Michelle Webb is completing her PhD in the Department of History at the University of Exeter. Her research focuses on facial disfigurement in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
‘A Great Blemish to her Beauty’: Female Facial Disfigurement in Early Modern England
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.
Keywords: England; early modern; disease; gender; marriage; concealment
The full essay will be appearing in Approaches to Facial Difference: Past and Present (Bloomsbury: 2018). While you wait, check out other early modern material on our blog.