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Handling the Theme of Hands in Early Modern Cross-over Contexts

Refskou, A and Thomasen, LS (2014) Handling the Theme of Hands in Early Modern Cross-over Contexts Early Modern Culture Online, 5. pp. 31-51.

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Early modern culture incorporated the human hand into a large number of different visual-textual contexts: in religious imagery, in scientific illustrations, in manuals of various disciplines, as manicules in manuscripts and printed books, and with several functional and/or figurative significances in the literature and drama of the period. Hands seem to be thrusting themselves into these contexts as powerful reminders of a human agency, which is often both somatic and spiritual at the same time: in the human hand, relations between body and mind converge and contest in complex and multiple ways. As described by Claire Sherman in the exhibition catalogue Writing on Hands: Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe, the early modern hand is “a meeting place of matter, mind, and spirit”. This meeting place is, in several different ways, the implied setting for the following article. Some hands, such as Albrecht Dürer’s Praying Hands (1508) or Michelangelo’s meeting hands of God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512), have become enduring and familiar icons of visual culture; and of course, Dürer’s and Michelangelo’s hands are found within religious contexts in which the hand has always played vital roles related to matter, mind and spirit. However, besides the vast field of religious studies, there are more and other hands offering rich sites for exploring early modern chiasms of body and mind. In the following analyses of examples from early English cross-over contexts, our purpose is to highlight and discuss the ways in which the hand and in particular two of its most familiar functions – pointing and touching – may illuminate wider epistemological discourses that shift back and forth throughout the period: discourses on what a human being is and how humans perceive and understand the world they live in. Central here are questions as to how and where human perception and cognition take place; in the mind or in the body; or to be more precise: how bodies and minds are understood in relation to each other by early modern thinkers. We present an investigation of a selection of examples which span the dramatic writing of the period: from issues of the hand in two early Shakespearean tragedies, Titus Andronicus (c. 1594) and Romeo and Juliet (c. 1597), to Hamlet (c. 1602); to the medical sciences, William Harvery’s de Motu Cordis (1628); and to John Bulwer’s manuals on gesture, Chirologia and Chironomia (1644). Extracts from Bulwer’s manuals are also useful because their fluid generic qualities allow us both to provide a contextual backdrop specifically concerned with the hand for our other examples, as well as bridging some of the disciplinary gaps between them. At the same time, we want to acknowledge the fact that the early modern period did not, as William M. Hamlin writes, “recognize the strong disciplinary demarcations we typically acknowledge today”. Writers like Bulwer or Robert Burton, whom we also refer to, do not distinguish rigidly between their multiple interests, and we have therefore chosen the term “cross-over contexts” instead of the potentially anachronistic “interdisciplinary”. The order in which these examples appear is not based on chronology or causality, but thematically arranged precisely in order to show their differing and overlapping epistemological discourses and the ways in which they illuminate relations between bodies and minds.

Item Type: Article
Subjects : Performing arts
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences > Guildford School of Acting
Authors :
Refskou, A
Thomasen, LS
Date : 2014
Copyright Disclaimer : This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
Related URLs :
Depositing User : Symplectic Elements
Date Deposited : 27 Apr 2017 10:47
Last Modified : 05 Mar 2019 10:38

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