A Report by Claire Weeda
In June 2019, I hesitantly fastened my conference badge to my blouse in attendance of the conference ‘The Pursuit of Global Urban History’ in Leicester. How to address global commensurability, the impress of environment and the spread of knowledge, technology, and artefacts through networks is featuring higher on the agenda of many academic symposia and journals. It is also rapidly becoming central to premodern studies, as the recent issue of Past & Present attests. So I was excited about joining this conference, to immerse myself for several days in new approaches to global urban history.
Together with the historian of medicine Geneviève Dumas, from Sherbrooke University in Canada, I co-presented a paper on the dissemination of Galenic medical knowledge from southwest Asia and northern Africa to northern Europe cities. We approached the spread of Galenism from the perspective of impulse centres – urban communities –, the sites where knowledge might be carried further, through artefacts like books, or people, by word of mouth. How does knowledge ‘walk’, so to speak? Tracking specific textual knowledge allowed us to map and compare how technologies of hygiene – hand washing – were copied and adapted, from the Persian and Arab Mediterranean to the Low Countries. Monks, students, and men of learning translated and absorbed Greco-Arabic medical information at impulse centres like Monte Cassino, Salerno and Toledo around the turn of the twelfth century. The emerging universities in northern Europe integrated this new knowledge in their curricula.
This is not a new argument. However, by mapping the origins of hundreds of medical students enrolled in, for instance, fourteenth-century Cologne university, a picture begins to emerge of the further dissemination of such knowledge. As knowledge walked further into urban communities, medical texts containing hygienic prescripts, like hand-washing advice at the dinner table, slipped into conduct books. These attempted to teach morals and manners at pre-university schools across the region, to the laity, to tradesmen, and aspiring members of the political community. The Greco-Arabic context probably quickly was lost.
Schools are one of the most important sites where we pick up new knowledge. Moreover, the maintenance of the body politic as a working, living organism is intrinsically tied up with education. Viewing the city or a principality as an organism gained traction with the spread of Aristotelean political and Galenic medical knowledge. From the thirteenth century, writers such as Giles of Rome or Nicole Oresme went on to produce new blueprints for government informed by a corporal idea of society. A plethora of regimens and mirrors advising how to govern the body and the body politic appeared in Latin, Old French, Middle Dutch, Middle English, and Italian. Education at the expanding universities played a key role in spreading these ideas, as did the courts, monasteries and local parish schools.
But this is only part of the story. While in Leicester, I met up with Ben Parsons, who recently published Punishment and Medieval Education. In this must-read study of physical disciplining, Parsons argues convincingly that the use of corporal punishment in medieval schools was measured, taking into account the age, circumstances, and capabilities of the students. His book also brings to light to what extent knowledge of the body and pedagogy were intertwined. The thirteenth-century influential Disciplina scolarium, for instance, uses Galenic classification to advise how to advance the learning process of students, especially that of young, sanguine, unruly boys agitated by the hot blood running through their veins.
Knowledge of how the body, brain, and memory worked could be put to a teacher’s advantage. It not only helped to nourish memory and concentration. It also formed part of the backbone of disciplinary strategies. Galenism thus aided teachers, as a secular political pastorate, caring and managing, disciplining and regulating the members of the urban community, to etch schooling and policy onto the body.
But it doesn’t stop here. As Stephen J. Ball comments in Foucault, Power and Education, schools are also sites where we learn to categorize. Along with social and economic status, citizenship, and gender, biological classifications of the abilities of students means students are put into boxes at an early stage in life, based on ‘authoritative knowledge’. This categorization also determines who has access to which knowledge – and based on biology, who is deemed able to process which kind of knowledge.
Knowledge of social rules of hygiene – the dinner table morals and manners – allowed some individuals to present themselves aesthetically as disciplined actors in society. It helped certain individuals to perform urbanity, which ultimately might have given them a political voice.
These classifications can have a lasting impact on a person’s life, socio-economic status, and position in the hierarchy of the body politic. It determines what kind of labour a person will do, how she will spend her energy, how she will move in society. In the thirteenth-century body politic, the craftsmen worked with their hands, the peasants toiled the land. Their contribution to the body politic was considered to be different from that of officials, judges or notaries, men of the pen.
Such categorization is also visualized materially through uniforms. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, city governments handed out cloth to various officials representing governmental authority and tasked with maintaining order. Earlier the Church ordained that minorities wear the mark or badge of difference.
Pinning my badge onto my blouse in Leicester, made me think if present-day conference badges take on a different or similar function than premodern signposting. As a form of marking, badges reproduce a way of classification, determining who is in and who is out. Needless to say, wearing a conference badge is not compulsory, highly dangerous, or regulated through pecuniary disciplining. Moreover, I realize that privilege usually plays a significant role in being allowed to access academic symposia.
However, in my mind it does underscore yet again how important diversity in the academic community is – diversity of topics, regions, periods, ideas, approaches, and people. For diversity is one of few ways to break down the tunnel vision that classification readily takes. This, more than anything else, is what I took away from the ‘The Pursuit of Global Urban History’ conference.