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European Cultural History of the Middle Ages 101: The Body in the Middle Ages


The body in the Middle Ages was a battlefield between opposing spiritual realities, Heaven and Hell. It was also a manifestation of the soul and the vehicle of sin. Negative aspects of the human nature and the material life were projected onto the body. Illnesses were explained by the moral depravity of either the individual or their ancestors. The lower classes or other socially threatened groups were often depicted as ugly and unnatural. The body was a signifier of the soul, inner value and someone’s stature in life and hierarchy. Despite it being traditionally positioned on the opposite side of the mind/spirit, it was equally vital in representing sanctity and inseparable from existence in the medieval afterlife. As such, it was subject to imposed control by the relevant institutions. As they were proscribing the proper behaviour of the body in everyday life, they also governed it in death. The lack of escape from one’s carnal prison and subsequent identity even in the afterlife could perhaps be read as the everlasting hierarchy of medieval ideology. Everything that lives has a proscribed, fixed place, which remains theirs whether they are alive or dead. The body, rather than the soul, plays a pivotal role in the establishment of God’s eternal dominion by enabling the constant control of the individual. Even though the body has always been a self-evident aspect of human existence, it did not become a popular subject of historical studies until the 1990s, in the context of rising interest in the history and culture of the oppressed groups (Burke, 2006, p. 81). What follows will explore the position of the body in medieval ideologies, encapsulate its importance within the lived experience, and examine the biases concerning different social groups within feudal hierarchy that are coded in the concept of flesh.

This series contains the following six chapters:

3. European Cultural History of the Middle Ages 101: The Body in the Middle Ages

4. European Cultural History of the Middle Ages 101: Medieval and Early Modern Magic

5. European Cultural History of the Middle Ages 101: Private Living Concept

6. European Cultural History of the Middle Ages 101: Medieval Games and Culture

        European Cultural History of the Middle Ages 101: The Body in the Middle Ages

 Figure 1: Wounds. (n.d.).
Figure 1: Wounds. (n.d.).

The Body and its Place in Medieval Christian Ideology

The demonization of the body officially started as a trend in the late Roman period but was not fully rooted in Western spiritual ideology until the triumph of Christianity (LeGoff, 1988 ). The new religion introduced several noted changes to the concept and the role of the body. The mythical story of Genesis’ original sin was transformed from one of intellectual defiance into a sexual misdemeanour, which particularly branded the female body as the source of evil and demonic influence (LeGoff, 1988, p. 83). This interpretation permeated medieval spiritual philosophy and shaped the foundation of the Western idea of strict duality between body and soul/spirit/mind. The division also linked the sexes to oppositional values and further deepened the cultural evaluation of masculine as intellectual and logical and feminine as physical and instinctual. 

God’s own physical incarnation was depicted as a humiliating fate. Even though the concept of an incorporated God was the basis of Christianity as a religion, the role of Christ’s body was subjected to the same attitude as any other. It was a sign of his temporary downfall and was used to suffer punishment for humanity’s sins. In a way, it was designed to be a divine sacrifice. “The body was ergastulum, a slave’s prison for the soul” (LeGoff, 1988, p. 83). This idea represented the core of the Christian relationship between the two - bodies might be prisons, but are necessary for God to be able to assert dominion and impose hierarchy. They are needed to contain the soul. As such, they are subject to scrutiny, which means every physical activity is under surveillance for evaluation, including popular places where people love to spend time, like streets and towns. 

Body, Shame and Towns: How the New Attitude Reshaped Urban Life

The everyday reality of the city was drastically reshaped alongside the Christian reinterpretation of the body. The baths, theatres and other symbols of the ancient cities were closed and became a sign of physical decadence and debauchery (LeGoff, 1988, p. 83). The new urbanity was suspicious towards the public displays of physical comfort or pleasure, as hedonism was linked both with classic paganism and indulgence towards the flesh rather than the soul. The first needed to be kept healthy but not pampered. Still, the appearance of the body was crucial as the reflection of the soul. Illness and deformity were considered to be external manifestations of sins, either personal or familial. For instance, leprosy was believed to be a result of parents violating sexual taboos, like performing intercourse during the menstrual period (Le Goff, 1988, p. 83). 

