Vaught, Jennifer C. (ed), Rhetorics of Bodily Disease and Health in Medieval and Early Modern England

Jennifer C. Vaught (ed.), Rhetorics of Bodily Disease and Health in Medieval and Early Modern England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), xv + 243 pp. £55. ISBN 9780754669487 (hbk); ISBN 9780754697121 (ebk).

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

Jennifer Vaught is to be congratulated on producing a fascinating, well-coordinated collection of essays by authors ranging from established experts to scholars embarking on promising careers. Her incisive introduction places the subsequent essays in relationship with the book’s overarching themes and each other, and begins with her own original contribution, supported by fascinating illustrations that deserve wider exposure. Her decision to begin by showing how an engraving from an eighteenth-century Hebrew medical treatise illustrates ‘the metaphorical ways in which those from antiquity to early modernity imagined human anatomy’ (p. 3) indicates the breadth of her enterprise. She also provides a substantial bibliography and index, features that will enhance the book’s value for readers from many disciplines, including social, political and medical history, classics, theology, and literature from the early middle ages to the eighteenth century. All the authors have produced ground-breaking work, equally valuable for its scholarly examination of original sources and perceptive interactions with many other leading specialists in their respective fields, including, on occasions, each other (see p. 176-77, n. 21). There are opportunities for fruitful continuations of this process. For example, William Oram’s ‘Spenser’s Crowd of Cupids and the Language of Pleasure’ contains a discussion of matter depicted as desiring form, ‘marked in human terms by the pleasures of sexual intercourse’ (p. 101). This should eventually form a fascinating dialogue with another recently-published work: Sergius Kodera’s Disreputable Bodies: Magic, Medicine, and Gender in Renaissance Natural Philosophy (2010), especially his first chapter, entitled ‘Nymphomaniac Matters: The Prostitute as Metaphor for the Body in Italian Renaissance Philosophy’.

Some papers address questions that have engaged the attention of literary scholars for years. Judith H. Anderson’s unfailingly witty and erudite ‘The Body of Death: The Pauline Inheritance in Donne’s Sermons, Spenser’s Maleger, and Milton’s Sin and Death’ provides, among many other good things, a scrupulously researched and entirely satisfactory explanation of the nature and function of Maleger in Book II of The Faerie Queene. Dealing with an even more notoriously enigmatic character, Laila Abdalla’s ‘“My body to warente…”: Linguistic Corporeality in Chaucer’s Pardoner’ deploys ‘the Augustinian assumption about the causal relationship between body and soul’ to demonstrate that ‘the Pardoner’s physical appearance, sexuality and corporeal incontinence reveal that his words are non-normative, mendacious, and foul’ (p. 84). William Spates in ‘Shakespeare and the Irony of Early Modern Disease Metaphor and Metonymy’ offers an excellent explanation—or, rather, diagnosis—for the fetid clouds of disapproval overhanging Renaissance representations of the satirist, something that has often puzzled those of us who are accustomed to seeing later satirists, like Swift, treated as national heroes.

This book, however, does more than cast light on familiar problems. Packed with fresh insights, it suggests new departures for the future. ‘Cordelia’s Can’t: Rhetorics of Reticence and (Dis)ease in King Lear’ by Emma L. E. Rees produces examples from every area of the play to support her argument that the vagina, seen within a ‘Galenic model of the one-sex/mono-sex human being’ (p. 113), ‘symbolizes the ontological debate that haunts the play: nothing is forced to take on the form of something through Lear’s insistence upon it and his fascination with it prior to his agonies on the heath’ (p. 112). She makes her case with a verve and assiduity which leaves one wondering how well her approach could be applied to other early modern drama: are we moving from the time of the phallic dagger to the age of the vaginal zero? ‘Reckoning Death: Women Searchers and the Bills of Mortality in Early Modern London’ by Richelle Munkhoff brings a new item onto the agenda of medical history, arguing with persuasive authority that more attention should be paid to the poor, obscure, and often despised women whose information underlies three centuries of statistics: they have become ‘dangerous reminders of the subjective, complicated messiness of physicality and the realm of words in any given era’ (p. 134).

