Vile Beings, Bodies, and Objects in Early Modern France (1500-1700)

Event Date: 
09 Jul 2015 to 11 Jul 2015


A two-day conference to be held at the Maison Française, Oxford, 9-11 July 2015  

Organisers: Dr Jonathan Patterson (Oxford) and Dr Emilia Wilton-Godberfforde (The Open University)

To register, and to access the conference programme, see the conference website:

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 The early modern world was horrified by – and yet irresistibly drawn to – that which it considered vile. Beings, bodies and objects exhibiting vileness elicited strong and frequently negative emotional responses: revulsion, hatred, fear. However, vile did not always connote extreme baseness or disgust. Etymologically, from the Latin vilis, the word carries notions of low value: things of little worth, inanities. That which was vile was lowly, but not necessarily evil. Indeed, a vile thing or being was sometimes less determinate than its initial description might suggest. It could occasion complex reaction and reflection, especially when its moral, social or physical status was contestable, or in transition.

This conference seeks to explore aspects of the vile across early modern culture in France. We encourage a variety of disciplinary perspectives, and especially comparative approaches which look to languages and cultures beyond France. Sources could include (but need not be limited to) literary texts, plays, historical chronicles, theological writings, artwork, legal documents and travelogues. Our aim is to assess the extent to which individuals and objects might be grouped within different categories of vileness but also to trouble these very classifications. Of particular interest are the circumstances in which vileness is said to occur – and cease. An individual might occupy a vile or lowly position in the social hierarchy; to what degree is he or she vile in a moral sense? How did pre-moderns articulate the New Testament doctrine that the mortal human body is vile until it is resurrected with Christ? Could the same be said of animals? What transformations are necessary to turn vile objects into things of greater value? Are such metamorphoses reversible?

The conference will bring together a new grouping of 19 scholars, from graduate students to established researchers. Details of speakers and of the conference programme may be found on the conference website.