Body as Book: Mortification of the Flesh, Self-Harm, and Wounds as Rhetorical Sign and Agency

By Sharmain van Blommestein.

Published by The International Journal of the Book

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The online Oxford English Dictionary defines a book as a written treatise or a set of written sheets put on various surfaces, including skin. Although modern readers might be far removed from the idea of living words on dead flesh, in the Middle Ages, it was common knowledge that books were the product of words punctured on the skin of dead animals. Additionally, Medieval piety was the epitome of the puncture/punctuating of the flesh, where religious followers, and more so mystics, specifically practiced the mortification of the flesh literally or figuratively, in order to control their carnality and to tell their religious stories. In this paper, I will trace the medieval idea of writing on the body and investigate this idea of writing on dead flesh, while connecting it metaphorically and also literally, to demonstrate how medieval religious bodies were scarred and punctured via an epistemology of the self. I will further link these medieval actions and emotions to the modern idea of self-harm or cutting the body, to surmise that, in both cases, medieval and modern, the act of cutting, scarring, and writing, now on living bodies, give its “sufferers,” agency and allow them to control their bodies by making it into a book, that is a site to be read, publicly or privately, and to tell their stories.

Keywords: Body, Book, Cutting, Cutter, Self-cutter/s, Medieval, Mystics, Self-harm, Self-mortification, Self-affliction, Control, Empowerment, Agency, Materiality of Writing, Memory, Passion of Christ, Write, Writing

The International Journal of the Book, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp.161-174. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.799MB).

Dr. Sharmain van Blommestein

Assistant Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of English and Communication, Potsdam, New York, USA

Dr. Sharmain van Blommestein is an Assistant Professor and the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of English and Communication at SUNY Potsdam and received her Ph.D. from University of Florida. She specializes in Medieval/Renaissance, Women’s Studies, and Literary Theory. Her research interests focus on religious women, the body, medieval medicine, virginity and prostitution, violence and women, menstruation and reproduction, and disease from ancient to modern. Her present research involves partly writing/editing two Encyclopedias: Women’s Reproductive Lives: An Encyclopedia of Health, History, and Popular Culture, and Gynecology and Reproduction in Medieval/Renaissance Culture. The first book project deals with modern in relation to ancient ideas on women’s medicine, and the latter investigates the Medieval/Renaissance ideas on female reproduction and gynecology in relation to social issues and diseases in that specific period.


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