While readers would expect frequent references to classical sources such as Aristotle and Galen, the frequency, importance and richness of references to early Church Fathers might come as a surprise. Yet, on reflection, this is exactly what one should have expected. Lisi Oliver and Maria Mahoney’s study of ‘Episcopal Anatomies of the Early Middle Ages’ by St Ambrose (c. 340-97), St Isidore (560-636) and Hrabanus Maurus (780-856) explores the implications of the fact that ‘the sacramental and incarnational character of the Church has ensured that there has always been a theology of the body’ (p. 33, n. 24). James C. Nohrnberg’s brilliant exploration of the pathologies of leprosy, dropsy and rabies in ‘“This Disfigured People”: Representations of Sin as Pathological Bodily and Mental Infliction in Dante’s Inferno XXIX-XXX’ makes telling use of Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) in his section on illness as ‘Scholastic Metaphor and Metonym’ (pp. 48-51). Anderson reminds us that although Latin may be no longer the language of scripture for the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English Church, it is still that ‘of the experience of Scripture, of the interpretive and translational tradition and of educated human response to the inexhaustible source’ (p. 171).

Problems occasionally arise from the literary or linguistic complexities of the English texts under discussion. Spates has trouble with the passage in Henry IV, Part II, where the Archbishop of York rebukes the fickleness of the English people, who rebelled against Richard II and have now turned against his successor:

Thou, beastly feeder, art so full of him,

That thou provokest thyself to cast him up.

So, so, thou common dog, didst thou disgorge

Thy glutton bosom of the royal Richard;

And now thou wouldst eat thy dead vomit up,

And howl’st to find it. (I.iii.89-94)

Spates says, ‘Their mutiny is viewed in cannibalistic terms as Richard II’s life is devoured to satisfy the desires of the public and the ambitions of private persons. Now unhappy with Henry IV, they vomit Richard forth, as if they could recall his life and rule.’ This reverses the tenor of Shakespeare’s imagery, where eating betokens loyal acceptance, and vomiting rebellious rejection. The whole unpleasant episode sheds light on Shakespeare’s eagerness to emphasize the painful ambiguities of the situation, since his source, Proverbs 26:11, represents the dog’s behaviour not as penitence, but a relapse into sin. Nevertheless, Spates’s conclusion that ‘this regurgitation is a physical act of the body politic expelling choleric humor via spiteful language’ (p. 161) remains valid. Rebecca Totaro’s ‘“Revolving this will teach thee how to curse”: A Lesson in Sublunary Exhalation’, a study of the ‘internal conditions’ that produce cursing in Shakespeare’s first tetralogy (p. 137), encounters difficulties in Sir Thomas Elyot’s statement that the ‘naturall heate which is occupied about the matter, whereof proceedeth nourishment, is comforted in the places of dygestion, and so dygestion is made better, or more perfite by slepe’ (p. 145). Understanding ‘comforted’ as ‘soothed’, Totaro interprets Queen Margaret’s instructions to forbear sleeping as part of a programme of heat accumulation designed to turn the body into ‘a raging inferno of choler’ (p. 145). Attractive as this theory appears, the word’s immediate context and general contemporary usage suggest that Elyot means that sleep intensifies (literally ‘strengthens’) heat.

Overall, however, Totaro’s chapter is one of the most enlightening in the book. She reminds us that ‘Shakespeare’s depictions of bodies transformed for the purpose of cursing are the physiological symptoms of rising heat and ignition that were also believed to cause the comets, fires, and winds of early modern meteorology’ (p. 137). I find her observations not only convincing but humbling, as I recall my own performance as Queen Margaret (perceptively described by the director as a ‘cursing machine’) in a stormy summer outdoor production of Richard III, and particularly one night when I was alone on stage with an obstreperous mini-tornado. Despite the clues so generously revealed to me by these experiences, I failed to see the connections drawn by Totaro. There are practical applications to be found here: directors and performers of early modern plays may profit from the study of contemporary medical theories. They should not, however, expect to find simple or even unanimous answers: as Stephen Pender wisely observes in ‘Subventing Disease: Anger, Passions, and the Non-Naturals’, ‘the precise interaction between passions, humors, elements, and spirits is complex, often vaguely characterized, and frequently revised in the period, and we find equivocation everywhere’ (p. 210).

Carolyn D. Williams, University of Reading