Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"Though I Speak with the Tongues of Men and of Angels ...": Rhetorical Practices in Nineteenth-Century Religious and Medical Discourse

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"Though I Speak with the Tongues of Men and of Angels ...": Rhetorical Practices in Nineteenth-Century Religious and Medical Discourse

Article excerpt

This essay examines a variety of medical and religious texts from mid-nineteenth-century Spain. It explores the degree to which their writing--as a medium that betrays more than a simple message of content--indicates to us how far they were allied to other social authorities, and specifically to the Church, in a power structure sealed by language. In addition, these texts demonstrate that professional writing intended for popular dissemination had common elements of approach and expression that transcended disciplinary or confessional boundaries. Both medical and religious texts reveal a high level of concern with maintaining positions of authority. This is partly related to issues of social power (the habitual implied audiences of such texts being women, children, and the lower classes). At the same time, the concern with power provides exemplification of anxieties about gender and degeneration, against which the structures and skills of rhetoric are brought in as weapons of control. The body of the essay examines the ways in which the two fields of discourse converge, so that the Church speaks of matters of health while medical texts borrow theological terminology. This convergence is revealed further in the authorities they cite, and in their approach to linguistic register. Both employ Latin and complex syntax as ploys to exclude the unlettered and to designate an implied minority readership. The project of control of the readership through rhetoric is revealed as a prime reason for using it. At the same time, as revealed in later-nineteenth-century texts, the emotive powers of rhetoric contain the potential for a counter-control movement that stands in tension with the initial use of rhetoric to assert social power.

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A commonplace in Spanish culture of the nineteenth century is the opposition not simply of political parties or tendencies, but of sectors of belief and non-belief. We tend rather readily when looking at this period to associate progress with liberal politics, and resistance to progress with the Catholic Church. Within such a division of tendencies, the sphere of medical knowledge, for example, would naturally be associated with the forces of progress. It is true that members of the medical profession in Spain were keenly interested in the work of their peers in other European countries, yet when we consider the nature of their writings, a different picture emerges. I shall be concerned in this essay less with the content of what they wrote about than with their manner of writing. To do so I shall refer to a variety of medical and religious texts produced in the second half of the nineteenth century. The majority of texts with which I am concerned were published between 1857 and 1868 (the last decade of the reign of Isabel II) and show a clear level of common elements of discourse. My aim is to explore the degree to which their writing--as a medium that betrays more than a simple message of content--indicates to us how far they were allied to other social authorities, and specifically to the Church, in a power structure sealed by language. In addition, these texts demonstrate that professional writing intended for popular dissemination had common elements of approach and expression that transcended disciplinary or confessional boundaries.

Medical discourse in nineteenth-century Spain has come under scrutiny in recent years. Aldaraca (1989; 1992) has examined how the hysteric in Spain, as elsewhere, was constructed by the language that defined her, and how the construction of woman was along religious and social lines (1991); Valis (1992; 1994; 2000) provides a similar contextualization. Yet the most significant contribution to out familiarity with such discourse is the anthology compiled by Jagoe, Blanco, and Enriquez de Salamanca (1998). This anthology does not, however, provide us with much primary material in the field of religious discourse, the exception being Claret's views on what was needed in a woman's education (1862a). …

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