Distempered skin and the English abroad
in Bodies complexioned
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Humoral balances were prone to change, especially as people began to travel further and further away from their birthplaces. This alteration was morbid and, hopefully, shorter lived than migrants themselves, provided that the new environment was (made) agreeable to their innate complexions. Recuperating and maintaining those natal temperaments meant paying attention to the non-naturals in their new homes: air and climate; exercise or rest; food and drink; evacuation or repletion; sleep and wakefulness; the passions. Colonists were anxious about degeneracy, that is, a falling-away from those original types or, after multiple generations born outside England, the potential for their lasting modification. However, a fundamental continuity was considered possible for those who practised a humoral pathology. This pathology also shaped English perceptions of America’s first peoples. As both cause and consequence of their nomadic ways, Indians appeared to have chronically unsettled complexions, of which their ‘tawny’ skins were symptomatic. Considered relatively recent arrivals and ostensibly unwilling to tame their environment, native Americans became ‘naturals’ – their immortal souls were deemed persistently subject to their distempered flesh. It was this abjection of soul to body, not an intrinsic bodily inferiority, that allowed settlers to justify the dispossession and subjugation of native peoples.

Bodies complexioned

Human variation and racism in early modern English culture, c. 1600–1750

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