Historical essay
Medical Metaphors: The Long History of the Corrupted Body Politic

Medical Metaphors: The Long History of the Corrupted Body Politic

For the past few years, my Facebook feed has been full of political memes. Quite a few critique or satirize a particular issue or person, but many are about political corruption in a more general sense. Polls indicate that even before the 2016 election, Americans on both sides of the aisle believed that government corruption was rampant. On the right, this has led to jeremiads about government bloat and campaign promises to trim the fat by cutting programs and services. On the left, many cannot resist armchair diagnosing the pathologies of politicians or even fat-shaming President Trump.

The idea of a state being corrupt is in itself connected to notions of an organism in a rotting condition. The sale of offices or susceptibility to bribery is known as venality, a word with Latin origins that means related to or contained in the veins. Corporal political analogies are sometimes ableist, such as those that bemoan how constituents’ concerns or the important findings of scientists “fall on deaf ears.” Scholars have even recently identified an uptick in politicians’ use of cancer metaphors. The use of this type of language harmfully stereotypes cancer patients and has negative public health consequences.1 Scholar-activist Sang Hea Kil has analyzed the way that journalists have used embodied metaphors of aches and disease and how their rhetorical strategies turn the bodies of immigrants into “a polluting force that threatens order and integrity: concepts associated with bodily purity.”2

Corporal metaphors have been part of political lexicons for a long time. In a Nursing Clio post, Aparna Nair examined some of the ways the nineteenth- and twentieth-century legacies of eugenics still influence immigration policy. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, pseudoscientific biological racism converged with Social Darwinism to allege a biological hierarchy between races. In the early twentieth century, these theories became subsumed within eugenics movements. However, conceptual metaphors of the state as a body preceded these trends. During the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many European political writers thought about their societies as organisms. One of the best-known examples comes from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. In this 1651 treatise, Hobbes called the body politic of the English commonwealth an artificial man and devoted a chapter to the metaphors of political disorder that could cause it grave infirmities.

A black-and-white illustration from a book. The top half shows a huge human torso made up of many smaller people towering over a city and countryside landscape with a sword, staff, and crown. The bottom half features illustrations of castles, churches, weapons, battles, and religious symbols and presents the title of the book: Leviathan, or The Matter, FOrme, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, by Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury.
The frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan, 1651. (Abraham Bosse/Wikimedia/US Library of Congress | Public domain)

Although Hobbes declared the state a “fictitious body” rather than a natural one, his use of medical and physiological terminology was already established when he wrote during the unrest of the English Civil War. In my research, I mainly focus on the Spanish Empire, where anxieties about and perceptions of decline and corruption in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries gave rise to a genre of advice literature called arbitrios.3 Authors of these treatises proposed to diagnose political and social problems and to remedy the body politic of its ills through a regimen of reform. Many arbitristas, as they were known, argued for purgatives in the essentially Galenic terms that then dominated understandings of physiology and medical practice.

This theory held that bodies had particular characteristics of hot, cold, wet, or dry in conjunction with the four humors of yellow bile (or choler), black bile, blood, and phlegm. Many medical practices, including bloodletting and use of purgatives and emetics, sought to restore patients to humoral balance. Although the prognoses of arbitristas varied, they claimed that, by following their prescribed program, the nation would be cleansed and regenerated to a state of health, order, and humoral balance.

Jerónimo de Ceballos used these types of corporal analogies in a treatise published in 1623. He claimed that, just like in the human body, the Republic had a king who was the head and governor of the body and subjects who comprised the rest of the body. Ceballos maintained that the body politic also fell victim to miasmas — bad airs that many believed caused diseases like smallpox and bubonic plague — and humoral imbalances. For him, good governance resulted from every cell and organ functioning as they should under the guidance of a good physician. Sometimes this required medical intervention. Just as a doctor promised to bleed or purge a patient when it was necessary, those in charge of the government should do the same even to the point of “draining out the bad blood so that it does not corrupt the good.”4

If cancer is an overused metaphor for political problems in the twenty-first century, plague was frequently used as a trope for political challenges and concerns in seventeenth-century Spain. Clergymen also picked up on this theme. In a printed sermon published in Barcelona, Diego Pérez de Valdivia, a theologian and hospital administrator, compared what he saw as one of society’s most pressing concerns — the presence and popularity of the commercial theaters — to an infectious illness. He argued that cultural contaminants required as much care and vigilance as physical ones and urged government officials to shut down the playhouses. He and other reformers claimed that theater was the “plague of the republic” due to the sinful activities that took place on and off stage. Thus, authorities should follow the same types of procedures as they would when quarantining the city during an epidemic.5

