Review by Elisabeth Brander.
The matter of gender is an area in which medicine and culture are closely intertwined. In her debut monograph, Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2015), Olivia Weisser sets out to examine how gender affected patients’ experiences of illness in 17th and 18th century England. On the whole, she succeeds admirably. Ill Composed is a fascinating read that uses a variety of contemporary sources such as diaries, correspondence, and petitions to illustrate how the cultural expectations placed on early modern men and women influenced their perceptions of illness.
While the book leads off with an overview of the early modern medical landscape, Weisser does not spend much time discussing the finer details of humoral theory or the various treatments available to the sick. Instead, she moves swiftly into investigating how societal norms and illness interacted. In some areas there is an obvious connection. For example, in the early modern period, women were seen as being less rational and more emotional than men; it is therefore not surprising that women had adverse physical responses to emotional disturbances such as the death of a relative or a child falling ill, while men responded to stresses arising from disruptions in their economic circumstances. In other areas, the relationship between the two is less evident. One of Weisser’s more interesting observations focuses on how early modern conceptions of illness were influenced by certain types of writing. She points out that in women’s writing, the authors often adopted a spiritual tone and emphasized the suffering of others as a way to portray themselves as pious and humble. This trait led them to contextualize their illnesses by using the illnesses of others as a point of comparison. In contrast, men were more likely to use their own bodies as points of reference. Their writing tended to focus on closely observing specific sets of circumstances – for example, changes in the natural world, or their business accounts – and this analytical approach is reflected in their descriptions of physical ailments.
The majority of Weisser’s sources were created by members of the literate upper class, and she states outright that this does create a somewhat biased view of her subject matter. The last chapter, however, is dedicated to the experiences of the lower classes, and is based on the petitions the destitute submitted to their parishes in order to claim charitable support due to ill health. These petitions reveal the classist aspects of illness. While the wealthy could muse about the spiritual implications of their ill health, the poor often reduced it to economic terms – for example, a broken leg could impact their ability to work, and force them to seek financial aid. Many of these petitions also emphasized that their need was only temporary, and that they had always been productive members of the parish. The need for the poor to prove that they were deserving of parish support, and not simply idle, is a concern that remains distressingly relevant even today.
Ill Composed is certainly a work that can be classified as history of medicine, but it also sheds light on how many aspects of early modern life were entwined. Religious life, the history of reading and writing, and economic history are some of the threads woven into Weissler’s text. While it will ultimately hold the most appeal for historians of medicine and gender, it is also a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in the early modern world.
Elisabeth Brander is the rare book librarian at the Bernard Becker Medical Library in St. Louis. She enjoys the sense of wonder that working with rare books brings her. They also provide an endless source of inspiration for her endeavors into creative writing, which often incorporate aspects of medical and print history.