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Wombs, worms and wolves: constructing cancer in Early Modern England

Skuse, A. (2014) Wombs, worms and wolves: constructing cancer in Early Modern England. Social History of Medicine, 27 (4). pp. 632-648. ISSN 1477-4666

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1093/shm/hku039

Abstract/Summary

This essay examines medical and popular attitudes to cancer in the early modern period, c.1580–1720. Cancer, it is argued, was understood as a cruel and usually incurable disease, diagnosable by a well-defined set of symptoms understood to correspond to its etymological root, karkinos (the crab). It was primarily understood as produced by an imbalance of the humours, with women being particularly vulnerable. However, such explanations proved inadequate to make sense of the condition's malignancy, and medical writers frequently constructed cancer as quasi-sentient, zoomorphising the disease as an eating worm or wolf. In turn, these constructions materially influenced medical practice, in which practitioners swung between anxiety over ‘aggravating’ the disease and an adversarial approach which fostered the use of radical and dangerous ‘cures’ including caustics and surgery.

Item Type:Article
Refereed:Yes
Divisions:Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Literature and Languages > English Literature
ID Code:69990
Publisher:Oxford University Press

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