Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Christopher E. Forth's "Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life"

Christopher E. Forth is the Dean’s Professor of Humanities and professor of history at the University of Kansas. He is the author of several books, including The Dreyfus Affair and the Crisis of French Manhood and Masculinity in the Modern West.

Forth applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Questions about the beauty of the resurrected body ... cropped up periodically throughout the Middle Ages. Pondering the same question centuries later, the angelic doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, agreed that in the afterlife ‘We may expect that to be resumed by preference, which was more perfect in the species and form of humanity.’ One might thus assume that Aquinas’ resurrected body would differ from the one he sported on Earth. Although Aquinas was reputed to have been so fat that he could only sit comfortably at a table if a space had been cut away for his belly, no one doubted that he faithfully observed the required austerities of the Dominican order. While some might have made comments behind his back, there was no reason for Aquinas’ girth to signify anything negative to fellow clerics.

If, somewhat like Plato, Aquinas’ spiritual and philosophical credentials shielded him from whatever stigma his fat body might otherwise have attracted, the reverse was true of clergy who had earned reputations for vice. In some cases, great fatness was described as monstrosity. The German chronicler Lampert of Hersfeld expressed dismay when Adalbero, a monk of the monastery of St Gallen, was offered the bishopric of Worms in 1065. In addition to being ‘completely lame in one foot’, Lampert reported, Adalbero was
in all respects a sight to behold. For he was a man of great strength, of extreme gluttony and of such great fatness/thickness [crassitudinis tantae] that he struck beholders with horror rather than admiration.
It’s odd but the Page 99 Test seems to work in this case. As a study of the development of stereotypes about corpulent people since antiquity, Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life explores the history of Western ambivalence about embodied life and fantasies about bodies that escape the grip of organic processes. Also central to the book are the ways in which perceptions of fatness, at least in the case of elite men, have often been mitigated by other factors. For instance, Socrates’ fatness was more or less forgiven by his admirers because of the philosopher’s other merits, while that of King Philip I of France was cited as visual proof of weak morals and ineffective leadership.

Both of these themes are evident on page 99. The very fat Thomas Aquinas does not seem to have suffered ridicule from judgmental coreligionists, no doubt because his spiritual credentials functioned as a status shield protecting him from such abuse. The same could not be said of the less admired Bishop Adalbero, whose belly instead signified gluttony and even monstrosity. Regardless of how reputation could shape perceptions of bodily differences, Christian body ideals had no tolerance for fatness, ugliness, or disability. The body they claimed would be resurrected from the dead at the end of time was always imagined to be a more perfect version of what one possessed while alive – whole, beautiful, moderately proportioned, and abled, the kind of body one “should” have had. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that such ideals are germane only to a religious worldview. Rather, this wish for a body that is not bound by the vicissitudes of “life” – that is, for a body that is not really a body – runs throughout secular as well as Christian body practices well into the present.
Learn more about Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue