Workshop: From the body politic to political bodies

The Huizinga Institute will host a hybrid workshop on January 17, 2023 (10-18h), open to all PhD and RMA students. The title of the workshop is “From the body politic to political bodies: power and disease in the early modern period”.

Deadline for presentation proposals: 1 December 2022
Deadline for participation without a presentation: 8 December 2022
Register here


In early modern political theory, analogies between the state and the body were widespread. The ideal society was thought to function like the harmonious cooperation of the organs and the balance of humors in the body. Yet this harmony could falter, and political unrest, uprisings, or ‘foreign intrusions’ were commonly compared to, and analyzed as diseases. The monarch – or the ‘head’ of state – could and sometimes had to cure the diseases that weakened the body politic. Some physicians argued that monarchs should actively study the principles of medicine and “rule the government of nature” in order to govern their own. Scholars have drawn attention to the growing role of such medical practitioners as political agents, thinkers, and advisers in early modern Europe.

This one-day workshop builds on this scholarship and seeks to broaden and deepen our understanding of the interaction between disease and the practice of early modern politics. Early modern political actors were obviously embodied. How did they themselves respond to being sick? How did dynasties, members of state, and diplomats strategically use disease, as well as rumors and perceptions of disease, to weaken their political opponent or increase their own influence? How did they use their sick bodies as political tools? And how did these responses and strategies in turn impact early modern conceptions of disease and medical treatment? During the workshop, we will explore these questions with a focus on two domains: dynasties and diplomacy throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Invited speakers are Dr Megan Williams (University of Groningen) and Dr Stanis Perez (Sorbonne Paris Nord).

We invite early career researchers (especially RMA students and PhD candidates) to send in proposals for short (10-minute) case-oriented presentations that will help us unravel how disease and early modern politics interacted in practice.

Submission guidelines

Please provide a short abstract (no more than 200 words) detailing your research question, its relation to the theme of the workshop, and what you would like to get out of the workshop. Short presentations during the workshop will be about 10 minutes (depending on the number of participants) and serve as prompt for feedback and group discussion. Deadline for presentation submissions is 1 December 2022.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • royal physicians as political counsellors
  • political implications of rumours about sick figures of state
  • dynastic solutions for sick, infertile, or ‘mad’ kings and queens
  • sickness in diplomatic negotiations
  • the role of diseases as forces or actors in political history

Other forms of participation

You can also participate without giving a presentation. If you would like to acquire ECTS without giving a presentation there is an option to hand in a 2000-word essay after the workshop, reflecting on how the various research perspectives shared at the workshop and the reading of the above-mentioned literature have impacted the development of your own studies/research interests. (Deadline: 10 February). The essay should 1) present a case study or problem the student is working on/would to investigate and 2) relate this to the cases presented during the workshop/the readings by comparing empirical findings/sources/theories/research methodologies and thereby 3) position their research within the wider field of the (political) history of health/disease.

Preparation and proposed readings

For all participants: please read the following articles/chapters in preparation for the workshop (you will receive these articles in due course after your registration).

  • Marieke Hendriksen, ‘Making the body politic through medicine: taste, health and identity in the Dutch Republic, 1636–1698’, BJHS Themes (2022), 1–23
  • Tom Tölle, Heirs of Flesh and Paper: A European History of Dynastic Knowledge around 1700 (DeGruyter, 2022), introduction, pp. 1-19.
  • Jacob Soll, ‘Healing the Body Politic: French Royal Doctors, History and the Birth of a Nation 1560-1634, Renaissance Quarterly 55 (2002), 1-28.