Practice imperfect: The struggle for health in early modern English literature

Alexis Marie Butzner, Fordham University


This dissertation examines how early modern British writers use practical texts of spiritual and physical health in their works. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England, the problem of attaining and maintaining health was a fixation of many authors of practical works, producing a flood of texts purporting to offer a ready and easy way to physical and spiritual health through careful governance. While these discourses were immensely popular and influential, their broad and totalizing approaches often overlook the contingencies inherent in individual experience, as well as inadequacies in human nature and knowledge. I demonstrate that literature complicates claims, asserted by both theology and medicine, that there can be perfect methods of practice and fixed knowledge about health. Early modern scholars tend to focus on how these discourses of physical and spiritual health resonate in literature, suggesting a one-way relationship in which literature merely reflects broader cultural concerns. My dissertation asks us to think about this relationship in a new, more dynamic way: reading under-examined practical texts alongside literary works by William Shakespeare, John Donne, and female prophets like Anna Trapnel, I show that British literature participates in debates about health in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and that it both develops cultural knowledge and challenges it, revealing a growing awareness of the frailty and uncertainty inherent in human knowledge.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Butzner, Alexis Marie, "Practice imperfect: The struggle for health in early modern English literature" (2017). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10195458.