Deceitful bodies by Stephanie Fern Allen

In our latest blog, Stephanie Allen gives us an insight into historical notions of body modification and manipulation.

In the twenty-first century, we are becoming encouraged to embrace our bodies as they are. To showcase their qualities and embrace the natural flaws we were born with. Advertising campaigns such as Dove and Malteasers are showing society that all types of bodies are beautiful, whether they be petite, curvy, tall, scarred or disabled. These days self-expression and self-identity is very much reflected in how our bodies are presented, we choose which elements to enhance and which to cover up. I claim that this mentality existed in early modern England, some methods varied between social contexts and over time, but ultimately individuals were responsible for how they presented their bodies and the performances they enacted using them.

Like today, early modern English society had expectations of how the body should look and perform in everyday life. My thesis investigates the different ways in which the body was susceptible to manipulation and alteration for specific purposes. Many of the themes I address are reflected in modern day society, such as my discussion on prosthetics and makeup. In early modern England their use was only acceptable in certain contexts and if the individual was using them for the right reasons. Makeup was not to be used to create artificial beauty, nor to manipulate men. Instead it was to be used to emphasise the naturally beautiful qualities of the face and merely present the wearer in their best light. Many texts which addressed the use of cosmetics were intended for a female audience, even though it was known that men also used them, especially if they worked in the theatre. Prosthetics were accepted when they were used to increase the wearers mobility and the performance of every day actions as well as completing the visual appearance of a complete body. Some types of prostheses such as false noses and ears were clearly fake and would not have gone unnoticed. These types of embellishments mean that we can, perhaps, claim that many wearers did not wear them in order to appease social expectations or to enhance other’s perceptions of them, but instead for their perception of themselves. They were tools used to redefine the appearance of their body as they filled voids and assisted the wearer to feel more complete.

My thesis also argues that some chose to alter their bodies for financial profit. Society, both then and now, has concerns about duplicity and deception by individuals who attempt to defraud the social systems constructed to assist those most in need. In early modern England many fraudulent beggars took to the streets to beg for financial aid, and some approached individual houses as they attempted to personalise their performance to a specific audience. Fraudulent beggars were known to damage their bodies by using herbal and chemical concoctions to create sores, replicate scars or limit the use of a limb. Some chose to minimise the ability of one of their senses such as sight or hearing, and others falsified mental illness. These tactics were usually used by men, while many sources such as Canting Dictionaries referred to female beggars who played on their reproductive qualities or motherhood to commit fraud rather than the redefinition and alteration of their body and physical qualities. False beggars have been a feature of historical interest already, and they have a clear resonance with modern day concerns about benefits fraud.

The final element of my thesis is the investigation of recreated virginity. It uses medical texts and popular works alongside John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, otherwise known as Fanny Hill, to claim that false virginity was a social concern but was also eroticised and desired by some men. Many of the beliefs held by early modern men and women about virginity and its social significance are still important to this day in other parts of the world. Some countries believe that sex with a virgin will cure aids, while eighteenth-century contemporaries thought that sex with a virgin was a suitable treatment for venereal disease. Virginity, then and now, also has a socio-economic value. Marrying a virgin in early modern England eliminated the chances of a new wife presenting their husband with another man’s baby shortly after the marriage, and intact virginity meant that they did not pass on sexually transmitted diseases to their husband. Women were/are shamed for their sexual behaviour and social concerns about virginity was one way in which they were restrained. Even though my research on false virgins has depicted medical understandings of the female body and concerns of fraud, I have not found any evidence in the published sources used of these incidents happening in every day life. It may be that they existed in church records or as unrecorded disputes in early modern society, but for the purpose of widely circulated mass-produced texts, they were very much hypothetical and imagined. Therefore, my thesis claims that recreated virginity was perhaps either imagined, ignored or invisible to public record.

Overall, my thesis examines some of the ways in which the body was susceptible to alteration and how this was, to a degree, considered as self-presentation and self-identity. Men’s and women’s bodies were expected to meet different criteria’s depending on their social environment and circumstances. I have identified that some of those with deformed bodies sought to conceal their deficiencies to the best of their ability, to either avoid mockery or to increase their chances of marriage and financial security. Fraudulent beggars chose to invoke sympathy by damaging or representing their bodies to receive charity, and some women were believed to replicate their virginity to either deceive men or to please them.

Stephanie is a final year PhD student at The University of Hertfordshire and has recently submitted her thesis titled ‘Deceitful Bodies: Ideas, performance and the physicality of bodily fraud, 1540-1750.’ In June 2018 she won the Social History Society’s Postgraduate Paper Prize for her paper on fake virginity in early modern England and is currently in the process of developing this into her first article.

You can follow her on twitter @stephfernallen and check her website to find out about any upcoming papers, https://stephaniefernallen.wordpress.com/