New England: 'Province of Affliction'

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Ben Mutschler

People were not necessarily sicker in early New England than they are now, but the mechanisms for dealing with illness were different, as was the attitude toward suffering. “One does not have to travel far in early modern narratives of daily life to encounter illness,” said Ben Mutschler. “Almost any source from the period, from diaries and letters to the proceedings of courts and assemblies, reveals a world beset by morbidity.”

A Research Fellow and assistant professor of history at OSU, Mutschler is working on a book The Province of Affliction: Illness in Eighteenth-Century New England, which is scheduled to be published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, VA.

While there has been much scholarly work on medical thought, healing practices, and public health in early America, said Mutschler, his study takes sick people and those implicated in their afflictions as its central concern. “What happens to our portrait of eighteenth-century life if we place the social relations of illness at its center? How was a society animated by work, striving, and industry able to absorb the regular occurrence of sickness, with all its disruptions and wrenching changes?”

Sickness was just one of many misfortunes in daily life--from accidents and injuries to changes in weather—that were understood to be Man’s fate to accommodate and endure. “New Englanders worked hard to resign themselves to fate,” said Mutschler. “They struggled to accept the inevitability of hardships large and small, and to discern the benefits of the changes that life’s trials visited upon them. At the same time, the peoples of the region created practices to meet the immediate social challenges of affliction.”

Mutchsler’s book explores the creative challenges that grew out of the everyday nature of crisis and suffering, focusing on the problems routinely presented by illness, the disruptions it caused and the pressures it placed on the afflicted and their caregivers. Even for the well-connected, illness could present serious challenges to efforts to achieve and maintain “competencies,” or a middling level of subsistence.

At the other end of the spectrum were the sick poor and an even broader array of persons brought into dependency through forces that everyone considered to be beyond control. Epidemics and war were chief among them. War removed healthy bodies from households and returned them injured, desperately ill or chronically infirm, while epidemics cut through towns, leaving not only many dead but survivors who struggled to survive the aftermath.

“The book attends to the stark differences that separated the experiences of the well-connected and the marginal, but it argues as well that both were united in facing a dynamic of dependency in daily life. Illness acted as a force pulling the stricken and those charged with their outward care towards dependency.” The demands of sickness spread outward, from families and households to neighborhoods and towns, and through all layers of government.

Mutschler also examines the changing fate of illness in a society that increasingly embraced health as something that could be achieved through proper habits and the timely intervention of charitable institutions. New institutional responses to illness included state programs aimed at helping “paupers,” and charitable help for the sick, including dispensaries, female societies, and hospitals.

“Here the challenge lies in probing the ambiguous terrain that illness created in a liberal society—between the worthy and the vicious, between the sick body as a source of heightened sensibility and of shame.”