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Language of the soul: Galenism and the medical disciplines in Elyot, Huarte, and Shakespeare

David Wesley Swain, University of Massachusetts Amherst


During the past two decades intellectual historians and cultural scholars studying the history of Renaissance medicine have come to different conclusions about the persistence of the classical tradition and the influence of innovation. Where historians see strong continuities in the vocabulary, internal logic, and intellectual culture of Aristotelianism and Galenism into the sixteenth century, new historicists and cultural materialists regard the early modern body as a site where classical and modern medical discourses compete. Their narrative of cultural formation emphasizes discontinuity and instability in the classical synthesis emerging in the seventeenth century, and they argue that this transition underlies a fundamental shift in how literary culture treats the body and the self. This dissertation takes issue with the discontinuity model of Renaissance historiography by arguing that medical humanism sought to recover the medical tradition and establish a progressive medical culture, not by rejecting the scholastic medical synthesis, but by invoking its content and its internal contradictions while maintaining its continued engagement with empirical innovation. The Paracelsian response to Galenism attacked ancient philosophy at its roots in the system of elemental qualities, yet Paracelsian chemical philosophy reproduced features of the analogical philosophy underlying Galenic diagnosis and therapy. In turn, the well-intentioned efforts of English medical humanists to bring about curricular reform in medical education had the unintended effect of promoting vernacular popularizations of medicine used by practitioners lacking access to elite education. Furthermore, in his effort to assert the diversity and particularity of human ability, Juan Huarte revisits a venerable (but still vulnerable) distinction between the doctrine of immortality and the organic powers of the soul. Finally, the instability of Lady Macbeth's sex brings into question the possibility of a regime of self-discipline premised upon the gender assumptions of humoral thought, yet we cannot understand her desire for self-control without also understanding her humoral body. These explorations question the historiographical assumption of discontinuity underlying the early modern period by emphasizing the role of scholastic ideas in the formation of medical culture in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Science history|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Swain, David Wesley, "Language of the soul: Galenism and the medical disciplines in Elyot, Huarte, and Shakespeare" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3152751.