Erotomania and bodily decorum

o-REAL-LIFE-VAMPIRE-facebookMy last post discussed wounds and surgeons in the first volume of Roger Boyle’s romance Parthenissa (1651), in which I argued that the hero’s body was being medicalised in a distinctively modern way. But there’s plenty more to say about the function of wounds in this romance. The hero’s body in Parthenissa is not just a patient’s, submitting to the ‘plaisters’ of the surgeon; the hero is also an active desiring subject who has been overcome with physical passion for the heroine.

So far, so conventional; the wound representing love stretches all the way back to Cupid’s arrow. However, clichés become clichés for a good reason; just because the wound is now hackneyed as a metaphorical construction of passion it shouldn’t blind us to its effectiveness. The wound conveys a loss of control, the absolute physicality of the body confronted with the object of desire. What emerges from a reading of Parthenissa is the insistence that passion is not simply a meeting of minds at all. In their first erotic encounter with the heroines, the heroes’ bodies always bleed. Artabanes is near death following his joust defending Parthenissa’s honour; Artavasdes is close to expiring after defending the city of Artaxia from attack; and Perolla, whohas just fended off assassins, is broken and bleeding  when he first meets Izadora and falls in love with her.

Parthenissa reclaims the body in all its fleshiness and reworks the conventional metaphorical construction of the wound. In this romance, passion is literally embedded in the bodies of Artabanes, Artavasdes and Perolla.  And where the hero desires, there must he bleed. It’s a marked reaction against neo-Platonic ideas of chaste union between lovers; that conception of marital harmony was dominant at the Caroline court and enshrined within masques of Charles II and Henrietta Maria, notably in Carew’s Coelum Britannicum where the king and queen are united within the mythography of Carlomaria.

There’s plenty to say here about Boyle’s displacement of the sexualised bleeding body from a female one to a male one (more on that another time) but for the moment I want to remain with the physiological elements of blood and sexual desire in the early modern period. We’re back to the surgeons again.


“Barber-surgeons…were responsible for phlebotomies: common but sometimes spectacular bleedings, considered necessary on the strength of the notion that noxious humours had to be literally expunged from the organism,” notes Noga Arikha. “These bleedings were performed with a selection of somewhat alarming tools, such as lancets and scarificators, as well as cups that, when heated, drew blood to the surface by creating what, in the seventeenth century, would eventually be recognised as a vacuum.”

But why might a surgeon-phlebotomist be required to bleed a healthy male? To understand this, you have to tackle the Galenic theory of humours that held sway up until the late seventeenth century.

Galenic medical theory was largely concerned with purging excess or imbalances. Those imbalances could be affected by internal dispositions or external factors. Human temperaments were divided into four, corresponding to four different fluids: sanguine (blood), melancholic (black bile), choleric (yellow bile) and phlegmatic (phlegm). Bodily imbalances could also be fostered by external  influences such as air, seasons or diet.bloodletting

Fluids, in Galenic humoralism, were fungible within the body. Ambroise Paré, in his great medical textbook, which appeared in English editions in 1617, 1625, 1631 and 1634, says: “All things which we eate or drink are the materialls of blood”.  Food was turned into blood, and blood, semen, sweat and tears could turn into one another.  The liver was thought to manufacture copious quantities of blood continuously; an overabundance was thought to be harmful as the circulation of the blood was not understood.  Bloodletting therefore evolved to relieve the patient of excess; in Gail Kern Paster’s words, it was the “cultural inversion of menstruation”, which purged the woman of noxious humours.


