Cancerous Growth and Malignancy

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


Early modern writers on cancer variously framed the disease as a humoral imbalance, a monstrous progeny or an invading worm. On one thing, however, they were universally agreed. Cancer was characterised, even defined, by malignancy. Moreover, as this definition from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) indicates, ‘malignancy’ was in this period a term with religious, social and political significance, of which the biological phenomenon of uncontrolled growth was only one part. In this chapter, I shall examine how cancer was constructed as malignant in medical, political and cultural discourses. Early modern medical practitioners were, I argue, keenly aware of cancer’s malignancy in what we might call a clinical sense; that is, the ability of cancerous tumours to grow and metastasise. To explain this disturbing ability, some writers tried to understand cancer using existing models of poisoning and contagion, attempting to rid the disease of its mystery. In early modern parlance, however, cancer’s ability to spread was commonly viewed as a facet of its malignant nature, not the sum thereof. In the interchange between medical and politic or polemic texts, malignancy was constructed in more diffuse terms, as the cruel and evil driving force which impelled cancers to overspread both natural and politic ‘bodies’.


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Copyright information

© Alanna Skuse 2015

Authors and Affiliations

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

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