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Dissenting Bodies: corporealities in early New England.

The body was central to Protestant Separatists' understanding of themselves as a community physically distinct from the Church of England and of their concomitant status as what Edmund S. Morgan called "visible saints" Indeed, Separatists in old and new England perceived corporeality as both more important and less dangerous than previous studies have allowed, which Martha L. Finch shows by analyzing Protestant beliefs that bodies and behaviors manifested one's inner moral status and could be ordered to produce a godly community. Whereas Perry Miller distinguishes the "New England mind" from sensual, fleshly desires, Finch uncovers the Plymouth colonists* convictions that bodies and souls were connected and that the body expressed inner grace (Finch 35). Even seemingly quotidian physical acts, from eating and sleeping to loving, praying, and punishing, were powerful means of spiritual training and transformation. Drawing upon recent studies of the body, according to which sociocultural environments shape the self, Finch examines how theories of the bodv were manifested and contested in colonists' day-to-day experiences. The volume's introduction and first two chapters establish the understandings of corporeality the colonists brought to and encountered in New England, while the final three chapters explore the civil, religious, and domestic arenas that shaped colonists' bodies and souls.

Most influentially, Finch points out, the Separatists' minister in Leiden, John Robinson, espoused a "theology of the body" and an "embodied theology" according to which "the body--both imagined and lived--was the axis upon which all religious and other cultural and social meanings turned" (xii). The body also played a central role in Puritan theology, as exemplified by John Calvin's belief that bodies bore God's image, by rhetorician Peter Ramus's argument that the senses transferred information from nature to the soul, and by an "iconoclastic impulse" that made bodies, rather than images, the primary location of sacred power (7). Yet alternate models of corporeality vied with Robinson's embodied theology, including potentially deceptive practices of self-fashioning, medical philosophies that environmental factors could transform bodies (especially their gender), and New England Natives' understandings and uses of their bodies. Indeed, the first and second chapters usefully expand previous studies of colonial attitudes regarding Native bodies (such as Joyce E. Chaplin's Subject Matter) by incorporating Native American ideas about corporeality and by noting colonists' attention to Native medical and domestic practices. Nonetheless, colonists' observations never seemed to challenge their conceptions of Natives as savages, and Dissenting Bodies does not depart from existing conclusions that English colonists saw primarily differences in such colonial encounters.

Specific corporeal experiences and their meanings are considered in each of the last three chapters, the book's strongest. Although, as she points out, the documents chronicling Plymouth colony were written by a select group of educated European men, Finch reads official documents alongside theological and colonial texts to discover how various members of society used and viewed their bodies. Indeed, one of the books strengths is its attention to the lived experience of women, children, servants, and farmers. Deportment, dress, and punishment occupy the focus of chapter 3, in which Finch examines the corrective practices that constrained the members of the community and purged sin from the body politic. Colonists had to guard against displays of pride in their actions, speech, and clothing. Women, in particular, were warned against proud speech, and public corporeal punishment corrected women who were found guilty of inappropriate speech. Women's bodies were likewise disciplined for criminal offenses: They were stripped to the waist and whipped, in the case of sexual sins; ordered to wear a badge exposing their misdeeds; or, in rare cases of murder, executed. These practices for regulating women's speech and bodies notwithstanding, Finch explains that Robinson permitted women relative authority to use their tongues for godly purposes. They were not excluded from speaking in public assembly and, in special cases, could even reprove men. In these moments, women's bodies became tools of the Holy Spirit, which spoke through their mouths. Moreover, as chapter 4 shows, women could participate in some religious ceremonies, for the church was represented as a body, with Christ as the head and the members acting in equal relation as the organs and parts of the body. Although women did not usually take a vocal role in spiritual rituals, they were empowered to "feed" the church body if no deacons or ministers were present (142).

Finch creatively confronts a dearth of sources on colonists' domestic activities in chapter 5 by examining court records, prescriptive literature, probate inventories, and archaeological and historical studies. In addition, she employs colonists' descriptions of Natives' domestic spaces and practices as "mirror[s]" that reflected how colonists believed they would act if they were to abandon civilized manners (18). In short, colonial women played a key role in shaping and ordering domestic spaces, and their bodies were likewise ordered by these places. Women's bodies and actions reflected their godly spirits and communicated this godliness to others through their plain, modest apparel; substantial, nourishing meals; godly child-rearing; and frugal decoration of the home.

As Dissenting Bodies moves from the public space of the stocks to the private space of the home, the book also traces how early correspondences between the communal and individual, the public and private, gave way to an increasing individualization and privatization of the self. Finch's study of the Plymouth colonists' multiple modes of understanding corporeality shows that the colonists never fully achieved Robinson's ideal of a godly community composed of individual bodies joined in common purpose. The alternative, Finch demonstrates, is equally fascinating: a heterogeneous communal body that was characterized by evolving understandings of how to shape godly bodies and souls and by myriad experiences of corporeality.


Chaplin, Joyce E. Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676. Cambridge: Harvard UP,2001

Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. 1939. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1954.

Morgan, Edmund S. Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea. New York: New York UP, 1963.

New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. xiv + 274 pp. $45.00. Reviewed by Kelly Wisecup, University of North Texas
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Author:Wisecup, Kelly
Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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