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).


Healy's book derives from an analogy between the individual and the social body, common in the early modern period. She draws on the work of Michel Foucault, Mary Douglas, Sander Gilman, Stephen Greenblatt, and George Lakoff /Mark Johnson to argue that the physical and the social experience of disease are intimately related. Her argument is structured by her conviction that "when social systems are perceived to be in disarray, ideas about the physical body's conditions of unity are called into play in an attempt to address problems and to re-establish order."

Thus the body became "the site where circulating discourses of pathology (crucially in religious, economic and political domains) intersected and merged" (189). The influence of Paracelsus ensured a "remarkable convergence between religion and medicine" (and their discourses) during this period (43), but Healy also persuasively demonstrates the intertext, or web of common somatic idiom, between medical and economic, political, moral, and literary texts.

She draws on an impressive array of little-known sources, including pamphlets and other ephemera as well as "regimens" and plays. For example, she demonstrates even the commercial value of a disease trope like syphilis, which from its prominence in dramatic texts of this period, appears to have powerfully attracted audiences. Healy offers the caveat, though, that such tropes lose their figurative power once audiences become unfamiliar with the physical reality of "the painful, disfiguring and body-threatening aspects of the disease" (178)--that is, she contends that disease cannot become wholly tropological.

Although much of her book does discuss disease on a figurative level, Healy's education and training as a nurse may contribute to her refusal to let the fascinating and complex nature of disease metaphors overshadow the messy reality of human morbidity and mortality. She is a qualified State Registered Nurse and Registered Health Visitor (RGN, HV), with certificates in Obstetric Nursing and in Intensive Care.

Healy's argument centers on early modern culture, but she occasionally draws connections to AIDS and other modern "plagues." Her analysis of the cultural meaning of syphilis might be helpful in thinking about the way cancer is used today to conceptualize corruption within the body politic. Also, her discussion of the London Orders (banishing suspect populations from the city during epidemics) helps contextualize the mechanisms of quarantine and exclusion common in contemporary responses to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and to other social "diseases" such as terrorism.



Place Published

New York



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