Contrary Signs: Categorizing Illness in Early Modern Literature Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Parker, Sarah Elizabeth
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • Contrary Signs: Categorizing Illness in Early Modern Literature investigates the relationship between particular experience and universal categorization as represented in literary and medical writings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In early modern Europe, the disciplinary boundaries that now divide the humanities and the sciences had not yet been established, and the debates over the relative importance of an individual's experience with illness and the priority of classification extended into disciplines that we would now consider literary. Contrary Signs traces the extensive literary engagement with medicine's conflicting aims: the growing concern to name and classify diseases and the palpable fact of the patient's particularity. Following literary medical works from the early sixteenth-century writings on syphilis through the late seventeenth-century corpus of Thomas Browne, I identify two key developments that influenced the debate over the particular patient's position within the study of theoretical medicine. First, the move towards introspection created more narrative space for the valorization of particularity. This development was connected to the growing interest in Hippocratic medicine evidenced by physician-authors like Francois Rabelais and Girolamo Cardano, and its import for autobiography can be seen in the writings of Cardano and French essayist Michel de Montaigne. The second factor influencing these debates over categorization is the development of individual spirituality, fostered by the growth of Protestantism. The work of John Donne and Thomas Browne evidences the opportunities for self-evaluation and diagnosis that such spiritually inflected writings on medical topics allowed. Contrary Signs argues that the joint emphasis on autobiographical perspectives and the privileging of a personal relationship to the divine in early modern literary texts posed a significant challenge to the contemporaneous ascendancy of biological classification in medical writings. As such, Contrary Signs offers an alternate narrative to the histories of science that trace a progressive movement towards increasingly rigorous models of classification, traditionally seen to culminate in the eighteenth century with the work of Linnaeus. While classification was central to early modern medicine, the influence of autobiographical elements and the rising fascination with the individual spirituality encouraged by Protestantism provide an important counterpoint to the impulse towards classification.
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  • Wolfe, Jessica
  • Doctor of Philosophy
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  • 2012

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