ENGL719X - Blood, sweat and tears: “race” and the politics of the body

This course is designed to intersect with a major conference scheduled for spring, “Bloodwork: the politics of the body 1500-1900.” It will explore how the fluid transactions of the body—first known as the humors—have been used to justify existing social arrangements, and asks when these descriptions of blood in literature are literal and when metaphoric.

In early modern England, family lineage or bloodline was commonly referred to as “race.” Among noble subjects, humoral constitution was understood to be in equilibrium. Hence, Thomas Elyot in The Book of the Governor cautions that the selection of a wet-nurse for noble children must be directed by her “complection”—or the distribution of the humors expressed in her milk. Elyot’s concerns about the humoral complexion of the nurse and the possible corruption of noble blood describe the physical technologies by which virtue—both physical and moral—was thought to be conveyed through bloodlines.  Daniel Defoe’s later satire “A True-Born Englishman” (1708) echoes this rationale for difference: “But if our virtues must in lines descend, / The merit with the families would end, / And intermixtures would most fatal grow, / For vice would be hereditary too.”  Defoe’s language not only insinuates the crossover of the term “race” from family lines to national groups, but also supplies evidence that both kinds of racial ideology—whether affirming social hierarchy or national superiority—rest upon the invisible qualities of the blood.

We will explore how blood rationalizes bodily difference through the early modern period and up to the early nineteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic and in various cultural contexts, including British and Spanish America. Treatises that attempt to define ethnicity, such as Jean Bodin’s Method for the Easy Comprehension of History, will be read next to historical analyses of English ethnicity (such as William Camden’s Britannia) in order to shed light on Edmund Spenser’s treatment of Temperance as an English virtue in Book II of the Faerie Queene. Other readings will include poetry and prose by Anne Bradstreet, William Byrd, Thomas Jefferson, Peter Kolb, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Alonso Carrió de la Vandera, and José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi. Assignments include one in-class presentation, one short paper, and one long paper.