Purgative Texts: Religion, Revulsion, and the Rhetoric of Insurgency in Early Modern England

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Bellows, Nora J.
Hamilton, Donna B.
In this dissertation I explore the ways that writers of early modern religious and social polemic used humoral language in order that their texts were not only rhetorically powerful, but also served as efficacious humoral remedies in the form of "physic" or medicinal "cures." Specifically, I consider several examples of religio-political tracts that label themselves as "purgatives." Each of the treatises I examine claims to diagnosis and treat either the diseased individual and/or the distempered body politic. Both Stephen Gosson (School of Abuse 1579) and Martin Marprelate (Marprelate tracts 1588-9) label themselves as physicians or sugeons. Gosson offers his tract as curative medicine for an effeminate, phlegmatic body politic. Marprelate himself is a "mirror" of the deformity in the body politic and his text/body a "cure." The three defenses of womenJane Anger's Her Protection for Women (1589), Esther Sowernam's Esther hath Hanged Haman (1617), and Constantia Munda's Worming of a madde dogg (1617)represent written words as purges for the male writers they are answering. And, finally, The Lady's words have a potentially transformative effect on Comus in Milton's A Masque. Central to this project is the notion that words have humoral valences as do all substances that "issue" from the body. Through speech and writing people conveyed the very substance of their souls according to early modern physicians and religious leaders, whose treatise addresses the connection between the state of a person's body, soul, and words. Words, like the people who spoke them, could be "hot," bilious, choleric. The solution offered by the purgative text is the power to flush the body of corruption. Because textual arguments can carry humoral valences, they are not merely rhetorically persuasive, but potentially transformative on every level. Analyzing the humoral language in early modern polemic changes the way we are compelled to read similar language in other literary and non-literary texts, deepening our understanding of what it means to "change" a person's mind.