Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

"That Sublimest Juyce in Our Body": Bloodletting and Ideas of the Individual in Early Modern England

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

"That Sublimest Juyce in Our Body": Bloodletting and Ideas of the Individual in Early Modern England

Article excerpt

Blood always speaks beyond itself. A meeting point between the material and the vital, it is a substance suffused with meaning more than physiological. For the ancient writers of Leviticus, life itself was in the blood, and the elaborate blood rituals they described both marked the hierarchies of social relationship and separated the space of the sacred from the profane. For medieval pilgrims to holy shrines in northern Europe, bloody hosts, Eucharist wafers miraculously marked by the blood of salvation, signaled the continuous intervention of the divine into the historical world. Even today, in a world less immediately given to granting meaning to bodily fluids, blood--and our handling of it--continues to exert its symbolic power: as Catharine Waldby and Robert Mitchell have recently shown, the enormous upsurge in blood donation after 9/11 conveyed not only a widespread wish to offer aid in a crisis but also complex ideas about citizenship and national identity. (1)

In early modern England, too, blood's referential range extended beyond the medical: for about twenty years during the Commonwealth and early Restoration, an intense but short-lived debate arose about phlebotomy, the ancient and venerable art of incising veins to let blood from particular parts of the body. Phlebotomy had been a normative practice of Galenic medicine since the earliest centuries of the Common Era. Although over the centuries questions had at rimes arisen about the details of its use--about when precisely to let blood, about how much blood to let, and, especially, about which specific veins were appropriate to cut for which specific conditions (2)--on the whole, the controversies about phlebotomy never questioned the efficacy of the treatment itself. (3) For a short time in the seventeenth century, however, with Galenic physiology under pressure from new anatomical and physiological discoveries, and with the dominance of Galenic medical practice threatened by competing medical practitioners, the efficacy of phlebotomy itself was called into question. Phlebotomists were suddenly recast by their critics as nothing more than "bronchotomists," literally, cutthroats; phlebotomy itself was compared to butchery, an effort akin to amputating an arm just to remove a splinter. (4) One writer claimed that phlebotomy was invented by the devil himself, intended to suck the lifeblood from God-fearing Englishmen. (5) The virulence of such attacks against a practice so ingrained in the daily life of the populace inevitably elicited equally impassioned defense: phlebotomy's supporters ridiculed those who derided the technique as pompous know-nothings, ignorant of the rudiments of physic, thinking to make a revolution in learning merely by dressing up old ideas in new and obscure terms. (6)

Even by the standards of the seventeenth century, a period not known for civilized restraint in printed debate, the energy of the back-and-forth assaults is impressive. In part, and perhaps most fundamentally, these arguments concern the legitimacy of the technique itself and of the Galenic tradition in which it thrived; they debate specifically whether or not phlebotomy, if practiced correctly, works as Galenists claimed as an effective prophylactic against and as cure for a host of particular conditions. But other issues were involved as well.

Raw commercial competition, for example, gave an edge to the insults. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the urban centers of England saw increasing competition among different kinds of medical practitioners. Most of the men who wrote against phlebotomy were chemical physicians, followers of Joan Baptista van Helmont, the early seventeenth-century visionary and medical reformer. Unlicensed by the College of Physicians, these chemical physicians were unable legally to practice medicine in London and its environs. (7) By warning of the dangers inherent to the traditional reliance on phlebotomy, these physicians were challenging the legitimacy of current legal strictures about who got to practice medicine in the most populated and well-to-do areas of England. …

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