Vaught, Jennifer C. Rhetorics of Bodily Disease and Health in Medieval and Early Modern England. Literary and Scientific Cultures of Early Modernity. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010. 260 pp. ISBN: 978-0754669487. £55.00 hardback.
Cultural and literary historians will be very glad for this collection, which showcases a variety of rhetorical approaches to early modern medical literature and discourse. What principally distinguishes this volume from others on related topics is its mainly literary focus and the unapologetically aesthetic and formal approaches that a number of the contributors take. The emphasis on both the rhetorics of disease and health is also refreshing for its departure from the pathological focus of much of the recent scholarship on early modern embodiment. The essays that do focus on disease do so, mainly, with a firm grasp of the ancient and patristic discourses in which medieval and Renaissance etiologies, especially of spiritual disease, were rooted. It is in this regard that the volume may prove most useful to scholars of early modern medicine, as some of its strongest essays (Nohrnberg’s study of sin and disease in the Inferno, Judith Anderson’s figural reading of St. Paul’s “body of death” and Stephen Pender’s examination of moral nosology) focus on the relationship between bodily and spiritual illness.
Vaught’s introduction seems surprisingly lean and descriptive in comparison with the more elaborate methodological defenses one is accustomed to seeing in rhetorical studies of early modern science and medicine, but this may be a sign that the field is moving beyond a more emergent state to one where disciplinary self-justifications no longer seem to be as pressing. The value of the collection is in the depth and acuity of reading presented in ten very different essays, by an equally diverse group of scholars at various stages of their careers. My focus in this review will be to illustrate, in miniature, the kinds of arguments and analyses pursued by each.
Vaught has divided the volume into four parts. Part 1, “Reading the Instructive Language of the Body in the Middle Ages,” somewhat awkwardly brackets the volume’s medieval studies off from the other sections, which are not grouped by period. The organization of Parts 2, “Imaginative Discourses of Sexuality, Delightful and Dangerous,” and 4, “The Power of Linguistic Infection and Cure in Early Modern Literature and Medicine,” are more felicitous than Part 3, “Bodily Metaphors of Disease and Science in Renaissance England.” Neither of the essays in this section is especially concerned with metaphor, only one is with science, and both find better companions among other essays in the volume.
Part 1 begins with Lisi Oliver and Maria Mahoney’s survey of three very different styles of early Christian anatomical discourse. The authors argue that St. Ambrose emphasized descriptive rather than allegorical anatomy as a way of distinguishing human flesh from the Godhead and Christian understandings of divine incarnation from pagan. They show how St. Isidore’s sixth-century philological anatomy finds meaning for the body’s parts in the etymology of anatomical nomenclature. They attribute Maurus Hrabanus’s ninth-century descriptive anatomy to the project of a “corporeal Christology” that he sought to defend against Byzantine and Muslim iconoclasm. While illuminating and persuasive in each case, clearer exposition of the historiography and stakes for these analyses would have been appreciated.
In “‘This Disfigured People’: Representations of Sin as Pathological Bodily and Mental Affliction in Dante’s Inferno XXIX-XXX,” James Nohrnberg wonders why only the counterfeiters and falsifiers in Dante’s Inferno are punished by illness. He finds clues to this problem in the scholastic literature on sin. Like Aquinas, Dante stresses the interchangeability of sin and sickness, populating the Malboge’s tenth ward with figures plagued by diseases scripturally associated with spiritual defect. Nohrnberg focuses on the hydroptics and the lepers, spending rather more time on the former than the latter. The hydroptics share a means rather than motive of transgression: Myrrha falsifies her form for lust and Schicci counterfeits coin for greed. Both are punished with rabid, unrelenting thirst. Nohrnberg’s insights include the lovely observation that rabies dehumanizes the falsifiers by withdrawing the imprint of God’s image in fitting punishment for those who deceive by appearance.
In effort to assess the peculiar threat that the Pardoner poses to his listeners in the Canterbury Tales, Laila Abdalla consults Augustine’s linguistic theory, which she summarizes in a lengthy but clear preliminary section of her essay, “‘My body to warente …’: Linguistic Corporeality in Chaucer’s Pardoner.” The question The Pardoner’s Tale poses, she says, is the “renowned Sophist one: can a wicked man tell a tale that prompts good in the listener?” (71). Abdalla argues that the insistent depictions of the Pardoner’s (castrated) body as a meaningless sign both literalizes and undermines his “extreme nominalis[m]” (73).
Part 2 opens with William Oram’s curiosity, in “Spenser’s Crowd of Cupids and the Language of Pleasure,” about the “hundred little winged loves” that work “[t]heir prety stealthes,” spreading snares “[t]o filch away sweet snatches of delight” for the newlyweds in Spenser’s Epithalamium (103). This “crowd of cupids” suggests to Oram a valuation of pleasure that runs in excess of Protestant arguments for either the social utility or divinity of marriage as a Neoplatonist uniting of souls. The cupids point, for Oram, to a Spenser staking his place as a love poet and making the case for the value of delight against prevailing Protestant suspicions of pleasure. Oram shows how Spenser couches this argument in the distinction between a “good” and natural eros that is evident in matter’s desire for form and a bad eros that enslaves the spirit to sensuality.
