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Inside the sickchamber in early modern England: the experience of illness through six objects

Newton, H. (2021) Inside the sickchamber in early modern England: the experience of illness through six objects. English Historical Review, 136 (580). pp. 530-567. ISSN 0013-8266

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1093/ehr/ceab165


This article transports the reader imaginatively into the early modern sickchamber, a space that has rarely attracted much historiographical attention. Focusing on England c.1600-1720, it attempts to reconstruct the patient’s sensory and emotional experiences of this environment. To do so, a material culture approach is adopted, which involves the analysis of six objects from the sickroom: a physic vessel, bedcurtains, clock, mattress, sheets, and blankets. The central argument is that sickness radically altered the way people related to the things around them. When seriously unwell, the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and tactile sensations of the items which during health gave rise to feelings of comfort, became sources of distress. Through this research, the article showcases the mutual benefits that an object-driven approach can bring to the twin fields of medical and material history. For the former, it sheds fresh light on the very meaning of disease in this period, showing that it was conceived as a form of dis-possession. A focus on objects also reveals a number of hitherto overlooked forms of suffering, such as ‘swallowing a lothsome potion’, tinnitus, and sleeplessness. For material studies, the article demonstrates the vital role of the senses in the ‘emotive agency’ of objects, as well as offering an opportunity to tackle the notorious challenge of the silence of many historical records on ‘everyday objects’. Confined to the sickchamber for a stretch of time, the attention of the sick rested on the things around them, eliciting comments which would have rarely been voiced in health.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > Early Modern Research Centre (EMRC)
Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Humanities > History
ID Code:90686
Publisher:Oxford University Press


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