Empire against Melancholy: Healing the Body Politic in Britain, c. 1558–1630
My research explores the idea of the diseased body politic in the context of colonisation in early seventeenth-century Britain. I will challenge the current understanding of early modern empire by arguing that idleness as a pathological sign of melancholy played a central role in the expansionist discourse. Accordingly, I propose that the allegory of the organic body and the state was conceived much more literally than scholars previously thought, following the Aristotelian and Galenic traditions that rendered the world in terms of micro- and macrocosms of the body politic.
My project will follow a methodology in intellectual history that has been dominant for over fifty years: to interpret ideas in their contexts. Intellectual historians, however, have routinely failed to expand their contexts beyond the narrowly political. In practice if not in theory, intellectual history has remained restricted to a long-established canon. My project offers to expand our appreciation of context. I will provide an intertextual analysis of political and religious tracts, medical writings, and previously ignored manuscript material. The texts my research will focus on were all written to assist the establishment of new colonies, and to do so they all relied heavily on the concept of the diseased body and its treatments. As these authors were all active in the process of colonisation, part of the methodological implications of my study will be to demonstrate that the sources for the study of intellectual history were not at all theoretical, quite the opposite: they were very much used, debated, and put into practice.
By directing attention to these texts, I shall demonstrate that the inseparability of the health of the body, mind, and the state was taken for granted by the citizens of early modern Britain. It was crucial for any form of “good” constitution to work effectively, but even more so in republics where citizens were required to participate in political life. My study, therefore, is an exploration of the importance of the connection between individual health and the proper functioning of the state.