In the less successful essay that follows, “Cordelia’s Can’t: Rhetorics of Reticence and (Dis)ease in King Lear,” Emma Rees accounts for Cordelia’s inarticulateness as a literalization of her phallic lack. Comparing the pit wherein Lavinia is mutilated in Titus Andronicus to the various pits in King Lear, Rees determines that “sulphurous or bloody” hollows in Shakespeare stand in for the monstrosity of the vagina (108). More compelling is Rees’s observations upon the “almost-Senecan pithiness” of Cordelia’s speaking that seems to defy misogynist representations of female garrulity (111). The essay would have gained much by consulting the work of Jonathan Goldberg and others who have usefully questioned the impulse Rees exhibits of interpreting sexually inflected images of emptiness and void as necessarily gynophobic.
Part 3 begins with Richelle Munkhoff’s “Reckoning Death: Women Searchers and the Bills of Mortality in Early Modern London,” a fascinating overview of the early reception and representation of these documents that were prepared on the basis of evidence collected by poor, uneducated, and untrained women. The “searchers” (frequently widows) were required to examine the living for signs of infection and search the dead for evidence of pestilence so that the crown could publish official tallies of plague deaths. Munkhoff’s object of inquiry is the complex rhetorical work involved in the process of transforming “bodily signs into texts that could be read by the entire populace” (119). She illuminates the striking ways John Graunt’s Observations … Upon the Bills of Mortality (1662) attempts to reinforce the validity of the bills by deflecting concerns about the unreliability of the data. Her argument that the interpretive labor of the women searchers struck an uncomfortably familiar note for early scientists of demography and statistics (such as Graunt) is persuasive and highly provocative.
Rebecca Totaro’s “‘Revolving this will teach thee how to curse’: A Lesson in Sublunary Exhalation” contributes to the growing subfield of early modern environmental pneumatology by placing the psychophysiology of cursing in Shakespeare’s plays in its meteorological context. Sighs and curses, she argues (citing Shigehisa Kuriyama) were “the very meteors of the body,” and part of a “pervasive ‘meteorological consciousness’” in early modernity (135). Totaro’s unique contribution is in her focus on the functional correspondence between body and weather. Her test case is Richard III, where she observes a relation between cries, curses, and storms that is rooted in early modern medical theories of therapeutic release and is not, as in traditional interpretations of Shakespeare’s pathetic fallacy, merely symbolic.
In the first essay of Part 4, “Shakespeare and the Irony of Early Modern Disease Metaphor and Metonymy,” William Spates urges the reader to recognize the insufficiency of a metaphorical lens for reading the rhetoric of disease in early modernity. “[D]isease,” he argues, “was a far more generalized term than…in modern discourse ” (155). Sontag’s influential formulations of the metaphoricity of disease fail, he says, to account for the metonymic and analogical power of the rhetoric of disease in early modernity where “[m]acrocosmic imbalances could easily cross over to the microcosm” (159). Extending Totaro’s analysis in the previous chapter, Spates notes that scholars frequently remark the ways that weather foreshadows tragedy in Shakespeare’s plays but fail to recognize the causal and reciprocal power of this relation. He points for proof to the ways that Shakespeare’s cynics and satirists (Timon especially) alter their ecological surroundings by the force of their execrations and vituperation.
In “Body of Death: The Pauline Inheritance in Donne’s Sermons, Spenser’s Maleger, and Milton’s Sin and Death” Judith Anderson studies the echoes of St. Paul’s lament, “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death,” in Donne, Spenser and Milton (174). Offering what she describes as a Lyotardian rather than strictly Auerbachian figural analysis, Anderson observes the ways that early modern writers refigured Paul’s outcry in service of idiosyncratic meditations (on the infirmity of the flesh, the necessity of sin, and the meaning of liberation) by subtle linguistic and grammatical shifts. She wants to expand the receptive range for hearing/feeling/noticing Paul’s lament across a broader register than the optical image implied by Auerbachian figuralism. Anderson turns her radar on the “imaginative, affective, mnemonic and variously sensuous—temporal and rhythmic, spatial and imagistic” forms by which Paul’s lament is figured in Donne’s sermonical meditations on mortification (174), Spenser’s portrait of Maleger, and the formless shape of Death, born of Sin and realized as disease, in Paradise Lost. In practice, Anderson’s figural reading attends mainly to syntactical and linguistic variations. The greater part of her essay is devoted to a reading of Maleger that argues for the Christian reader’s agency against the inextricability of sin, death, and disease.
The last word in the volume belongs to Stephen Pender’s “Subventing Disease: Anger, Passions, and the Non-Naturals.” Pender’s supple examination of the literature on the control of the passions shows how “disease for early moderns was passional as well as nosological” (194). Following a particularly lucid summary of the (contested) meanings of the “non-naturals” (the Galenic medical category under which the passions are subsumed), Pender illustrates the ways that seventeenth-century medical writers both adhered to and departed from classical techniques of anger management. These included (Stoic) distraction, counteraction, and withdrawal, as well as (peripatetic) moderation, redirection, and substitution, especially in the therapeutic counsel of Protestant divines, such as Edward Reynolds, who argued for the utility of the passions towards the end of cultivating Christian virtue. In the latter part of the essay, Pender discusses the displacement of humoral accounts of feeling by vitalist accounts of spirit in the later seventeenth century, a phenomenon he ties to the rise of mechanical philosophy and chemical physics, which he observes in the writings of John Burton, Walter Charleton and Everard Maynwaring, the latter of whom, Pender reminds, authored the first English treatise on pain.
In all, this is a manifestly learned collection, characterized throughout by deft observation and analysis. Readers will appreciate the rich explanatory notes in the majority of its essays, the fine balance between discussion of both well and lesser-known texts (as well as those which are likely to be new to most readers), and the well-prepared index to facilitate its consultation.