This page reflects a scholar's association with the Folger Institute.
“‘Recompact my scatter’d body’: Selfhood and Surgical Alteration in Early Modern England” (Mellon, 2015–2016)
When the men and women of early modern England sought to "know themselves," they looked to their bodies as well as their souls. The body, as all good dramatists knew, shaped one’s character and provided clues to one’s innermost nature. Moreover, this earthly carapace might provide a blueprint for an everlasting, resurrected form. What happened to the "self," therefore, when one’s physical body was altered by amputation or other radical surgeries? This six-month project seeks to answer that question, and provide the first scholarly investigation of the status of surgically-altered bodies in religious, cultural and social discourse. Building on existing work in literature and medical humanities, the project proposes that early modern attitudes to acquired disability and bodily difference were complex and often contradictory. Military and domestic accidents and diseases meant that a significant minority of the population were subject to a wide range of radical surgical procedures, from mastectomy, to limb amputation, to facial reconstruction. In many cases, the resultant non-normative bodies were the focus of social and spiritual anxiety. Literary, medical and biographical sources show widespread concern about the erotic and moral "meaning" of an altered body, while religious poetry and prose was persistently concerned with the mechanics of bodily resurrection for "maimed" but faithful citizens. However, the story of life after radical surgery also offered the potential for self-fashioning, in both rhetorical and physical terms, as survivors of surgery constructed their experience in positive terms and turned to prosthetics in the hope of restoration or enhancement.