Wednesday, November 13, 2019


Lydie Bodiou, Véronique​ Mehl (ed.), Dictionnaire du corps dans l'Antiquité. Histoire​. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2019. Pp. 682. ISBN 9782753577541. €39,00.

Reviewed by Ada Bronowski, University of Strasbourg, Institute for Advanced Studies (

Version at BMCR home site

A dictionary is a very long list, with a simple ordering principle. Though there is a beginning and an end, there is no middle, which would have been prepared by the beginning and which should lead to the end. In the French dictionary of the body in antiquity under review, henceforth Dictionnaire, the beginning ('Abstinence') and the ending ('Yeux' – French anagram for the English 'Eyes') have done nothing to deserve these privileged places apart from the sheer luck of the alphabetical order. There is no particular stand made by starting and ending with these words, all the more so as the word-entries are French words that represent, translate or indicate Greek and Roman terms. And yet, Lydie Bodiou and Veronique Mehl, the two editors of the Dictionnaire have nonetheless produced a work that is original, gripping and subtly ideological, and which proves yet again that lists can be fascinating, and anything but neutral.

Because it is a dictionary, the work is organised around the meaning and use of words; because it is about the general use and connotations of a word in a delimited time frame, the work is also about the history of antiquity considered through the prism of all that is terminologically or conceptually related to the body. There are 310 entries written by ninety different scholars whose expertise range from ancient medicine, feminist and gender studies, ancient philosophy, history of sport, and cultural anthropology. The entries vary in size from short and essential paragraphs—as for example on 'Pepsis', the thermo-dynamic transformative principle that so many medical and meteorological explanations rely on to explain change and development and which appears in a great many other entries of the Dictionnaire—to the longest entries, which are around two and a half pages, and which are divided into parts with sub-headings. A striking instance is the excellent entry for 'Model', in which the sculptural, Polycleitean canonical body is considered 'as a model of unity and coherence': a first sub-part reviews literary and philosophical perspectives on the articulation of a well-formed text as a well-formed body, providing an anatomised grid for literary criticism. Canonical form breeds monsters, and the invention of new literary forms is theorised in teratological terms, where a monstrously shaped text, such as the dialog form, gets dubbed a 'literary centaur' for example in Lucian's Double Indictment. A second sub-part of the entry discusses 'styles and bulks', referring to corporeal consistency, flabby or tough, virile or effeminate, as the qualities of a speech. A last sub-part on 'metaphorical bodies and real bodies' presents an array of texts in which the physical attributes of the speaker or writer are transferred and are discernible in the texts they utter or write. Other longer entries are divided into the Greek use of the word in question and the Roman use: for instance, the entry on 'Laughter', ('Rire). The transformations from the Greek context to the Roman context are thus specifically brought to light. Each entry cites and refers to a vast array of Greek and Latin texts, and ends with an essential bibliography, which covers both European and Anglo-Saxon secondary literature.

The volume, as recalled in the preface by Bernard Andrieu, a pioneer scholar of the body in the social sciences, fits into a broad-ranging research field that in the French context is epitomised by the already canonical Histoire du Corps, edited by Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine and Geroge Vigarello (3 vols., Paris: Seuil, 2005-6), which begins with the Renaissance. Its kaleidoscopic methodology, in which all the disciplines from the humanities are enlisted to analyse and describe the Modern Era through its changing relation to the body, is the paradigm for the Dictionnaire. One of its key insights is to consider the historical, contextualised conceptualisations of the body as the motor for historical anthropology. So, whilst immersive anthropological fieldwork in past societies is impossible, placing the body at the centre of historical analysis is a way to counter tendencies to historicise and cast often warped projections onto the past. To accomplish this requires cross-disciplinary research. In the Dictionnaire, this approach, as mentioned, is effectuated by the range of specialties of the contributors. There are thus many entries which are specifically technical such as the archaeological entry for 'Scalpel', the medical entry on cupping glasses, 'Ventouse', or the epigraphical entry on the 'Ex-Voto Anatomiques'. But the great majority of the entries are themselves pluri-disciplinary in scope and content, explaining also how the different contexts connect. Thus in the entry for 'Make-Up' ('Maquillage') we find discussions of aesthetic criteria, rituals linked to stages of life from youth to old-age, religious initiations and parades, but also chemistry in the production of colours, theatrical uses, and gender discrepancies that highlight both the fact that men used make-up and that they were derided for it; but we also find moral judgements about the use and abuse of make-up, broaching a philosophical discussion about natural and artificial, and the notion of beauty. Another example out of many is the entry for cleanliness,'Propreté', in which the technicalities of where and how are intertwined with considerations about social status, freemen and slaves, urban-dweller and country people, rich and poor, religious rituals, aesthetics and daily routine, men and women and the questions raised by communal baths, which again open the discussion to more abstract planes about the point of being clean, which itself is distinguished from questions of hygiene (which belong to a different entry 'Hygiène').

