Cancer and the Gendered Body

  • Alanna Skuse
Open Access
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine book series


On 3 December 1700, noblewoman Sarah Cowper wrote in her diary: ‘My breast is unquiet and gives me troublesome apprehensions. I sometimes seem weary of living, yet find myself often in fear of a painfull lingering death’.1 Beside the entry was a marginal note in the same hand: ‘Fearing a Cancer’. In this chapter, I will argue that Cowper’s identification of her breast as the ‘troublesome’ site where a cancer might breed was, in part, born of contemporary medical and cultural orthodoxy. The feminine body — in particular, the female breast — was, for early modern medical practitioners and lay observers, the paradigmatic site of cancerous growth. This paradigm was rooted in medical, social and aesthetic discourses in which the female body variously appeared as fecund, feeble, dangerous and secret. Moreover, as they attempted to explain cancer’s bias toward the supposedly weaker sex, medical practitioners reluctantly engaged with troubling aspects of early modern women’s lifecycles, making cancer a disease with the potential to cast light on hidden aspects of the sufferer’s conjugal and domestic situation. Women’s cancers thus sprang from, and in turn re-inscribed, a model of sexual dimorphism in which the female body appeared physiologically, functionally and pathologically unique.


  1. 2.
    Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: The Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 1990); Londa Schiebinger, ‘Skeletons in the Closet: The First Illustrations of the Female Skeleton in Eighteenth-Century Anatomy’, Representations 14, ‘The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century’, (1986), 42–82.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Michael Stolberg, ‘A Woman Down to Her Bones: The Anatomy of Sexual Difference in the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries’, Isis 94:2 (2003), 274–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 6.
    Gail Kern Paster, ‘The Unbearable Coldness of Female Being: Women’s Imperfection and the Humoral Economy’, English Literary Renaissance 28 (1998), 416–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 7.
    Daniel De Moulin, ‘Historical Notes on Breast Cancer, with Emphasis on the Netherlands: I. Pathological and Therapeutic Concepts in the Seventeenth Century’, The Netherlands Journal of Surgery 32:4 (1980), 129.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    James S. Olson, Bathsheba’s Breast: Women, Cancer, and History (Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), p. 295.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    John Marten, Gonosologium Novum: Or, a New System of all the Secret Infirm and Diseases, Natural, Accidental, and Venereal in Men and Women (London: 1709), p. 31.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    John Browne, The Surgeons Assistant. Also a Compleat Treatise of Cancers and Gangreens. With an Enquiry Whether they have any Alliance with Contagious Diseases (London: 1703), pp. 109–10.Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    Marjo Kaartinen, Breast Cancer in the Eighteenth Century (London; Vermont: Pickering and Chatto, 2013), p. 8; Luke Demaitre, ‘Medieval Notions of Cancer: Malignancy and Metaphor’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 72:4 (1998), 610; James Handley, Colloquia Chirurgica: Or, the Whole Art of Surgery Epitomiz’d and Made Easie (London: 1705), p. 66.Google Scholar
  9. 19.
    Thomas Adams, The Blacke Devil or the Apostate. Together with the Wolfe Worrying the Lambes and The Spirituall Navigator, Bound for the Holy Land (London: 1615), pp. 31–2.Google Scholar
  10. 21.
    Katherine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation and the Origins of Human Dissection (New York: Zone Books, 2010), p. 26. See also Robert Martensen, ‘The Transformation of Eve: Women’s Bodies, Medicine and Culture in Early Modern England’, in Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich (eds), Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science: The History of Attitudes to Sexuality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 107–33.Google Scholar
  11. 22.
    Matthew Cobb, The Egg and Sperm Race: The Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth (London: The Free Press, 2006); Monica Green, ‘From Diseases of Women to Secrets of Women’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30 (2000), 5–39.Google Scholar
  12. 23.
    Michael Stolberg, ‘Menstruation and Sexual Difference in Early Modern Medicine’, in Andrew Shail and Gillian Howie (eds), Menstruation: A Cultural History (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 90–101.Google Scholar
  13. 25.
    Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), especially Chapter 2, ‘Laudable Blood: Bleeding, Difference, and Humoral Embarrassment’, pp. 64–112.Google Scholar
  14. 27.
    See Monica H. Green, ‘Flowers, Poisons and Men: Menstruation in Medieval Western Europe’, in Andrew Shail and Gillian Howie (eds), Menstruation: A Cultural History (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 51–64.Google Scholar
  15. 36.
    Robert Bayfield, Tractatus de Tumoribus Praeter Naturam, or, A Treatise of Preternatural Tumors (London: 1662), p. 190; Paré, The Workes, p. 282.Google Scholar
  16. 42.
    Michael Stolberg, ‘A Woman’s Hell? Medical Perceptions of Menopause in Pre-Industrial Europe’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 73 (1999), 408–28. Churchill also points out that while menopause was not generally deemed pathological, physicians often treated irregular menstruation in women who were entering the menopause in the same manner as amenorrhea in younger women (Churchill, Female Patients, p. 114).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 43.
    Elizabeth Lane Furdell, The Royal Doctors, 1485–1714: Medical Personnel at the Tudor and Stuart Courts (New York: University of Rochester Press, 2001), p. 56. See also Cathy McClive, ‘The Hidden Truths of the Belly: The Uncertainties of Pregnancy in Early Modern Europe’, Social History of Medicine 15:2 (2002), 221.Google Scholar
  18. 52.
    See Patricia Crawford, ‘Attitudes to Menstruation in Seventeenth-Century England’, Past and Present 91 (1981), 50–52; Green, ‘Flowers, Poisons and Men’, p. 54; Barbara Orland, ‘White Blood and Red Milk: Analogical Reading in Medical Practice and Experimental Physiology (1560–1730)’, in Manfred Horstmanshoff, Helen King and Claus Zittel (eds), Blood, Sweat and Tears: The Changing Concepts of Physiology from Antiquity into Early Modern Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp. 443–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 66.
    Marilyn Yalom, A History of the Breast (London: Pandora, 1998), p. 74.Google Scholar
  20. 68.
    Felicity Nussbaum, Torrid Zones: Maternity, Sexuality, and Empire in Eighteenth-Century English Narratives (Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 111; Sarah Toulalan, Imagining Sex: Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 79.Google Scholar
  21. 70.
    Margaret R. Miles, A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast 1350–1750 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), p. 2.Google Scholar
  22. 71.
    Valerie Fildes, Breasts, Bottles and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1986), p. 98; David Harley, ‘From Providence to Nature: The Moral Theology and Godly Practice of Maternal Breast-feeding in Stuart England’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 69:2 (1995), 198–223.Google Scholar
  23. 80.
    Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977); Susan Amussen, An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988); Su Fang Ng, Literature and the Politics of Family in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).Google Scholar
  24. 82.
    Madame de Motteville, Memoirs of Madame de Motteville on Anne of Austria and Her Court (trans. Katherine Prescott Wormeley, with an introduction by C.A. Sainte-Beuve) (Boston: Hardy, Pratt & Company, 1902), pp. 310, 186.Google Scholar
  25. 84.
    Sarah E. Owens, ‘The Cloister as Therapeutic Space: Breast Cancer Narratives in the Early Modern World’, Literature and Medicine 30:2 (2012), 322. Original quotation from Wilmer Cave Wright (ed.), De Morbis Artificum by Barnardino Ramazzini: The Latin Text of 1713 (London: 1940), p. 191.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 92.
    Roy Porter, Bodies Politic: Disease, Death and Doctors in Britain, 1650–1900 (London: Reaktion Books, 2001), p. 36.Google Scholar
  27. 94.
    Garthine Walker, Crime, Gender, and Social Order in Early Modern England (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 63–70; Elizabeth Foyster, ‘A Laughing Matter? Marital Discord and Gender Control in Early Modern England’, Rural History 4:1 (1993), 5–21; Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), especially Chapter 6, ‘Domestic Disorders: Adultery and Violence’, pp. 180–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 99.
    Evelyne Berriot-Salvadore, ‘The Discourse of Medicine and Science’ (trans. Arthur Goldhammer), in Natalie Zemon Davis and Arlette Farge (eds), A History of Women: Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 354.Google Scholar
  29. 103.
    Hephzibah Roskelly, ‘I meditate on Descartes’, Social Semiotics 22:1 (2012), 35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Alanna Skuse 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alanna Skuse
    • 1
  1. 1.Folger Shakespeare LibraryUSA

Personalised recommendations