Allison Stedman, associate professor of French at UNC Charlotte, has received a prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to complete a book project with relevance for understanding mind-body connections, the history of medicine, miracles, mysticism, holism, and metaphysical theology.
The year-long fellowship will support the outcome of in-depth research to be conducted at the Arsenal Library and the French National Library in Paris, France for Stedman’s book, The Mind-Body Connection in Early Modern France, 1580-1735: Metaphysics, Mysticism, Miracles, Medicine.
“This NEH Fellowship is a distinct honor, and we are so proud of Dr. Stedman,” said Nancy A. Gutierrez, dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at UNC Charlotte. “The award will support her research and will generate knowledge that can be shared with our students and the broader community. Learning from the past is critical as we confront the challenges of today.”
Stedman’s project is expected to hold implications for an array of disciplines and interests.
“I think a lot of people are curious about how the mind-body connection works, especially if they have ever experienced an illness or watched a loved one suffer from symptoms that modern medicine was unable to diagnose or to cure,” Stedman said.
Stedman became one of those people when her oldest daughter contracted quadriplegic, spastic cerebral palsy and suffered seizures as a result of a stroke at around 7 months gestation. As Stedman sought answers for her family, she found her personal research converging with her professional life as a scholar. She realized that most of what is understood about mind-body interaction is believed to come from eastern religions and cultural traditions.
“Very little is known about how perceptions of this phenomenon evolved in Europe, with most studies of the history of the mind-body connection citing that such belief did not emerge in western culture until the late 19th century,” she said. “Yet I was certain that European belief in the mind-body connection had existed before this point. As a 17th- century French literary historian, for example, I had seen the theme of psychosomatic illness come up in novels and plays from the period.”
Most people perceive that western culture was structured through a belief in dualism, a principle advanced during the early 1600s by René Descartes.
“Dualism maintains that the spiritual soul and the physical body are not joined in a single entity, but rather are completely ontologically distinct, with the body belonging to the world, being composed of matter and obeying the laws that govern physical things, and the soul being of an immaterial, spiritual nature, capable of intellection but not of sensation,” Stedman said.
This belief was essential to the development of the scientific fields that gave birth to modern western medicine, she said. “While theologians studied the Bible to gain a better understanding of God as a spiritual entity, scientists studied nature to gain a more complete understanding of God’s divine handiwork on earth,” she said.
Yet, in reality, the lines were not so clearly drawn. While the newfound perspective on the body as a machine gave rise to new proto-biomedical fields, these emerging fields coexisted with older humoral physiologies and pathologies. The Catholic church’s authority over the faithful’s souls became problematic as well, with reports of healings that placed the separation of mind and body in doubt, her research suggests.
Stedman had done preliminary research at the Arsenal Library in 2011, focused on the psychological repercussions of religious conversion during the French 1600s. Her exploration of the narratives she found there opened her eyes to these broader implications and led her to seek support for expanded research with relevance to today’s views of medicine and healing.
“Receiving the fellowship confirmed to me that the two areas of my life that have caused me the most anxiety and struggle were actually coming together complimentarily and for a common purpose,” Stedman says. “It would not have occurred to me to look for evidence of belief in the mind-body connection in 17th-century France if I had not had that difficult experience with my daughter. And I would not have been able to spot the evidence of the connection had I not been trained as a 17th-century literary historian.”
At first, she struggled to find funding to continue her research because it was so groundbreaking. A Franklin Grant from the American Philosophical Society and a UNC Charlotte Faculty Research Grant allowed her to acquire enough primary source material to build a stronger case for the project.
“To have the NEH agree to fund my project as a full-year faculty fellowship is an honor beyond an honor and a blessing beyond a blessing,” Stedman said. “Without this fellowship the project would have taken many more years to complete.”
Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy and other areas of the humanities. “NEH provides support for projects across America that preserve our heritage, promote scholarly discoveries and make the best of America’s humanities ideas available to all Americans,” said William D. Adams, NEH chairman.
Words: Heather Benson and Lynn Roberson | Image: Courtesy of Allison Stedman