religious polemic. The metaphor was indeed a focal point of many texts of explicit political theory, from John of Salisbury, to Marsilius of Padua, to Christine de Pizan, to Thomas Hobbes. For the philosopher Hans Blumenberg, who traced an original path to a ‘metaphorology’ from Ernst Cassirer’s theory of symbolic forms, late medieval and early modern European thought was informed by contrasting (and interactive) ‘absolute metaphors’, including organic and mechanic metaphors.

If the use of the body-politic in theoretical texts has received sustained historical attention, the same cannot be said of the use of the metaphor in ordinary political languages. The body-politic metaphor circulated widely beyond clerical-learned circles and was used commonly in political language, as shown by documents as diverse as letters, sermons, court records, minutes of councils, or political poems. The diffusion, persistence and multivalence of the body-politic metaphor in the ordinary political languages of medieval and early modern Europe suggest that it played a fundamental role as a conceptual enabler of political imagination and debate.

Body-derived political metaphors have not been as central in the historiography on pre-modern East Asian political thought (East Asia here defined as the Sinosphere, or the area of diffusion of Chinese characters, including China, Korea, Japan, and to an extent Vietnam). In early Chinese, and especially Daoist, traditions the correlation between the body (particularly but not only 形, xing, the body-form) and the state, rule over the state and rule over the body, played a role in both thought and ritual. Such a correlation was part of a widespread correlative understanding of the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm. Interestingly, in those early Daoist texts where the correlation is an explicit object of reflection, it is often the state that is used to illustrate and explain the body, for the purposes of self-cultivation and religious practice, which included the visualisation of the body as an inner landscape. Buddhist and Neo-Confucian thought interacted with Daoist principles for much of the intellectual history of East Asia, and an engagement with correlative ideas about the body and the polity emerges in a rather fragmentary way in some sources or studies of individual writers or schools. ‘The Son of Heaven is the head, the princes are the hands and feet; they may be called one body’ wrote the historian Song Lien in a mirror for the imperial children in 1373. A Ming regional inspector writing in 1516 could equate the people of the southern provinces to ‘the blood and the qi’ flowing to the ‘heart’ of empire, Beijing. In Muromachi Japan bands of warriors forming an ikki or league swore to be ‘one body’ and a radical Pure Land Buddhist religious leader such as Rennyo assimilated the community of believers to his ‘own body’. There are also clear, if underdeveloped, clues that the complex symbolic meanings ascribed, particularly through ritual, to the body of the Emperor referred to a correlative nexus between his body and the country.

This project is first historical study of body-derived metaphors in both East Asian and European political languages of the pre-modern era. The chronology adopted (ca. 1100 to ca. 1650) is a deliberate effort to avoid the Euro-centric or Sino-centric perspectives that inform established chronologies. While the start and end dates should be understood as generic, the period under consideration presents some elements of coherence both in European and East Asian historiographies. Intellectual history is dominated by scholastic and anti-scholastic learning in Europe, in East Asia by Neo-Confucian discourse and its relationship to Buddhist and Daoist thought, as well as folk beliefs. In both areas by the reception of and commentary on authoritative ‘classical’ texts played a fundamental role in structuring official learning. In Europe and East Asia the diffusion and vernacularisation of learning increased during this period, aided by higher rates of literacy and the technology of movable-type printing. This period is, importantly, one of diverse, and in many instances precarious, state-forms, punctuated by major episodes of revolt against political authority. Finally, this period encompasses two early phases of globalisation and intensified interaction between Europe and East Asia, the first during the Mongol rule, the second as a result of the first European and Chinese oceanic explorations.

The project interrogates categories such as modern/pre-modern, individual/community, insiders/outsiders and aims to generate one of the first examples of comparative intellectual history of the world before 1700. The core objectives are four:

  1. to describe usages and functions of body-derived metaphors in the political languages, theoretical and pragmatic, of Europe and East Asia in the period from ca. 1100 to ca. 1650, in parallel with changes in understandings of the human-animal body and the polity;
  2. to analyse differences, similarities, and interactions in the conceptualisation of the body and the polity through metaphorical means, within and between pre-modern Europe and East Asia;
  3. to provide case-studies testing the performative role of metaphorical utterances in political discourse and their change over time;
  4. to interrogate both the universality of body metaphors and the absolute ‘otherness’ of distant cultural areas.

Comparison remains a perilous endeavour for historians, yet also an exciting and perhaps ultimately unavoidable one. The historian’s interpretation of particularity and individual contexts is always framed by a more or less broad comparative background, which remains often implicit and unsystematic. Since Marc Bloch’s reflections on the dangers of a comparative history of ‘unrelated’ cultures, and his attempt to use the idea of Japanese ‘feudal society’ in relation to the European Middle Ages, medievalists in particular have been rather wary of comparative histories on a global scale. Methods for connected histories and histoires croisées have been developed particularly by early modern and modern historians, and this fact is not unrelated to the established chronology of globalisation. Comparative history on a Eurasian scale, however, is proving to be an increasingly interesting and fertile field of discussion and methodological innovation for medievalists, as the idea of the ‘global Middle Ages’ gains traction in both research and teaching.

The project’s focus on metaphor as its main unit of analysis requires a substantial effort of methodological innovation. The history of political thought has moved away, since the late 1970s, from the reification of trans-historical ‘ideas’ in favour of a contextualist approach, and has experimented with ‘concepts’ or ‘Begriffe’ as objects of historical analysis, alongside more traditional studies centred on the ‘thought’ of individual writers. The project treats political languages as performative, shaped by political reality and in turn shaping it, in a process where borrowings, re-signification and mis-interpretation are common. The usage and meaning of body metaphors wasn’t limited to texts: on the contrary, images (and rituals) contributed significantly to this discourse, and have not been integrated in a sustained manner in the existing literature, aside from case-studies such as the famous frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, designed by the author himself.

The project’s vast geographical and chronological scope is its greatest challenge and its greatest potential. It requires a diversity of expertise that can only be achieved as a collaborative enterprise. The project’s team will be composed of a group of scholars with expertise in European and East Asian cultural, intellectual and political history. The coherence of the project as a whole is the product not only of the common focus on the body-politic metaphor, but also of the methodological convergence that will result from regular interaction and exchange for the duration of the project.

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Director of Studies

Serena Ferente is a professor of Medieval History in the History Department of the University of Amsterdam.

Call for applications THP 2021