The Body in Eighteenth-Century Britain (HIH1014)

StaffDr Alun Withey - Convenor
Credit Value15
ECTS Value7.5
NQF Level4
Duration of Module Term 2: 11 weeks;

Module aims

The aim of this module is to provide an introduction to the important themes surrounding the study of the body in eighteenth-century Britain. It will use these themes to help students learn to interpret and analyse a wide range of different types of sources and their inter-relationship, including ‘conduct’ books, popular literature, medical textbooks, lectures, anatomical drawings and images, personal letters and diaries, medical recipe collections, satirical prints, newspapers and medical advertising, portraiture and imagery, and material culture (i.e. things that people used in the eighteenth century). All these shed light on the significance of the body during this period and wider themes.

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. Demonstrate a broad and systematic knowledge of the key themes in the history of the body in eighteenth-century Britain
  • 2. Assess how such concepts as health and medicine, technology, industrialization and urbanization and the sexuality have shaped historical thinking about the body.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 3. Identify the problems of using historical sources, e.g. utility, limitations, etc, and compare the validity of different types of sources.
  • 4. Answer a question briefly and concisely, Present work orally, respond to questions orally, and think quickly of questions to ask other students.

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 5. Conduct independent study and group work, including the presentation of material for group discussion, developed through the mode of learning.
  • 6. Digest, select and organise material to produce, to a deadline, a coherent and cogent argument, developed through the mode of assessment

Syllabus plan

The Module will cover a range of themes and sources including:


  • Ideals of the body: Was there such a thing as a bodily ideal in the eighteenth century, and how can we access it? Changing notions of masculinity and femininity altered perceptions of how the body could and should look. Sources for this theme might include ‘conduct’ books, popular literature, and new its role in shaping and informing ideals of the body during the Enlightenment.
  • The Medical Body. The eighteenth century was an interesting period in terms of how the body was understood by medical practitioners. Older ideas about the body and the humours were challenged by new, enlightened theories about the body. Sources will include medical textbooks, lectures, anatomical drawings and images, to interrogate medical understandings of the body and its constituent parts.
  • Health, Illness and the Individual: How did ‘ordinary’ people conceptualize and understand how their body ‘felt’, or what was wrong with them, and how can we access this information? Sources include personal letters and diaries, medical recipe collections, and their role in questioning the lived corporeal experience of eighteenth-century life.
  • What was regarded as ‘disability’ in the past, and how were impaired people, and their symptoms, depicted in popular culture and medical texts alike? This theme will involve study of materials from satirical prints, to discussions of the distorted or grotesque bodies.
  • The eighteenth century witnessed a great expansion in the types and numbers of goods available, a great many of which involved products for the body. Newspapers and medical advertising, discussing ‘technologies of the body’, and how products for sale can reveal attitudes towards bodily health and appearance.
  • Picturing the body. To what extent are artistic depictions of eighteenth-century people a reliable source? Do they reveal what people actually looked like, or are they too subjective to trust? A range of eighteenth-century portraiture and imagery, from the idealized art of Joshua Reynolds to the emergence of ‘Romantic’ art, are among the sources investigated in this section.
  • Artifacts of the body. What can surviving material culture (i.e. things that people used in the eighteenth century) reveal about the body in the past? 

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching activities22 hour lecture: Introduction to Module
Scheduled learning and teaching activities2010 x 2 hour seminars. At a meeting of the whole class generally a different group of 3-4 students will give a presentation to the whole class, followed by class discussion and working through the sources for that week carefully. Additional sources may be issued in the class and the lecturer will also use the time to set up issues for the following week.
Guided Independent Study128Students prepare for the session through reading and research; writing five source commentaries and an essay and preparing one group presentation in the course of the term.

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Group Presentation (3-4 students)10-15 minutes1-6Oral
4 highest marks from portfolio of 5 source commentaries500 words1-6Mark and written comments

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
4 highest marks from portfolio of 5 source commentaries602000 words (500 per commentary)1-6Mark and written comments.
Essay on Sources401500 words1-6Mark and written comments

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
4 highest marks of portfolio of 5 source commentaries4 highest marks of portfolio of 5 source commentaries1-6Referral/deferral period.
1500-word essay1500-word essay1-6Referral/deferral period.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Diana Donald, The Age of Caricature: Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006)

Ludmilla Jordanova, The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice (Cambridge: CUP, 2012)

Dorinda Outram, Panorama of the Enlightenment (Los Angeles: John Paul Getty Museum, 2006)

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason (London: Penguin, 2003)

Carol Reeves, A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Enlightenment (London: Bloomsbury, 2010)

David M. Turner, Disability in Eighteenth Century England (London: Routledge, 2012)

Alun Withey, Technology, Self-Fashioning and Politeness in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Refined Bodies (London: Palgrave, 2015)

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Key words search

The body, eighteenth-century Britain, medical history