The "Science of the countenance": full-bodied physiognomy and the cosmography of the self in seventeenth-century England

Date

2010-09-01T18:26:21Z

Authors

Hunfeld, Christa

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Abstract

Physiognomy is generally assumed to be, and has been historicized as, the science of judging human character according to the features of the face. However, the type of physiognomy favoured by seventeenth-century English authors was one which adapted the Aristotelian claim that physiognomy be a full-body study. This project explores how physiognomic focus on the entire body – from the forehead, fingers and feet to the breast, belly and back – was shaped by contemporary religious and “scientific” legitimating claims, and how it interacted with the century’s anxieties regarding disorder and the self. The implicit suggestion that few bodies and the souls which helped shape them were perfectly symmetrical and, by extension, virtuous, illustrated human variety and depravity and stressed the need for self subordination. Only through reason and God’s grace, it was argued, could humans moderate the interconnected and essentializing influences of sin, the stars and the humours, and thereby embody the godly values of truth, virtue and harmony. The full-bodied practice of seventeenth-century physiognomy simultaneously emphasized human uniqueness and God’s omnipotence, and was both a part and product of predominant tensions and mentalities.

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Keywords

Physiognomy, Seventeenth Century, England, Identity, History of religion, History of science

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