Figure 2: French School. View Of A City With Laborers Paving Roads Leading Up To The City Gates With Cobbles. (n.d.).
Figure 2: French School. View Of A City With Laborers Paving Roads Leading Up To The City Gates With Cobbles. (n.d.).

The body served as a mirror of the soul, a manifested face of the inner life. Those whose bodies did not conform to the aesthetically pleasing or healthy standards of the time were branded as apparent sinners. In a world of an omnipotent and omniscient God, the sick and the ugly must be guilty of something to deserve such a fate. 

Social hierarchy was firmly expressed through physical depictions as well (LeGoff, 1988, p.84). The noble body was handsome, while the peasants were ugly and deformed. This attitude was present in popular medieval literature and art as an ideological nudge toward the sanctification and naturalization of class stratification. The social hierarchy of the medieval world was not just a form of human organization. It was considered divine, as kings were believed to rule by God’s will, just as the serfs served by the same (LeGoff, 1988, p. 85). 

Body as a Spiritual Tool

The road to spiritual purification and redemption happened via the mortification of the body and practices like asceticism, fasting, sexual chastity and even self-inflicted violence. However despised, the body was a crucial segment of the final salvation. Corporal punishments were often depicted as being a part of the torment process of the sinful spirits. Even the afterlife existence of either the pure or the wrongdoers was tethered to the physical stimuli and the physical experience. The soul was painted as a form of a body, usually a child or a homunculus (LeGoff, 1988, p. 84). “For the men of the Middle Ages, the sacred often revealed itself in such disconcerting interactions between the spiritual and the corporeal. Kings demonstrated their sacred nature by curing scrofula with their touch. The cadavers of saints revealed their sanctity by giving off a fragrant odour. Both divine revelations and diabolical acts were revealed in dreams and visions” (LeGoff, 1988, p. 85). The body was lesser but necessary. The elaborate systems of the divine and earthly hierarchies and social and afterlife positions of individuals were all expressed through the body. It was not revered as the soul but acknowledged as a tool. 

Figure 3: Flagelanti in Spain. (n.d.).
Figure 3: Flagelanti in Spain. (n.d.).

Purgatorial Gesticulation as Symbolism

Gesticulation played a significant role in the visual presentations of the sinful and the chaste. The bodily expression was a code, a signpost for the people to differentiate between those worthy of redemption and those beyond it. The proper individuals were depicted with a sound and sober demeanour while extensive gesticulation and lively expressions were exposing those under the influence of diabolical force (LeGoff, 1988, p. 87). With the growing popularity of Purgatory and its artistic depictions, gesticulation was the main recognition method between the souls in Purgatory and Hell. The souls in Purgatory were visibly engaged in prayer. However, before the 14th century, the recognizable gesture of prayer as a sign of a soul in Purgatory did not exist (LeGoff, 1988, p. 87). 

Sexuality: Between Sin and Institutional Control

Since medieval Christianity redefined the concept of the original sin and turned it into a sexual transgression, with a specific emphasis on the role of the woman, a new attitude towards sexuality started to shape, with its processions of classifications, rules, prohibitions, taboos, and practices. Notably, this attitude existed before but was solidified as the dominant norm during the medieval era. The overall perspective of being in a constant waiting period for the imminent and probably near end of the world, the concern for one’s redemption and purification gained a sense of urgency. If God calls for Judgement Day soon, no time can be wasted to rid humanity of sin (LeGoff, 1988, p. 93). Despite the biblical source material providing many sexual behaviour depictions and even celebrating eroticism and carnal love, especially in the renowned Song of Songs, a need arose to domesticate those themes and reinterpret them to suit the new attitudes. The love songs were allowed as long as they were interpreted purely metaphorically; as a sign of the spiritual union between God and Soul, Christ and its bride, the Church (LeGoff, 1988, p. 95). 

The human body was considered chaste through three states. Virginity, marriage and widowhood (Saint Ambrose, as cited by LeGoff, 1988, p. 96). The classification solved the issue of the impossibility of fulfilling the modesty standards by presenting acceptable forms of physical unions. The ideology was heavily imposed onto the daily lives of medieval people, through the tendency of the Church to proscribe proper sexual conduct by introducing many prohibited days and practices that deserve penance (LeGoff, 1988, p. 100). Apart from marital rules, after the twelfth century, the Church turned against previously tolerated homosexual practices by clearly stating sodomy was a form of heresy and inviting punishment against it (LeGoff, 1988, p. 102). 