Which brings us to Erotomania. Originally written in French by Jacques Ferrand in 1623, it is a textbook that discusses the diagnosis and treatment of lovesickness. Translated into English in 1640, Erotomania is prefaced by a series of poems by various Christ Church wits. Rather in the tradition of Coryat’s Crudities, these poems are largely performative, a communal university game that ironises the text they preface and which jokingly frame the book itself as a prophylactic. The first poem, by W. Towers, plays on the conceit that the lovesick reader must have made a mistake in buying the volume, that (s)he has picked it up not for medical reasons but has mistaken it for a pleasurable romance: “Thou, that from this Gay Title, look’st no high’r/Then some Don Errant, or his fullsome Squire”. F. Palmer mock-prophesises the world turned on its head: “The World will all turne Stoicks, when they find/This Physick here”… “Men, as in Plagues, from Marriage will be bent/And every day will seem to be in Lent”

Prefatory material aside, Erotomania consists of 39 detailed chapters discussing the treatment of love melancholy from surgical remedies to potions. It’s less of a manual than a quasi-conduct book – there are no diagrams, unlike in Ambroise Paré’s works. The physician must devise remedies that are not just physical but moral. Ferrand declares in his introduction: “My chiefest purpose is, to prescribe some remedies for the prevention of this disease of Love, which those men for the most part are subject unto, that have not the power to governe their desires, and subject them to Reasons Lawes: seeing that this unchast Love proves oftentimes the Author of the greatest Mischiefes that are in the world (p4)

Therapeutic bloodletting, the letting go of a plethora of blood and heat, as much about the control of a patient’s desire and therefore his (usually his) behaviour. In Chapter 38, entitled Chirurgicall Remedies for Love-Melancholy, Ferrand advises: “If the Patient be in good plight of body, fat and corpulent, the first thing wee doe, we must let him bleed, in the Hepatica in the right arme, such a proportionable quantity of blood, as shal be thought convenient both for his disease, complexion, and strength of body…. Phlebotomy makes those that are sad, Merry: appeaseth those that are Angry: and keeps Lovers from running Mad.”

In other words, bloodletting regulates social behaviour. The unruly humoral body must be tamed. Gail Kern Paster’s The Body Embarrassed is the key critical work here; she has brilliantly drawn on Norbert Elias’s theories of the way that violence, bodily functions (including sexual) are ‘civilised’ by ever-increasing thresholds of shame. Paster makes the connection between the disciplining of humoral fluids and the way that the Bakhtinian grotesque and carnivalesque becomes tamed by the classical body. Her study of Middleton’s city comedies and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar explores the inflections of gender. Anxieties around the ‘leaky vessel’ of the female body, whether through menstruation or urine, underlines the increasing ideological investment in female intactness that becomes a system of control and decorum. (Nowadays the female body is disciplined by the baby diets in Closer magazine and the Daily Mail sidebar of shame. But I digress.)

Back to romance

Ferrand’s Erotomania and Paster’s study of the early modern humoral body open up a reading of Artabanes, Artavasdes and Perolla, the bleeding, leaking heroes of Parthenissa, as partly feminised and verging on the uncontrollable. Their desiring bodies must be regulated by bloodletting.

Parthenissa’s high-minded heroes may display their desire through martial acts but must bleed because they have a surfeit of that same desire. It’s notable that Artabanes and Artavasdes speak of their passion for Parthenissa and Altezeera as ‘criminal’ – not so much because it is transgressive in a Montague-Capulet kind of way, but because the very admission of (sexual) passion is framed as disruptive to the bodily and social balance. You can see traces here of how English mid-seventeenth century romance was influenced by its French cousin, a product of the Paris ‘précieux’ salons, in which ‘bienséance’, or propriety, was privileged – the latter being both an aesthetic system as regulated by the Académie française and a physical/social one, as regulated by the classical body.

It seems that in Parthenissa bodily fluids are therefore enlisted into a wider ideological cross-Channel discourse of decorum within fiction. In other words, you can put the body centre stage, but you have to punish it. It is a physical purging but also a moral one; blood becomes both a display of passion and its control mechanism.


The Workes of that famous Chirugion Ambrose Parey, Translated out of Latine and compered with the French, tr. Thomas Johnson (London, 1634)

Jacques Ferrand, Erotomania or A treatise discoursing of the essence, causes, symptomes, prognosticks, and cure of love, or erotique melancholy (Oxford, 1640)

Noga Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours (New York: Harper Collins, 2008)

Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993)


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