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M. Pietersma, MA

PhD student
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Easier Done than Said: Uncovering the Body in Knowledge Management in Italy and Germany, 1400-1550

This project will explore how prescriptive texts for physical exercises, produced in Northern Italy and Southern Germany between 1400 and 1550, were designed as manuals for experiments that recognised the body’s ability to internalise knowledge through experience. In doing so, it starts from the hypothesis that the techniques they describe were intended to be read in tandem with attempted practice, and therefore contain references to living traditions of knowledge transmission that have otherwise disappeared.

 The project responds to New Materialist calls for the rehabilitation of the body’s agency in the production of technical or ‘embodied’ knowledge, with the skills required for sports being a prime example. This is a type of knowledge which cannot be conveyed through text alone and instead comes into being via the physical performance of techniques. Such a performance, if systematically repeated, leads to the internalisation of skills through what we today recognise as ‘muscle memory’. From this point of departure, the project contests the common interpretation of late medieval and early modern manuals for physical exercises as normative discourses that were imposed on the passive body. Instead, it argues that the authors of these manuals recognised the body’s ability to internalise knowledge through systematic practice. Their works should therefore be read as guidelines for experimentation where the body’s experiences play a vital role.

 For its methodology, the project turns to the experimental history advocated by Pamela Smith (2016). This is an upcoming field which makes use of experimental reconstructions as a close-reading method for better understanding the contents and intended purpose of didactic literature. By drawing on my background in Historical European Martial Arts, I will compare the textual contents of prescriptive texts for physical exercises with the experience of performing the techniques they describe. This will show how their authors envisioned the relationship between their texts and the experiments they ought to inspire, and where the body itself served as an instrument for internalising knowledge.


This project is funded by the Groningen Research Institute for the Study of Culture (ICOG).

Last modified:25 June 2022 11.47 a.m.