Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (Sixth Series)

Research Article

MARKETS AND CULTURES: MEDICAL SPECIFICS AND THE RECONFIGURATION OF THE BODY IN EARLY MODERN EUROPE

Harold J. Cooka1*

a1 GLASGOW CALEDONIAN UNIVERSITY

ABSTRACT

The history of the body is of course contested territory. Postmodern interpretations in particular have moved it from a history of scientific knowledge of its structure and function toward histories of the various meanings, identities and experiences constructed about it. Underlying such interpretations have been large and important claims about the unfortunate consequences of the rise of a political economy associated with capitalism and medicalisation. In contradistinction, this paper offers a view of that historical process in a manner in keeping with materialism rather than in opposition to it. To do so, it examines a general change in body perceptions common to most of the literature: a shift from the body as a highly individualistic and variable subject to a more universal object, so that alterations in one person's body could be understood to represent how alterations in other human bodies occurred. It then suggests that one of the chief causes of that change was the growing vigour of the market for remedies that could be given to anyone, without discrimination according to temperament, gender, ethnicity, social status or other variables in the belief that they would cure quietly and effectively. One of the most visible remedies of this kind was a ‘specific’, the Peruvian, or Jesuits’ bark. While views about specific drugs were contested, the development of a market for medicinals that worked universally helped to promote the view that human bodies are physiologically alike.

(Online publication April 14 2010)

Footnotes

* I would like to thank John Stewart and Colin Jones for inviting me to speak at the conference on ‘Science and the Human Subject in History’ at Glasgow Caledonian, and to the members of the audience for their thoughtful comments, and the same to the members of the Harvard Working Group on the History of Medicine, with whom I also discussed a version of the paper.