Dissenting Bodies: Corporealities in Early New England

By Gates, Ben | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Dissenting Bodies: Corporealities in Early New England


Gates, Ben, Anglican and Episcopal History


Dissenting Bodies: Corporealities in Early New England. By Martha L. Finch. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010, Pp. xiv, 274. $45.00, cloth.)

"Colonial bodies - how they were disciplined toward moral behavior, how they were clothed, how they gestured during religious rituals, how Indians and English observed and interpreted each others' bodies - can be read like texts to provide a richly nuanced understanding of Plymouth social culture, in which religious and 'secular' modes of thought and life so interpenetrated that one cannot be understood without considering the other" (23). With this introductory statement, historian Martha L. Finch lays out the rationale behind her novel and fascinating look at seventeenth-century Plymouth Plantation. Even tiiough the histories of Massachusetts Bay colony and its villages outnumber the works concerning Plymouth, one might wonder why one more work on the early history of New England is necessary. Finch more than justifies her research by highlighting an ingrethent of the colonial worldview that often goes unheeded: how the colonists viewed their physical existence from a tiieological, philosophical, scientific, and pragmatic standpoint.

The book moves from a series of specific historical events in the spring of 1623 to a more general, thematic exploration of die author's thesis that an understanding of colonial "embodiment" explains much of the conduct and tiiinking of the inhabitants of Plymouth. Chapter one details three particular episodes during Plymouth's early history diat serve as "case studies" for the ideas Finch wants to analyze throughout the rest of the book. Two of these episodes, the healing of Massasoit, chief sachem of the Wampanoags, and the beheading of a Massachusetts Indian named Wituwamat by Plymouth leader Myles Standish, showcase one of the strengths that runs through this book. Finch is at her best when contrasting Native American and Anglo-American bodies and the interpretations the residents of Plymouth drew from these comparisons. Chapter two highlights another significant relationship in Finch's narrative, that of colonist to wilderness. Anyone who has studied the Puritans or separatists who populated early New England understands that these people interacted with the surrounding wilderness in an ambivalent fashion. They feared the surrounding forest while hoping that it would also yield the sustenance they needed to survive and flourish. …

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