Figure 4: A couple in bed. (n.d.).
Figure 4: A couple in bed. (n.d.).

Witches and the State Control of the Early Modern Period

In her book, Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici offers interesting interpretations that intertwine the body, the systemic control, and various changes in the social power dynamics. She explores the transitional period between the Middle Ages and early modernity when the witch hunts peaked. What primarily defined this distinction were two huge systemic shifts. The emergence of a strong state, a unified monarchy with a higher level of control over territories and the slow replacement of the feudal system with capitalism. With the predominance of monetary politics, workers found it more difficult to measure the level of their exploitation and domestic work was no longer treated as real work, which particularly isolated women from the concept of usefulness (Federici, 2004, pp. 21-133).

Federici identified heretic movements as the centres of opposition since the groups often presented an alternative worldview that clashed both with the cleric and feudal elites (Federici, 2004, pp. 21-133). Some of them, like the Cathars, rejected sexuality and reproduction as well as the overall material world, which represented a unique threat to the Church since it attempted to establish complete control over the marital and reproductive affairs of its subjects. According to Foucault, the religious practice of confession was a method of gathering information on the sexual practices and desires of the population to better understand and govern them (Foucault, 1976). The heretics, in whose orders women often played a more significant role than in the official religion, were the first focus of the Inquisition. At the dawn of the early modern era, heresy prosecutions transformed into the notorious “witch hunts” with a woman as the representative of the deviant. The depiction of women in the modern era started with the figure of a savage, insatiable, dangerous witch and ended in the passive, chaste and submissive ideal of the 18th and 19th centuries, as the modern state and economic system experimented with different methods of control over work and reproduction. It was the modern, capitalist state that completely severed women’s ties from mutual community resources and tied them to the home (Federici, 2004, pp. 21-133). 

Figure 5: Inquisition. (n.d.).
Figure 5: Inquisition. (n.d.).

Body and Alienation

Federici adds on Marx and other post-Marxist theorists by emphasizing the process of alienation from the body as a feature inherent to capitalist work relations (Federici, 2004, pp. 133-163). The body was turned into a machine, a mere tool. The medieval attitude towards it was also as a tool, but primarily for the soul. The body served as a midwife to the inner spiritual journey, but modernity turned it into an object. As such, it was more easily conquered, controlled and used. The philosophy of mechanization enhanced the ruling class's control over the natural world including the human body. Once Nature became a Grand Machine, it was easier to understand and conquer. “The body, devoid of its occult powers, could similarly be introduced to the subjugation system” (Foucault 1975, as cited by Federici, 2004. pp. 133-163). 

Class, Beauty and Body

Beauty or ugliness was a visible sign of the inner reality during the medieval period. The nobles were depicted as beautiful while everything unsavoury was projected onto the serfs. The peasants became a symbol of debauchery, an insatiable sinful appetite and a lack of willpower, which was used to naturalize their subjugation (LeGoff, 1988, p. 101). 

Female beauty ideals, found in many literary sources, from Petrarca’s Laura to Iseult, were also marked by the beautification practices of the higher classes. Pale complexion, shaved foreheads, and golden hair were all linked to the noble women’s trends and removed as far as possible from the ordinary folk. In a way, the ideal woman was also distant from the poet by either being married or by insurmountable obstacles. The love that deserved to be immortalized for the medieval troubadour was a divine, platonic, unattainable love. Because of the lady’s unavailability, the sin was removed from the equation (Tomasi, 2021).        

Figure 6: Van Der Weyden, R. (c.1460). Portrait of a Lady.
Figure 6: Van Der Weyden, R. (c.1460). Portrait of a Lady.

Colour symbolism in the Middle Ages, especially hair, often stood for moral values. Golden hair represented the divine light and spirituality, the brightness of spirit, which is why many beloved ladies of poetry had blond hair, but so did the religious characters like angels or Christ himself. Red, on the other hand, was a symbol of moral debauchery and was associated with sinful characters, like Salome (Tomasi, 2021). 

