Bodies complexioned

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

Author: Mark S. Dawson

This book examines early modern English notions of bodily difference. Tracing how the English valued somatic contrasts, both amongst themselves and, as they ventured into and through the Atlantic, among non-Europeans, this book demonstrates that individuals’ distinctive features were thought to be innate, even as discrete populations were also believed to have fleshly characteristics in common – whether similarities in skin-tone, facial profile, hair colour, or demeanour. According to much scholarship, bodies thought to be constituted from the same four elemental fluids as Adam and Eve’s – the phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric, and melancholic humours – were not the stuff of visceral inequality. On the contrary, this book finds that people routinely judged and were judged on sight; according to the ostensible balance, or complexion, of their humours. Belief in monogenesis and Christian universalism notwithstanding, people could be sorted on the basis of their looks, and assumptions made about their ancestry, present condition, and future behaviour. Complexions vouched for distinctions in social status, physical cum moral fitness, national allegiance, and religious affiliation. Humoralism inflected both social politics and international relations. If looking at people racially is to group them according to perceived physical contrasts – in the belief these contrasts mark innate, inherited variations in physical ability, mental agility, or moral aptitude – which simultaneously justify their prejudicial treatment relative to one’s own group, then this book demonstrates how and why racism was fitfully part of early modern English culture.

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