Vernacular Health and Healing

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.”

–Susan Sontag (3).

Sontag writes from a distinctly modern perspective, but her comments could easily apply to the people of early modern England, ca. 1450-1583. It is not so much illness, but an ongoing and often futile attempt to ward off the “night-side” of life in Renaissance England that is the focus of this work. Obsessed with plague, pox, worms, aches, fevers, and a host of other health problems, early moderns constantly tried to keep their bodies in balance: the inside with the outside, the “night-side” with the day-side, the kingdom of well with the kingdom of sick. In their attempts to balance their dual identities, they armed themselves with vernacular medical texts—small, cheaply printed, pocket-size books that helped them learn and have ready access to existing ideas about health and disease.

While general studies of the early modern era have traditionally emphasized politics, religion, economics, historical events, and printing, studies focusing on medical (and other technical) texts have largely been absent. Too often scholars have unwisely ignored the vernacular medical text because it seems unimportant, insignificant, and uninteresting. As historian Rudolph Bell has suggested, “among the many forms of literature that surround us, the advice manual seems to be of little historical importance. […] The ephemeral quality of the advice manual, along with its notorious shallowness, may account for the relative lack of scholarly interest in this genre.”[1] What Bell fails to grasp is the long-lasting impact vernacular medical texts had on society. Hardly “ephemeral,” multi-edition medical texts had long-running print cycles—in some cases over seventy-five years—which means they were vitally and directly woven into the basic fabric of early modern society. Bell is right, however, when he says that these books have received little scholarly attention. It is in this void that I position Vernacular Health and Healing: Making Medicine through Rhetoric in Early Modern England, 1450-1583.

Much like Elizabeth’s Spiller’s conceptions of “making” knowledge in natural philosophy and literature, this work uses “making” as a form of creation.[2] But unlike Spiller’s shared aesthetic of knowledge, Vernacular Health and Healing focuses on the formation—the making—of early modern medicine through rhetoric. I argue that vernacular medical texts made early modern corporeal bodies; made a distinct genre; made a version of author and authority; made readers; and made a distinct body of knowledge that circulated and disseminated as “fact.” The persuasiveness of the texts drove those developments.

Significance and Innovation

Vernacular Health and Healing sits at an interdisciplinary nexus of history, literary studies, and rhetorical studies, and it distinguishes itself from other work in three distinct ways: the chronological focus, the emphasis on rhetorical application, and the merging of medicine and rhetoric. First, as there are strong continuities in medical practice over the late medieval and early modern periods, little sustained work has bridged the divide. Existing scholarship is either classified as “medieval” or “early modern.” My work begins to bring into dialogue the work of medievalists and early modernists to produce a picture of how early modern medicine developed. By starting in the late medieval era (ca. 1400) and continuing through the opening decades of the early modern era (ca. to 1583) Vernacular Health and Healing fills a noticeable void in existing scholarship. My book project will contextualize early modern medicine’s movement from orality and manuscript culture to an amalgamation of residual oral culture with an increased emphasis on the material text. The ending year, 1583, marks a specific change in the configuration and function of the vernacular medical text.

Second, examining the text’s rhetorical constructions illuminates the creation, circulation, and use of medical knowledge; further, it exposes the dependent relationship between ordinary people, healers, medicine, and the material construction of the text themselves. As a reflection of Renaissance rhetoric, popular medical texts typify and exemplify practical uses of rhetoric. Recent studies in Renaissance rhetoric[3] continue a long tradition in rhetorical studies that focuses on the vast number of rhetoric handbooks published in the early modern era. Few studies attend to how authors incorporated the practice of rhetoric into their own work. Historian Nancy Siraisi has explored how rhetoric was practiced in medicine, but her work narrowly focuses on the epideictic (praise and honor) qualities of speeches written for university functions like commencements. [4]

Third, references to Greek medicine and medical practice are littered throughout Plato’s dialogues. From his early, Gorgias to his later work, Phaedrus, Plato spoke of medicine in the same breath as rhetoric: “The method of the science of medicine is, I suppose, the same as that of the science of rhetoric.”[5] Plato placed the rhetorician and the physician on the same plane and instilled similar characteristics into both arts. For both rhetor and physician, success was determined by how well they matched the effects to the cause. In the early modern era, rhetoric was not used so much to argue the doctrines and practice of medicine as it was to classify and clarify medicine for all people. Answering Ludmilla Jordanova’s call for “careful attention to process and practice”[6] in the history of medicine as the process of making and practice of a body of knowledge, Vernacular Health and Healing hopes to demonstrate the importance of rhetoric as the connective tissue between language and knowledge and between medicine and society

In addition, my book engages ongoing conversations in early modern and cultural studies and in the history of medicine and rhetoric regarding conceptions of author and authority. Stephen Dobranski and Marcy North recently published monographs interpreting authorship in new ways.[7] Dobranski focuses on how the missing parts of texts require readers to make broad interpretations about politics, economics, and the authorial purpose. North’s work forefronts the vast number of anonymous publications, analyzing the role anonymity played on the reception and circulation of texts. Like these two studies and the work of historian Margaret Pelling, Vernacular Health and Healing examines how these texts were able to create authority through the murkiness of the early modern author. In many cases, vernacular medical texts did not contain new information, but rather were compilations of widely circulated oral traditions or widely circulated remedies found in commonplace books. This decided lack of “author” in the modern sense opens up a new way of constructing author as collaboration between printer, compiler, author, and society.

[1] Bell, Rudolph M. How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. 2-3.

[2] Spiller, Elizabeth. Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature:The Art of Early Modern Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[3] For example, see Holcomb, Chris. Mirth making: The Rhetorical Discourse on jesting in Early Modern England. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

[4] Siraisi, Nancy. ‘Oratory and Rhetoric in Renaissance Medicine,” Journal of the History of Ideas 65.2 (2004), 191-211.

[5] Plato. Selected Dialogues of Plato: The Benjamin Jowett Translation. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

[6]Jordanove, Ludmilla. “The Social Construction of Medical Knowledge,” In Locating Medical History: Their Stories and Their Meanings, Eds. Frank Husiman and John Harley Warner. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. 338-363.

[7] Dobranski, Stephen. Readers and Authorship in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005 and North, Marcy. The Anonymous Renaissance: Cultures of Discretion in Tudor-Stuart England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

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