Michelle Webb (Exeter), ‘A great blemish to her beauty’: Female facial disfigurement in early modern England’

Michelle Webb of the University of Exeter will be speaking at the Effaced from History conference on April 2. To register and view the full program, visit the conference website.

Abstract

When the seventeenth-century surgeon Richard Wiseman wrote a case history of his treatment of a young girl, he described the tubercle on her cheek as ‘a great blemish to her beauty’. This paper will explore reactions to female disfigurement and facial difference in early modern England, delineating the extent to which the flawed faces of women and girls were described primarily in terms of beauty lost and prospects compromised. It will detail how the ability to evoke erotic desire was one of the few powers allowed to young women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and disfigurement was believed to rob a woman of this asset. Wiseman also recorded that his patient’s parents were hopeful that her inflamed face could be calmed enough to enable her to cover her disfigurement with a patch, and this paper will consider the aesthetics and implications of the attempted concealment of facial flaws.

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