New Directions in the History of the Body: Holly Fletcher in Conversation with Willemijn Ruberg

by | Jun 21, 2024 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

In this series for The Bodies, Emotions and Material Culture Collective blog, Dr Holly Fletcher interviews leading historians on the subject of the history of the body. For this post she spoke to Dr Willemijn Ruberg about her previous and current research, as well as future directions in the field.

RubergWillemijn Ruberg is associate professor in Cultural History at Utrecht University. Her research interests include the modern history of gender, sexuality, emotions, law, knowledge, forensic expertise and the body, as well as cultural theory. In 2020 she published History of the Body as part of the History and Theory series of Palgrave Macmillan/Red Globe Press. Between 2018 and 2024 she was the principal investigator of the research project  Forensic Culture. A Comparative Analysis of Forensic Practices in Europe, 1930-2000 (FORCE), funded by an ERC Consolidator Grant, which examined how cultural ideas and practices have determined the position of science in the courtroom. As part of this research project, in 2023 the edited volume Forensic Cultures in Modern Europe (edited by Willemijn Ruberg, Lara Bergers, Pauline Dirven and Sara Serrano Martínez) was published by Manchester University Press. Together with Elwin Hofman, Willemijn recently founded the Research Network for Culture, Law and the Body.


Holly Fletcher is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Manchester on the Wellcome Trust funded project ‘Sleeping well in the early modern world: an environmental approach to the history of sleep care’. Her work focuses on the history of the body and its entanglements with the material world and her research has been published in leading journals including Historical Research, Gender & History, German History and Food & History. Her article ‘“Belly-Worshippers and Greed-Paunches”: Fatness and the Belly in the Lutheran Reformation’ won the 2021 German History Article Prize. She completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2020 for which she examined the cultural significance of body size, fatness and thinness in early modern Germany.

Holly Fletcher: In History of the Body you provide a comprehensive and compelling introduction to the field of body history, with a particular focus on conceptual and theoretical approaches to the body. This work is an invaluable resource for students and all those interested in this growing field of historical research. How did you find the experience of condensing such a wide-ranging and dynamic topic into a relatively short volume? How did you decide on which approaches and examples to highlight, for example?

Willemijn Ruberg: The book grew out of teaching a course on the history of the body at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where I was a visiting professor in 2012. I think that might be the best starting point for writing a textbook. I chose some theoretical approaches that were often used by historians, for instance social constructionism, the Foucauldian notion of disciplining bodies, and anthropological theories on purity. But I also included an approach that has not been applied enough, whereas it is so apt for studying the body: historical phenomenology, or the focus on bodily experience or embodiment. In addition, I wanted to explore how different strands of new materialism such as praxiography, Science and Technology Studies (STS) and agential realism could be applied by historians. So a part of my book was also meant to provide historians with new avenues to use theory in their historical writing. But a criterion for all chapters was that I could give several extensive examples of how the theories had been or could be used by historians. Theory need not be difficult or dull: historical examples can demonstrate how a certain theoretical lens can provide a new and fruitful perspective.



HF: As a researcher working on body size in early modernity, I was particularly interested (and excited!) to see that body size was a recurring theme in the text. You discuss for instance, the modern idealisation of slimness in relation to an emphasis on sculpting the bodily self, as well as the ‘body politics’ of the fat acceptance movement. What do you consider the significance of body size to be within the broader history of the body? As it relates, for example, to the individuality of the body and embodied behaviour?

WR: The way bodies look, particularly regarding beauty and body size, has always been a conspicuous aspect of body history. But in modern history it has become so much more politicized: body politics and the fat acceptance movement have become central aspects of individual rights from around 1970. Recently, feminist philosopher Kate Manne published the book Unshrinking. How To Face Fatphobia (2024). Manne exposes the continuing and structural discrimination of fat people, but also how this is inextricably connected to assessing individual beauty or intellect. It is interesting to add a historical perspective, as several historians have done, who have discovered that the fat body had different meanings in the past. This demonstrates that big bodies also can be perceived differently. And it shows the importance of historians engaging with theory and philosophy, but also vice versa: cultural theorists could also benefit from historical research into the body and embodiment.

HF: You were Principal Investigator on the Research Project ‘Forensic Culture. A Comparative Analysis of Forensic Practices in Europe, 1930-2000’, funded by the European Research Council. The project investigated the differences between forensic practices, which are often considered to be impartial and unambiguous, instead showing them to be subject to cultural influences and thus in need of contextualisation. The edited volume resulting from this project, Forensic Cultures in Modern Europe (2023), includes an emphasis on forensic ‘practices’, following the ‘practice turn’ in the humanities and social sciences. How have such considerations of bodily practice informed the ways in which you approach the body, both in this project and beyond?

