Writing about the body

Rubens: Venus, Mars and Cupid

I’ve signed up for a new course on the History of the Human Body in Europe. It’s a Birkbeck College course, held one evening a week at the Wellcome Collection, one of my favourite London haunts.

It’s my first venture back into academia since gleefully heading out into the real world, back in 1991. I’m a little nervous. Will academia still be stuck on the semantic arguments – what do we mean by the body? Is there any such thing as objective truth? I really hope not, because all that rather put me off at university.

I’m hoping to find out lots of fascinating things about how we think about the body, and how that’s changed over time. We have the run of the Wellcome Collection displays and library, which promises many treasures to explore.

I’m already fascinated by Henry Wellcome himself, an obsessive collector, shrewd businessman and shameless social climber. How did this man end up founding what’s still one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world, not to mention a massive research trust and fabulous museum?

So far the omens are promising. The course has a real mix of people, including writers, artists, philosophers, lawyers and doctors, and a very enthusiastic tutor. I’ll update the blog on my progress during the weeks to come.


  1. Sounds as if it could be fascinating. So its about the human body itself, not the nude in art (subject of your illustration). Or perhaps evolving perceptions of the perfect body, importance attached to physical beauty – or just how we get bigger and stronger and because of escalating health and safety rules are allowed to do less and less with our great bodies!

  2. I think all of the above! It’s primarily a history course, and art history shows us a lot about how the human body has been represented, and what’s seen as beautiful, through the ages. But we’ll also look at ideas about the body and gender, race, medicine, ways of modifying or improving the body and maybe even what religion has to say about the body down the centuries. Quite a lot to pack into 12 weeks…

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