Wounds, Flesh, and Metaphor in Seventeenth-Century England

Jerome de Groot delights in a study of language in the middle of strife-ridden 17th-century England

December 31, 2009

This innovative study is genuinely interdisciplinary. Sarah Covington is a historian but her work is interested in the imaginative social, political and cultural potential of metaphor. While at times this work loses its focus owing to its broad compass, Wounds, Flesh, and Metaphor is admirably engaging and thoughtful, bringing a new perspective to study of the civil wars of the 1640s.

Covington's thesis is that cultural and social discourse in this period was suffused with a rich metaphorical language centred upon wounds and destruction of the flesh. She looks at the diffusion of images of scarring, piercing, disrupting, cutting and festering through various key lenses: how it affects writing related to political identity and nationhood; how it relates to love; how the body's cuts and scrapes themselves might be imaginatively used; how religious experience and theory was shot through with disintegrating bodies; and how the law, particularly the legal definitions of treason, dealt in a discourse of death. It is a book full of exhumations and shearing, of split helmets and destroyed hearts. The key is that, while language is central, literature is not, allowing Covington to consider a broad field of works, figures and ideas.

Anyone who works on the 1640s will be familiar with the metaphors and images of wounds and bodily fragmentation of all types, ranging in source from the Bible to anatomical image to lived experience of combat. Indeed, as this study points out, such figurations are commonplace in texts throughout the early modern period and from earlier times, too. Shakespeare's history plays, after all, are fraught with metaphors of illness, death and corporeal collapse.

Covington recognises that many central, repeated metaphors lose their force owing to familiarity, becoming figures of catachresis (although this process - the absence of meaning that metaphor can bring, or the hole that a catachretic image might introduce in discourse - is unfortunately not explored here). However, her study argues that this increases exponentially during the war period, and the varying and diverse uses of images and metaphors - and, of course, actual wounds themselves - begin to betray broader social forces and entrenched attitudes, while also demonstrating anxieties and deep concerns.

The ways in which she approaches wound metaphors are supple and nuanced, and she is able to suggest that scarring and bodily wounding can be something to be feared, something that provokes psychological disquiet, while at the same time it might also be something to be cleaved to. Her section on the wounded political body of nation and king, for instance, demonstrates how "every wound dealt to the nation could also carry grace within its destructive power, just as brokenness could lead to wholeness, and mutilation incorporated into strength".

Much of what she looks at has not really been considered in this light before - and some, such as the work relating to the experiences of soldiers and combat surgeons - illustrates the urgent need to understand in greater depth the ways in which the actual physical experiences of the war were communicated and represented. There could have been more on medicine, on the influence of William Harvey, and on the visual ways in which these rich metaphors were manifest in popular culture. It is an investigation of language at the very basic levels of speech and description, but worked through a very contemporary historiographical nexus that leads to a very satisfying study.

Wounds, Flesh, and Metaphor in Seventeenth-Century England

By Sarah Covington
Palgrave Macmillan
2pp, £55.00
ISBN 9780230616011
Published 2 October 2009

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