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Helping Hands: New Perspectives on Prostheses in Early Modern Europe

Thursday Lecture Series

dateSeptember 29, 2016 timeThursday, 12:15pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
  • Audience open exclusively to Columbia faculty, students, and invited guests
  • All others interested in attending, please email SOF/Heyman at [email protected].
Rusted metal prosthetic hand

There are few objects that illustrate so well the intersections of medicine, technology, and culture as artificial hands crafted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Made of metal, wood, leather, and paint, these artifacts suggest the creative and elaborate ways men and women in early modern Europe used to cope with bodily loss. Yet, most early modern hand prostheses sit unnoticed by historians in the shadowy corners of armor exhibits, in museum storage boxes, or tucked away in private collections. This talk shines an investigative light on these objects—from iron arms to wooden hands, and spring-driven finger mechanisms to delicately engraved fingernails. The techniques displayed in such anonymous artifacts, whose wearers and makers remain unknown, show that the problem of bodily loss extended beyond the individual sufferer and his or her family, and into the shops of locksmiths, armorers, clockmakers, woodworkers, and any number of other sites of production. Artificial hands embody the struggles of the early modern amputee: the need for a practical supplement for gripping and carrying, the yearning for a return to one’s former appearance, and the human urge to reclaim strength by demonstrating it before peers.