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Edith Snook, 'The Physiology of Reading'

The Physiology of Reading in Elizabeth Isham’s Spiritual Autobiography

Edith Snook, University of New Brunswick




This paper focused on one aspect of the remarkably detailed account of early modern reading practices that Elizabeth Isham’s spiritual autobiography provides: how reading can restore the body to good health. The essay argued that Isham regards reading aloud to a sick person as a form of textual physic. In this, Elizabeth Isham’s writing presents a challenge to prevailing conceptions of the physiology of reading in early modern England. Scholars have focused on reading’s imagined physical dangers. We have learned from early modern writers of conduct books about the physical corruption imagined to accompany unregulated female reading. Adrian Johns’ The Nature of the Book has argued, more generally, that unhealthy or morally suspect passions could distort the reader’s vision and interfere with his or her ability to distinguish between truth and error. For Elizabeth Isham, reading’s effects are always salutary. The essay made three central points. First, it showed that Elizabeth Isham, like many of her contemporaries, adopts a providential and Galenic stance on medical practice. Her accounts of the illnesses of family members presuppose that the mind or the spirit can affect humoural balance and consequently health. As a Christian, she must share in the suffering of others, and she must be their “consolation” to participate in their recovery. It is to this end that she and others undertake to call to mind for them “these comforttable places of Scripture” and select fit passages for their maladies. Second, the essay demonstrates that such textual physic is a logical means to treat illness in early modern England. For medical writers such as Thomas Wright, William Vaughan, and Robert Burton, reading is a form of exercise that produces comfort and delight in the mind or soul, which in turn, can remedy physical ills. The essay concludes that Isham’s approach to reading fosters a questioning of medical authority, for she prefers to a model of care based on submission to professional physicians, one based on intimate knowledge of the sick. Women can offer this form of care, not least by reading. In addition, reading to the sick demonstrates charity and functions within a sociable model of health care. Reader and patient are part of a godly community striving in concert to facilitate a return to physical order. In Elizabeth Isham’s spiritual autobiography, we have an intriguing narrative where faith, domestic medicine, and sociable reading together highlight how the history of reading intersects with the social history of medicine.