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  • Open Access
  • © 2021

The Life of Breath in Literature, Culture and Medicine

Classical to Contemporary

Palgrave Macmillan
  • This book is open access, which means that you have free and unlimited accessDraws on medical humanities perspectives

  • Studies philosophy, history and literature from classical to contemporary

  • Examines ideas of breath and breathlessness, their cultural and creative significance, and their resonances for contemporary understanding and experience

Buying options

Softcover Book USD 49.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book USD 59.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)

Table of contents (25 chapters)

  1. Front Matter

    Pages i-xxii
  2. The Life of Breath: Contexts and Approaches

    • David Fuller, Jane Macnaughton, Corinne Saunders
    Pages 1-33Open Access
  3. The Classical Period

    1. Front Matter

      Pages 35-35
    2. Pneumatic Episodes from Homer to Galen

      • A. A. Long
      Pages 37-54Open Access
  4. The Early Modern Period

    1. Front Matter

      Pages 153-153
    2. ‘Being Breathed’: From King Lear to Clinical Medicine

      • Katharine A. Craik, Stephen J. Chapman
      Pages 155-174Open Access
  5. The Romantic and Victorian Periods

    1. Front Matter

      Pages 283-283
    2. Romantic Consumption: The Paradox of Fashionable Breath

      • Clark Lawlor
      Pages 285-304Open Access

About this book

This open access book studies breath and breathing in literature and culture and provides crucial insights into the history of medicine, health and the emotions, the foundations of beliefs concerning body, spirit and world, the connections between breath and creativity and the phenomenology of breath and breathlessness. Contributions span the classical, medieval, early modern, Romantic, Victorian, modern and contemporary periods, drawing on medical writings, philosophy, theology and the visual arts as well as on literary, historical and cultural studies. The collection illustrates the complex significance and symbolic power of breath and breathlessness across time: breath is written deeply into ideas of nature, spirituality, emotion, creativity and being, and is inextricable from notions of consciousness, spirit, inspiration, voice, feeling, freedom and movement. The volume also demonstrates the long-standing connections between breath and place, politics and aesthetics, illuminating both contrasts and continuities.


  • health humanities
  • medical humanities
  • breath in literature
  • COPD
  • breathlessness
  • literature and science
  • Open Access


The Life of Breath was born of a brilliantly varied years-long project in the critical medical humanities which brought together artists, humanists, medical practitioners, scientists and patients to study and perform arts and acts of breathing.  This essay collection breaks new ground in establishing the foundational role of respiration in the (inter)subjective workings of desire, the interdependence of interior and exterior environments and ‘conspiration’—the often-hidden commonality of breathing. Because we all breathe the same air, ‘breath, intimately connected with life, connecting mind and body, opens onto profound—and timeless—ethical questions,’ write the editors. Those questions are richly and magisterially addressed in essays that trace histories of living and thinking the breath, and articulate what the editors call ‘the potential of the arts to help people live well with breathlessness.’ This volume is required reading for anyone, in any discipline, devoted to any of the many arts of living, who recognizes the urgency, today, of returning ‘to every living thing—human, plant, and animal—the space and conditions required for its breathing.’” (Aranye Fradenburg Joy, Psychoanalyst and Professor Emerita, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA)

“Across centuries and countries, we have one thing in common: we all breathe. But after reading this volume it is not possible to draw breath without a nuanced and awed awareness of what that breath means, how attitudes to it differ and what it means to lack or be denied breath. Ranging from Homeric epic to the twenty-first-century clinic, this mesmerizing collection investigates highly diverse topics, but even more impressive than the variety of essays is their seamless intersection. The ways in which they relate to each other is testament to the ways in which breath and breathing affects every aspect of our body, our environment and our politics. It is easy to say that this is an ‘inspiring’ collection but such a pun does disservice to the complexity of the topics addressed. Just as it is rare to find a collection of essays of this span so integrated, it is unusual to find a medical humanities topic that is so symbiotically valuable to both medical and humanities communities. From start to finish, this book is a remarkable achievement.” (Laurie Maguire, Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford, UK)

“An inspired collection of essays on the life, origin, meaning and metaphor of breath over the centuries in the sacred and secular worlds, a wonderful fruition of an interdisciplinary Wellcome research project ‘The Life of Breath.’ It is timely, as breathing and breathlessness have been brought to the centre of the world’s attention in the last year by the devastation and human suffering wrought by the coronavirus. It is rich, bringing to readers’ attention the many interpretations of the significance of breath and breathing over millennia. It is definitive—there is no other volume that brings together such depth and breadth on this subject.” (Sara Booth, Lecturer, University of Cambridge and Honorary Consultant, Cambridge University Hospitals, UK)

The Life of Breath is a truly breathtaking panorama of the newly-formed respiratory paradigm of our time, taking in a vast range of philosophical, psychological, religious, medical, artistic and political articulations of the quality of air. Its own rhythm orchestrates the anxious or oppressive constrictions of breath with the many positive ways of producing, unloosing and augmenting it. The volume is truly voluminous in every sense—in the reach of its themes, occasions and instances, and the giant span of its historical focus, from the classical world to the contemporary agonistics of respiration. Breath gives life, but this unbated volume reciprocally imparts new kinds of life to breath.” (Steven Connor, Director of CRASSH, Grace 2 Professor of English, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, UK)

Editors and Affiliations

  • University of Durham, Durham, UK

    David Fuller, Jane Macnaughton

  • Department of English Studies, University of Durham, Durham, UK

    Corinne Saunders

About the editors

David Fuller is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Durham, UK. He has written on literary works from medieval to contemporary, on editorial theory, on opera and on dance. His most recent book is Shakespeare and the Romantics in the series ‘Oxford Shakespeare Topics’ (2021).

Corinne Saunders is Professor of English and Co-Director of the Institute for Medical Humanities at the University of Durham, UK, and specialises in medieval literature and history of ideas. Her most recent book is the co-edited volume Visions and Voice-Hearing in Medieval and Early Modern Contexts (Palgrave Macmillan 2020).

Jane Macnaughton is Professor of Medical Humanities, Director of the Institute for Medical Humanities at the University of Durham, UK, and a practicing physician. She was Principal Investigator on the Wellcome-funded Life of Breath project (2014-20) and is a co-editor of The Edinburgh Companion to Critical Medical Humanities (2016).

Bibliographic Information

Buying options

Softcover Book USD 49.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book USD 59.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)