The Body of Christ: Different Phases of the God Incarnate

The figure of Christ has experienced changes throughout the Middle Ages and particularly in the early modern era (Sorabella, 2008). From the passion and the emphasis on the humiliated, tormented form, to the highlighted humanity of Christ that reflected the changed attitude towards the body during the Renaissance period. Christ, just like many other notable characters, became virile, and full of life, following the masculine ideal rather than a haunting, tortured spectre. Different regions and traditions, interestingly, were more drawn to different aspects of his life. For instance, Italy stressed his humanity, emphasizing birth and death, preaching was favoured in Northern Europe during the Reformation, and Baptism was vital for Byzantine art. Early Christianity preferred to depict his miracles (Sorabella, 2008). The medieval God incarnate went from the Roman magician and miracle worker of the early days, via the tormented, suffering flesh to the classical, triumphant hero. The early modernity indulged in the newfound appreciation for antiquity, especially Greek and Roman art, which celebrated the idealized form of the human body. The figure became a symbol of power, status, and moral superiority, in a similar manner in which the noble classes were depicted as beautiful as opposed to the commoners. Ironically, the pinnacle of the prosecution of women was not the Middle Ages, as many still believe, but early modernity. Federici’s interpretation of this fact was the emergence of a powerful state that needed to control bodies, work, and reproduction to prosper (Federici, 2004). It was the Renaissance, the early formation of the modern world that hit the foundations for the specific prosecution of women as witches and the upcoming colonial practices that have forever transformed the medieval world. 

Figure 7: Boticelli, S. (c. 1490-1495). Lamentation over dead Christ.
Figure 7: Boticelli, S. (c. 1490-1495). Lamentation over dead Christ.

Body, Women, Sanctity, and Food

In her book Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, Caroline Walker Bynum explored the curious relationship between women’s religiosity and food (Bynum, 1988). She researched the lives of saints and nuns and laid an intriguing theory about female saints. Unlike their male counterparts who reached higher realms through the mind, for women, the body was a crucial starting point. Women saints often originated in illness. Food was generally omnipresent in medieval imagery, which included religious discourse. From the Eucharist as a form of divine consumption, to the simple importance of nourishment. Those who had access to food were lucky. Selfish consumptive behaviour was considered sinful and sharing was presented as a favoured, even a holy action. Women, according to Bynum, had a particular connection to eating by, for instance, living without it for an extended time. Bynum argued that female sainthood was rooted in the body rather than anything else since women were usually marked as holy if they successfully refrained from bodily functions like eating, drinking, indulging in sexuality or if they survived an illness, deformity or injury (Bynum, 1988). For a man, sanctity was achieved by noted actions, rooted in the mind or spirit. A woman could become holy only by transcending her body, refusing to indulge it in any natural manner.

Early Modern Era and the Emergence of the Colonial Body

The “colonial” body arose with early modernity, a period marked by discovery and conquest. The more frequent contact with “exotic” peoples established new forms of mythic figures: the savage monster and the oversexualized deviant (Federici, 2004, pp. 219-244). These characters appear in Shakespeare as Caliban from The Tempest and the passionate and jealous Othello. The colonial body was often villanized but manifested in different forms. It could be deformed and ugly, frightful to look at, like the peasant or a witch, but was sometimes attractive, handsome, inviting temptation. Caliban, the only native inhabitant of the island where the story takes place, is a literal monster. Othello, in contrast, is a romantic anti-hero, attractive enough to enchant a woman, who then falls victim to his jealous nature, fueled by the manipulative Iago. The colonial character as either a wild beast or a source of sexual temptation has become a Western narrative trope whose influence is felt to this day.

Milleniaristic Movements, the Body and the Birth of Modern Thought

John Gray’s Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia questioned the idea of social progress and proposed a structural ideological continuity between medieval milleniaristic movements and modern ideologies of the 20th century, like Nazism (Gray, 2007). Gray’s main thesis was that medieval religious movements created the fold for the Enlightenment's idea of social and linear progress of history, which subsequently inspired 20th-century totalitarianism. He argued that the ideological model is the same: it presupposes a starting point and a final goal, imitating the Christian model. It was the belief in the upcoming Apocalypse that degraded the body in the medieval hierarchy of priorities since the supervenient Judgement Day clouded the earthly pleasures and shifted the medieval focus onto securing the afterlife for the soul.

