University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > 'Nature concocts and expels': recovery from illness in early modern England, 1580–1720

'Nature concocts and expels': recovery from illness in early modern England, 1580–1720

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The historiography of early modern medicine often makes depressing reading. It implies that people fell sick, took ineffective remedies, and died. My paper seeks to rebalance our picture of health at this time, by investigating recovery from illness. Drawing on sources such as diaries, doctors’ casebooks, and medical texts, it asks how physicians and laypeople defined and explained recovery, and examines the care of the recovering patient. These questions have rarely been addressed, despite the widespread use of terms such as ‘cure’ and ‘recover’ by scholars. I show that in Galenic and Hippocratic traditions, recovery meant the complete ‘away-taking of the Disease’, and restoration of ‘pristine health’. It was driven by ‘Nature’, under the direction of God, and with the assistance of medicine. Nature was depicted as a ‘homely woman’ who removed illness by cooking the bad humours and washing them from the body – processes called ‘concoction’ and ‘expulsion’. But she was also a ‘princely soldier’, who fought and defeated the disease. I suggest that this double-gendering of Nature enabled patients and practitioners of both sexes to engage in gender construction during recovery. Whilst some work has been conducted on the roles of God and medicine, the vital force of Nature has been largely overlooked. The paper also sheds light on a number of wider issues, such as definitions of disease and health, and concepts of age and gender.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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