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'My Breast is Unquiet': constructions of cancer in early Modern England, 1580-1720

Skuse, A. (2013) 'My Breast is Unquiet': constructions of cancer in early Modern England, 1580-1720. PhD thesis, University of Exeter

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This thesis examines the construction of cancerous disease in medical and literary texts from 1580 to 1720. I contend that previous readings, which have viewed ‘cancer’ and ‘canker’ as words designating a wide variety of ulcerative diseases, are incomplete. Though terminology for the disease is sometimes challenging, I argue that early modern people clearly understood cancer as a pathologically unique disease, which was both fascinating and fearsome. Cancer was believed to be caused by surfeit of the melancholy and choleric humours. In part because of this aetiology, it was strongly associated with women. At the same time, however, medical and literary writers spoke of cancer in zoomorphic terms, and constructed the disease as deliberately cruel and intractable. Viewed alongside cancer’s famously morbid effects upon the body, this duality made cancer a powerful (and as yet unstudied) analogy for traitorous and malignant influences in the social and politic body. In turn, rhetorical uses of ‘cancer’ influenced how the disease was presented in medical and scientific writing. Cancer’s seeming hostility to the body also encouraged medical practitioners to develop, and patients to demand, treatments for the malady which trod a thin line between healing and hurting. Physicians, apothecaries and irregular practitioners administered increasingly potent pharmaceuticals, which moved away from traditional methods of redressing an individual’s unbalanced humours, and instead emphasised the importance of ‘defeating’ this enemy, even at great physical and emotional cost to the patient. Even more hazardously, surgeons carried out invasive and dangerous cancer operations, which could save lives, but which equally provoked angry debate over moral responsibility in the crowded medical marketplace.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:McRae, A. and Toulalan, S.
Thesis/Report Department:English Literature
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:No Reading authors. Back catalogue items
Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Literature and Languages > English Literature
ID Code:69992

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