Figure 8: Rila Monastery wall painting depicting witches. (n.d.).
Figure 8: Rila Monastery wall painting depicting witches. (n.d.).

The complex relationship between the body and soul implied that the former needed to be sacrificed at the altar of the latter. Torturing the body meant purifying the soul. Corporal punishment, as gruesome as it was, was intended to punish the body to ensure the soul’s salvation sufficiently. In his work Discipline and Punish. The Birth of Prison, Foucault explored a fascinating continuity and transformation of the discipline and punishment systems, stating that the medieval and early modern periods focused on punishing the body instead of the soul, while later modernity shifted the punishment onto the soul. Contemporary systems don’t punish the body. They isolate and imprison the individual, placing the punishment internally through the invention of prisons (Foucault, 1975). 


Body in the medieval period was a challenging concept, standing at the crossroads between oppositions. On one hand, it was used as the basic form of control, with institutions like the Church and the feudal state attempting to govern it on both ideological and practical levels, imposing beliefs, and attitudes and proscribing proper behaviour, even in the most intimate context. On the other hand, individuals used the body as the last resort, exerting their control back to the system. Various cults and sects included beliefs about the body that opposed the dominant discourse. Some, like Cathars, even fully rejected the embodiment, refusing to participate in the sexual and reproductive process, perhaps expressing rebellion against imposed social norms. Systems cannot exist unless they harness the bodies of the individuals into whatever they deem useful, so people often find the only possible manner of resistance includes exerting control over their physical manifestations, even by fully rejecting them. Many contemporary phenomena showcase that the human rejection of the body and/or embodiment itself is an ongoing discussion, even if the context, dominant discourse, and circumstances are different from those of the bygone eras. 

The body was also a marker of morality since physical features were often interpreted as results of moral rights or wrongs. Beauty was equated with the traits of the ruling classes, and, with the rise of colonialism during the early modernity, with eurocentric characteristics. The traits of these beliefs are still present today, with both Eurocentrism and class privilege shaping contemporary beauty ideals. 

Despite its controversial and contradictory status and usage, the body in Christianity is inseparable from the soul. All of the spiritual realms and the quirks of the afterlife are described in carnal metaphors. Although dreaded and looked down on, the body in the dominant Western spirituality is also eternal, the embodiment inescapable even in death, for the institutions to forever threaten control over their earthly subjects. Unlike in some other types of spirituality, the Christian authority extends to the other side of the grave, and the body is the tool for its exertion. In an eternal, divine, God-given hierarchy, the body is a tool that enables the imposition of authority over the soul. Both the state and the medieval Church realized the importance of the government over the body for establishing and maintaining an ideological dominion, while individuals responded in a multitude of manners, simultaneously accepting and rejecting not just the ideological input from above, but their own physical existence, which served to endorse the dominant values of the system as well as rebel against them.

Figure 9: Mortimer, J.H. (1775). Caliban from Twelve Characters from Shakespeare.
Figure 9: Mortimer, J.H. (1775). Caliban from Twelve Characters from Shakespeare.

Bibliographical References

Bynum, C.W. (1988). Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Volume 1) (The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics). University of California Press.

Burke, P. (2006). Što je kulturalna povijest? Izdanja Antibarbarus. Zagreb. 

Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch. Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Autonomedia. Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  

Foucault, M. (1994). Nadzor i kazna: Rađanje zatvora. Informator. Zagreb. (Work originally published in 1975, Gallimard, Paris). 

Foucault, M. (1978). Istorija seksualnosti. Prosveta. Beograd. (Work originally published in 1976, Gallimard, Paris). 

Gray, J. (2007). Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. Farrar, Strauss, and Girox. New York. 

LeGoff, J. (1988). Medieval Imagination. The University of Chicago Press. (Original work published in 1985, Editions Gallimard).

Tomasi, S. (2021). Hair air style from Middle Age to Botticelli. CFA. Art Writing Platform.

Sorabella, J. (2008). Painting the Life of Christ in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays.

Visual Sources


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Ana Avramović

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