Fictions of Disease in Early Modern England: Bodies, Plagues and Politics
- Kennedy, Meegan
- Date of entry: Oct-03-2005
Healy focuses on the social and cultural meaning of disease in Britain during the early modern period (roughly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). Her chapter on "The Humoral-Paracelsan Body" discusses how the humoral theory of Galen, at this time still dominant in constructing a notion of the human body and its functions, was challenged by a new Paracelsan medicine, with its emphasis on spirit and on experiment instead of book-learning, and by the emergence of syphilis. She also establishes the genre of the "regimen[t]," a text advising how to achieve personal and social order.
Her two chapters on "The Plaguy Body" review the late-medieval and Renaissance history of the plague and argue that the social meaning of the plague as a trope of violence and rebellion shifts over the course of the sixteenth century, from a judgment on Britain's "rich extortioners," careless of the welfare of the poor, to the threat represented by London's unruly urban underclass.
Healy's two chapters on "The Pocky Body" argue that the new disease of syphilis became another dominant metaphor for social disorder because it helped focus anxieties about cultural hypocrisy, corruption, and degeneration, linked to the problems of sin generally and excessive appetite in particular. Her final chapter examines "The Glutted, Unvented Body," another powerful figure of excessive appetite, threatening that the body (and its appetites) would dethrone the head (the site of reason).
Healy demonstrates the importance of debates over the glutted, headless body as a way for British writers to negotiate the problems of a trade imbalance and the tricky terrain of resistance against the intemperate Stuart monarchs, culminating in the execution of Charles I in 1649. In the book as a whole, Healy reads literary and historical texts by authors as diverse as William Bullein, Thomas Dekker, Lucretius, Erasmus, William Shakespeare (Measure for Measure and Pericles), and Milton (Comus).