WR: This research project has just been wrapped up. It includes a wonderful PhD thesis on embodied epistemic values of British forensic physicians in the twentieth century by Pauline Dirven. Pauline analysed in detail how the embodied performances of forensic doctors and how epistemic values informed their practical engagement with rape victims and dead bodies. Dirven argues that body parts of the deceased were differently enacted (a praxiographic term): as silent witnesses of a crime, fragments of individual persons, experiments and thus teachers of anatomy, and control tests or samples. Lose body parts –feet, hands, fingerprints, heads – could all enact an aspect of the victim’s personhood.1

In the book I am currently writing, partly in connection with this research project, I am also using insights from the practice turn. I am exploring what the right to bodily integrity meant in modern Europe. In several case studies I try to show that it is not immediately clear what the body’s boundaries are, nor, therefore, who can decide what bodily integrity exactly is in practice, or who deserves the right to bodily integrity. Throughout the twentieth century it has been debated whether suspects’ or prisoners’ bodies may be searched internally (by a vaginal or rectal examination) for evidence, such as looking for traces of a recent pregnancy in female suspects of infanticide, for example. Or to locate identity documents, as in a Dutch case of Sinti and Roma women and men – then called ‘gypsies’ – who were arrested at the Dutch/Belgian border and internally examined in 1981. This led to an emotional debate in the Dutch parliament, in which the responsible undersecretary stated that ‘everybody knows gypsies hide documents on their bodies’, while other parties demanded that the right to bodily integrity should also apply to Sinti and Roma. Again and again, laws which allow searches ‘in and on the body’ are debated, since it is unclear what that means and when police or physicians have the right to perform these searches. This applies as well to bodily samples, e.g. of head or pubic hair, blood and later to DNA samples. A focus on practices reveals that ‘the body’ and its boundaries are enacted differently in different forensic practices.

HF: In History of the Body, you highlight new materialism as a relatively new theoretical approach which is contributing towards innovative research in this field, and which offers exciting possibilities to consider the relationships between humans, animals, objects and environments within histories of embodiment. How important do you think this approach will be for the future development of body history? Are there other new directions for the history of the body that you expect (or hope) to see?

WR: New materialism offers much to the history of the body and is taken up by researchers from various disciplines, albeit in different forms. Particularly in the environmental humanities researchers are focusing on the relationships or networks between human bodies, animals, and the environment. I find the notion of ‘toxic bodies’ very interesting: this both refers to the impact of industrial and environmental pollution on bodies and to ‘toxic’ systems of power such as racism, settler-colonial violence, toxic masculinity, trans-hatred, and corporate greed.2 But the application of new materialist theories has only just begun. It will be interesting to see if the human body will disappear as a separate entity in the study of these networks or constellations of multiple entities. In addition to new materialism, I also hope to see more engagement with historical phenomenology and embodiment: how did historical actors experience their bodies in relation to norms on gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability? How did these norms limit or encourage their movements, feelings, perhaps even the form and physical state of their material bodies? I appreciate that philosopher Gilles Deleuze asked ‘What can a body do?’, emphasizing potentialities of the body, rather than merely restrictive norms. Perhaps historians should focus more on what people in the past could accomplish with their bodies or how they enjoyed their bodies.


1 Pauline Dirven, ‘Embodied Performances of Forensic Expertise: Epistemic Virtues, Emotions, and Gender in British Forensic Culture 1920-1980 (Utrecht University, PhD Thesis 2024). See also Pauline Dirven, ‘Detached from Sympathy, Unconscious of Trauma. The Impact of the Forensic Virtues of Impartiality and Detachment on Rape Examinations in Britain 1924-1978′, Social History of Medicine (2024) (advanced access;

2 Olga Cielemęcka, Cecilia Åsberg, ‘Introduction: Toxic Embodiment and Feminist Environmental Humanities’, Environmental Humanities 1 May 2019; 11 (1): 101–107. doi:


Image credits:

Photograph of Willemijn Ruberg by Ed van Rijswijk.

Featured image: Offices and laboratories of the National Coal Board, 1961-1970, COAL 80/1142 (12) (c) The National Archives. From the cover of Willemijn Ruberg, Lara Bergers, Pauline Dirven and Sara Serrano Martínez (eds), Forensic Cultures in Early Modern Europe (Manchester, 2023).