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The Dissolving Body: Surgery, Disease, and Drama in the Early Modern Period Open Access


Other title
early modern
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Rea, Matthew E
Supervisor and department
Epp, Garrett (English and Film Studies)
Examining committee member and department
Sawday, Jonathan (English)
Waugh, Earl (Family Medicine)
Bowers, Rick (English and Film Studies)
Brown, Sylvia (English and Film Studies)
Gay, David (English and Film Studies)
Department of English and Film Studies
Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
This dissertation examines the ways in which the living body dissolves or disintegrates in early modern literature. I juxtapose surgical narratives with dramatic and literary texts in order to better understand the cultural significance of living bodies suffering afflictions that cause them to fall apart. Recent scholarship has outlined the depth in which studies of anatomy in the early modern period have impacted understandings of the body. My research considers the implications of anatomical scenarios (decay, dismemberment, bodily instability) as they were inflicted upon bodies that still lived. The handbooks written by early modern surgeons provide an excellent context for analyzing the ways in which diseased and disintegrating bodies were viewed and interacted with. Surgeons worked on debilitating diseases such as anal fistula and syphilis, and they were pioneers in the treatment of gunshot wounds as the frequency of firearms as a practical weapon for soldiers rose to prominence in early modern warfare. They performed extreme operations such as amputation, and demonstrated innovation and pragmatism in the advancement of their methods – something uncommon in a field dominated by the authority of the ancients. What complicated surgical operations, however, was not so much the limited medical and scientific knowledge of the period, but rather the pervasive emphasis on bodily wholeness that permeated nearly every aspect in early modern culture. Institutionally, both the church and the state were represented as bodies that depended on their “members” to perform as dutiful citizens or parishioners. The body of Jesus, considered to be the icon of corporeal perfection, was figured as maintaining bodily wholeness despite the severe circumstances of the Passion and crucifixion. My work details the ways in which surgeons negotiated this culture of wholeness as they wrote about treatments that left patients fragmented or incomplete. Surgical writing discusses necessarily pragmatic operations using a stylized, humanistic, rhetoric that invokes Christianity, humility, and authorities from antiquity. Research on what we might call the “surgical body”, one that recognizes the reality of its dissolving nature but is nevertheless caught up with the cultural ideals of bodily wholeness, generates unique perspectives on the ways in which characters with wounded, diseased, or dissolving bodies are deployed in dramatic and literary texts.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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