In many entries the same polarisations are re-discovered in different contexts in such a way that leitmotivs do, subtly, run through the Dictionnaire. For instance, the concept-pair 'well-formed vs deformed' is rehearsed many times, under 'Integrity' as whole and healthy vs mutilated, or under 'Statue' as ideal classical form vs depictions of old-age, doubled up with the contrast between divinities and humans; this latter entry is, in turn, different from the one on marble ('Marbre') which introduces different criteria for the same dichotomy: finished/polished vs unfinished, which this time is magnified by historiographical considerations about the coloured or uncoloured state of marble. Another entry with a further twist on this contrast is the entry on the hunchback, 'Gibbosité', whose singular circumstance of being both complete and incomplete in his natural deformity is also turned into a luck charm as well as an object of ridicule. The contrasting pair also appears in the entries for 'Beauty', 'Wound' ('Blessure'), 'Handicap', 'Woman' ('Femme'), 'Size' ('Mensuration'), 'Hair' ('Poil'), and for the ungainly emperor Claudius, 'Claude' — to give a sense of the spectrum from concept, object to people included in the volume. The importance of the ancients' reverence for physical completion as perfection supersedes more abstract social, religious and political polarisations such as purity vs pollution. This latter pair is itself treated in its most concrete dimensions in the entry on 'Pureté', highlighting the abnormal state which corresponds to purification and purity.

There is thus a unified conceptual horizon that gives its specificity to the Dictionnaire. The polarisation between whole and unfinished spells out from the ground up the idea that concrete physical aspects are converted into moral and aesthetic criteria. Thus, whether it is the subordinate roles of women, or the rules on who is and is not allowed to be naked during training or depicted in a statue (as discussed under 'Nudité'), or the norms surrounding paederastic relations in Athens (as discussed under 'Pédérastie' and 'Eros'), but also hero-worshipping, or what makes an object of derision (such as the physical depiction of Claudius)—these are all notions and practices that are explained through the lens of the ideal of harmony and proportion and failures to uphold the standard. The discussions are rooted in questions about the proper relation between the parts of a body rather than the construction of an ideal unique perfect body. And so, the body, as metaphor, as point of reference or as the central object of study (in medicine, sports or the arts) is shown to be the concept par excellence of relativity, moderation and balance. It is also thereby shown to be a hybrid sort of thing: half physical half abstract, half real half ideal.

The entries about health ('Diète' but also 'Régime'—the former treated as the prescriptive science of the latter's practical way of life—as well as 'Médecine'), thinness ('Maigreur'), or its opposite 'Obésité'), as also the entries about artistic production (to cite a few examples: 'Coroplathie', 'Vases Plastiques', 'Statue') contribute to deepen this central theme of the body as the place for discussion of relativity and proportion between the parts as the physical, aesthetic and moral ideal.

Tragedy and disasters are measured against this dichotomy contained within the notion of the body. Thus 'Oedipus' has an entry devoted to him and is presented as 'the tragedy of the body', starting with the sterility of his parents, the mutilation of his foot as a child, his incest with his mother as an adult, and his blindness in old- age. Each of these physical afflictions has its own separate entry in the Dictionnaire, but put together as the key for interpreting tragedy, they are a refreshing literal return to origins. Putting the body at the centre of Oedipus' life not only dissolves the Freudian reading about motivation, but more importantly shines a renewed light on the ancient notion of destiny and necessity; for prophecies and relentless divine pursuit are somewhat belittled in the face of the determinations of biology.

Many entries anatomise the body—(on fingers ('Doigts'), the hand ('Main'), the foot, the hair ('Poil'), or internal organs, e.g. 'Uterus'). The body-part becomes thereby symbolic of social practices: whether marking the end of a paederastic relationship when hair begins to grow on the young eromenon's legs, to the complex symbolism of each finger from a physiognomist perspective by which a person's character is mapped out by the shape and length of his fingers, or the confirmation, from the description of their internally wandering uterus, that women are in need of becoming pregnant.

The correspondence between the physical and the moral is epitomised in the entry on the body of the philosophers under 'Philosophe'. In addition to the familiar adage about philosophers' words tested through their way of life, the emphasis here is put on the physical attributes which, over the centuries and the schools of antiquity, identify, in artistic and literary representations, the figure of the philosopher: endurance, resistance to wine and general abstinence with regard to food, a beard, a ragged coat. Whereas in many of the entries, the role and specificity of women is brought to the fore, interestingly, in discussing the philosophers, women appear not as challenging a male supremacy in the field, but rather in their conforming to this prototypical embodiment of the philosopher. Plato's two students, Lastheneia and Axiotheia, are mentioned who 'dressed as men' (as Diogenes Laertius 3.46 reports of Axiotheia) and generally abandoned all their womanly duties and ways of life to devote themselves to philosophy. The implication is thus that male philosophers also abandoned their masculine duties for philosophy.

Overall, the Dictionnaire gives a sense of the sheer breadth of current research in and around the notion of body. It is both a tool for and a contribution in itself to that research. As a dictionary, it serves as an excellent reference book in which different constellations of notions meet around words and the practices they refer to. One small regret is that there is no analytical index to help record and guide through the wealth of concepts and objects mentioned in the texts, though each entry ends with a list of key-words that send the reader to further related entries. Like a history book, it makes for enlightening and enriching reading opened randomly at any given page. Like a thesis-led monograph, it seizes upon the sprawling and slippery notion of the body and gives an account of the relation of the ancients both to their bodies and to the images of the body that constructed their societies. Like any good list, it leaves something more to be added.

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