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Study Day: The Heart

Date: 11 March 2016
Venue: Linkway Meeting Room, 4th floor, John Medley Building, The University of Melbourne
Contact: Katie Barclay (katie.barclay@adelaide.edu.au) or Bronwyn Reddan (b.reddan@student.unimelb.edu.au)

A reading pack for the study day will be provided to all registered participants. We anticipate circulating this material by email on Friday 26 February 2016.

Register here


Download Program 


Confirmed Speakers

  • Kirk Essary (University of Western Australia)
  • Victoria Hobday (University of Melbourne)
  • Mark Houlahan (University of Waikato)
  • Bronwyn Reddan (University of Melbourne)
  • Alison Searle (University of Sydney)
  • Patricia Simons (University of Michigan)
  • Kathryn Smithies (University of Melbourne)
  • Kathryn Temple (Georgetown University)
  • Gerhard Wiesenfeldt  (University of Melbourne)
  • Colin Yeo (University of Western Australia)

The study day will be followed by a musical performance : "The Song of the Heart" an entertainment by Acord introduced by Carol J. Williams, Centre of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Monash University


Katie Barclay and Bronwyn Reddan

The significance of the heart across time in Western culture is hard to underestimate. It is a beating heart that haunts Edgar Allan Poe’s murderous narrator; his guilt embodied as another’s heart. The relationship between conscience and the heart is encapsulated in the expression ‘black-hearted’ – disposed to evil; a metaphor that the contemporary author, Frank Peretti, captured in his horror fiction, where sin manifested as an oozing wound over the heart. Similarly, early modern Christians often imagined religious conversion as a change of heart, the physical embodiment of spiritual transformation. Here the heart was a space of conscience, cognition, morality; for others, it was closely tied to constructions of self. The practice of ‘heart burial’ across medieval and early modern world operated in part due to the association of the heart with the soul; the heart became a key organ that signified the person and enabled it to stand in place of them. St Teresa of Avila’s heart became a reliquary, perhaps in part due to her famous and agonising visions of being stabbed in the heart, only to be left with an overwhelming love of God; whilst four hundred years later, the French Republican Leon Gambetta’s heart was used as a secular reliquary that encouraged patriotism amongst his followers. Here the heart signified the qualities of the deceased that enabled it to inspire devotion amongst worshippers.

Perhaps most famously, the heart has been associated with emotion. ‘Sweetheart’, ‘Dearhart’ were the most popular affectionate nicknames amongst seventeenth-century Scottish lovers, and hearts remain a key symbol of romantic love, found on Valentine Day’s cards and in numerous songs. Christ should be loved with your ‘whole heart’, the gospel of Mark reminds readers. Conversely, sorrow is often signified as an attack on the heart. The Virgin Mary, in the Marian play The Betrayal, felt her ‘hert hard as ston’ on hearing of Christ’s death. Richard the Lionheart reminds us that hearts were associated with courage, whilst Snow White’s evil stepmother had an ‘envious heart’ that led her to seek the murder of her stepdaughter. The heart then is a site of emotional experience, of conscience, character, self and soul – a physical organ that does considerable symbolic work, and an organ that in turn has been understood through metaphor, with heart disease and broken-heartedness, as illnesses, closely tied to emotional wellbeing and health.

Image: Antonie Wierix (II), “Voor de deur van het heilige hart” (1630-50)