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9-08-2015, 17:04

The inner body: emotions and passions

Letters and diaries from the early modern era often refer to emotions, which were the topic of published work as well. In his enormous consideration of illness in the human body, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), for example, Robert Burton viewed emotions and mental states as linked to imbalances in the four bodily humors: too much blood made one bold, courageous, and sanguine (from the Latin word for blood, sanguis ); too much phlegm made one sluggish, apathetic and phlegmatic ; too much yellow bile (choler) made one angry, irritated, and choleric ; too much black bile made one sad, depressed, and melancholy . Melancholy was the most worrisome of these states. A certain amount of melancholy could be a source of genius, inspiring music and poetry, but too much could lead to madness and both physical and mental illness. Physicians prescribed physical and spiritual treatments for their melancholic patients: a change in diet or sleeping patterns, vomits, bleeding, travel to a different climate, sex, music, astrology, wearing amulets, magic, prayer. In the early seventeenth century – the height of the witch hunts, as we will see in chapter 11 – a few medical thinkers speculated about the demonic sources of mental illness, but both learned and unlearned people generally differentiated between people who appeared to be possessed and those whose problems originated in their own bodies. Those judged mentally ill were usually cared for by their own families, though from the sixteenth century onward public hospitals and private asylums were also available in some places. Some patients were confined, though others worked in the surrounding town or countryside to support themselves if they were able. The postal service run by the Taxis family, for example, hired patients at asylums in central Germany to deliver letters and packages, regarding them as reliable messengers. Melancholy was linked to love as well as mental illness. Of all the emotions, love has been the most hotly debated, both by early modern writers and by recent historians. Romantic love appears as a literary theme in European literature long before 1450, and found expression in the sixteenth century in poetry and drama. From the late seventeenth century, powerful romantic passion inspired much of the action in the new literary form of the novel, so much so that moralists recommended young women be prevented from reading novels so that they did not get too excited. In the eighteenth century, many of these novels were actually written in the form of exchanges of letters – what are termed “epistolary novels” – modeling themselves on the real exchanges of letters people were used to reading. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), which tells the story of a virtuous servant girl’s victorious struggle against her master’s attempts to seduce her, was one of the most popular of these. Similar stories of virtue triumphing over vice, and of chaste love triumphing over sexual passion, were published by many authors in the eighteenth century. There were also counter-stories, such as Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons, 1782), another epistolary novel in which two amoral people successfully manipulate the passions of a young woman for their own amusement. Love, along with other passions, was a matter for philosophical speculation as well as literature. In his Treatise on the Passions of the Soul (1649), the French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) asserted that the passions subjected the soul to the desires of the body, though he argued that reason could always triumph over passion. Descartes did not discuss the role of gender differences in this, though later philosophers did, contending that men had a more powerful rational capacity, while women were dominated by their emotions. Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith developed another line of thought about the passions, arguing that they were all reflections of human beings’ selfishness and love of themselves. Self-interest could be a negative force, but it could also be channeled into socially useful activities, such as (for Hobbes) supporting effective governments or (for Smith) engaging in trade or manufacturing.

METHODS AND ANALYSIS 9 The meaning of illness

The history of medicine used to be told primarily as a triumphal story of physicians and scientists discovering new treatments for disease as they vanquished ignorance and superstition. Not surprisingly, many of the fi rst historians of medicine were physicians themselves. Today medicine is increasingly examined not as something apart from the rest of history, however, but as connected to broader intellectual, social, and cultural developments. Historians of medicine continue to study the ways in which illness was treated in the past, but they also study the ways in which illness was understood. They point out that social and cultural factors shaped the way that symptoms were interpreted, so that in different time periods the same symptoms had a different meaning and thus came to represent radically different illnesses. A good example of this is what early modern people termed “green-sickness,” an ailment that turned the skin pale or greenish. Young unmarried women were seen as particularly likely to suffer from green-sickness – it was sometimes called the “virgin’s disease” – which also caused them to stop menstruating. Greensickness developed, physicians decided, when a woman repressed feelings of love or refused to marry. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s father shrieks, “out you green-sickness carrion,” when she rejects the man he has chosen for her. Doctors treated green-sickness with warming remedies that would heat the body and cause the thickened blood to fl ow again, of which the best was sexual intercourse (in marriage, of course). This would release both the young woman’s blood and her pent-up sexual desire. In the nineteenth century, the same set of symptoms were deemed “chlorosis” (a Latinized translation of “green-sickness”), and judged to be the result of iron-defi ciency anemia, which could be tested by new tools such as the hemoglobinometer that measured the level of iron in the blood. The recommended treatment was still marriage, though now this was seen as a way to protect women’s frail and weak condition from the harshness of industrialization, which was viewed as the cause of chlorosis. Iron-defi ciency anemia still exists as a medical condition, though after the 1930s young unmarried women were no longer seen as especially susceptible to it. Iron pills or medication that improves the body’s ability to absorb iron, not marriage, is the preferred treatment. Early modern thinkers debated the merits of melancholy or the limits of passion primarily within the individual, and more recently historians have also been interested in the role of the emotions in family life. Some argue that the “modern” family, in which couples choose their own spouses based on romantic sentiments rather than parental or community preferences, and in which strong emotional bonds develop between parents and children, originated in the eighteenth century. Before then family interactions were cold, with mothers indifferent to their infants, siblings jealous of the power of the oldest brother, parents callous toward their children’s wishes, and spouses formal and uncaring in their relations with one another. This notion has been countered by other scholars who have found mothers and fathers deeply saddened, sometimes to the point of madness or suicide, by the deaths of their children, and spouses at all social levels affectionate and supportive. There is plenty of evidence to support both sides of this argument, and it is not something that can be assessed quantitatively, for the sources are primarily the personal documents discussed above, which are limited in total number, skewed toward the upper classes, and may not reveal people’s real feelings in any case. The quantitative evidence relating to families that does exist is also open to widely varying interpretations. For example, age at fi rst marriage for women in western European cities appears to have declined in the eighteenth century, especially among the poorer classes. Does this mean that young women who had left their villages for larger towns in search of employment were reveling in their ability to choose a husband based on love rather than having to go along with their parents’ wishes? Or does it mean that they unemotionally assessed their opportunities for wages compared with those of men, and grabbed the fi rst likely prospect for a husband, realizing they would never earn enough to support themselves on their own? Similarly, do high numbers of children left at orphanages or foundling homes mean that poor mothers were uncaring, or that they were willing to put the chances for the survival of their children ahead of their own feelings? These debates have made most scholars careful about extrapolating from their own research to making generalizations that apply to all of Europe, or even to all social classes within one country, but by and large the scholarly consensus has swung in favor of more continuity than dramatic change in familial and parental love and affection.

 

 

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