A painting of a standing woman in a black dress with intricate and extensive silver embroidery. The lower portion of the dress extends horizontally from the woman's waist such that the dress is nearly is half as wide as the woman is tall.
A portrait of the Spanish Queen Consort Mariana de Austria painted by Diego Velázquez, c. 1652. It features the style of skirt called the guardainfante so criticized by Spanish reformers. (Diego Velázquez/Wikimedia/Museo Nacional del Prado)

For some Spanish writers, the state was not only corporal but also gendered. The state and its manly subjects had fallen victim to a degenerative and womanish disease. Fray Juan de Santa Maria borrowed from the Roman writer Sallust in his overblown urgings. He begged officials to bring the Republic back from the brink of doom, clearly apparent on the horizon “when a kingdom reaches such a point of moral corruption that men dress like women.”6

Alonso Carranza saw dress and ostentatious adornment as a major cause of social decay. Women “due to their natural imbecility and weakness” were the primary carriers of this disease.7 He blamed the fashionable wide-hipped farthingale skirt, known as the guardainfante, for a number of women’s health problems, including hidden pregnancies, joint pain, and miscarriages. To make matters worse for this polemicist, Spanish subjects were dressing above their rank, as women spent their household funds on fashion rather than dressing with modesty. All this further undermined the integrity and health of the monarchy and caused the state to degenerate into a woman who miscarried her children.8

Arbitristas came from varied backgrounds. Some, like the magistrate and lawyer Ceballos, were university educated and had long careers in governance. Some hailed from a number of different Catholic religious orders. Some, like Luis López, were bakers. López compared himself to a goose, insisting that he nonetheless flew like eagles did. The entry of new classes of authors into the print market even sparked a new subgenre of advice literature that criticized the “over-abundance of books” and claimed a reduction of books and authors would remedy the Spanish monarchy’s troubles.9 These arguments also drew on understandings of the body and the body politic. After all, physicians argued that reading and other intellectual labors could heat the brain — something that wasn’t appropriate for everyone.

In general, these texts reveal a paradox: both a high degree of faith in early modern medicine’s efficacy and a claim that many previous attempts had failed to render a cure to the body politic. Arbitristas argued that following their particular prescribed solutions would lead to a conserved or restored state. The body politic was just a sick patient, after all. And patients who submitted to bloodletting, tinctures, and followed a medically-approved diet, could get well.10 Centuries later, medical and corporal metaphors still make up part of the political vocabularies of many people in Europe and the Americas. Some cultural critics and journalists continue to refer to political situations with words and phrases like metastasis and “ghastly rashes on the body politic,” even if they no longer turn to barber-surgeons for venesections when suffering from tonsillitis or indigestion.


  1. Barry R. Meisenberg and Samuel W. Meisenberg, “The Political Use of the Cancer Metaphor: Negative Consequences for the Public and the Cancer Community,” Journal of Cancer Education 30, no. 2 (2015): 398-399. Return to text.
  2. Sang Hae Kil, “Immigration and ‘Operations’“ in Traversing Transnationalism: The Horizons of Literary and Cultural Studies, eds. Pier Paolo Frassinelli, Ronit Frenkel, David Watson (Amsterdam: Rodolpi, 2011), 87. Return to text.
  3. J.H. Elliott, “Self-Perception and Decline in Early Seventeenth-Century Spain,” Past & Present 74 (1977): 41-61. Return to text.
  4. Jerónimo de Ceballos, Arte real para el buen govierno de los Reyes y Principes y des sus vassallos (Toledo, 1623), 120. Return to text.
  5. Diego Pérez de Valdivia “Plática o lecion de las máscaras” was printed with Fructuoso Bisbe y Vidal, Tratado de las comedias: en el qual se declara si son licitas: y si hablando en todo rigor seran pecado mortal el representarlas, el verlas y el consentirlas (Barcelona: Geronymo Margarit, 1618), 31v-32r. Return to text.
  6. Cited in J.H. Elliott, “Self-Perception and Decline in Early Seventeenth-Century Spain,” 51. Return to text.
  7. Alonso Carranza, Discurso contra malos trages y adornos lascivos, 1636, Biblioteca Nacional de España R/8171(2), fol. 2r. Return to text.
  8. Ibid, fol. 32v. Return to text.
  9. Fernando Bouza, “Access to Printing in the Political Communication of the Spanish Baroque,” in Reforming Early Modern Monarchies: The Castilian Arbitristas in Comparative European Perspectives (Wiesbaden: Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, 2016), 58. Return to text.
  10. For vivid and clear descriptions of food within Galenic theory and practice, see Jodi Campbell, At the First Table: Food and Social Identity in Early Modern Spain (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017). Return to text.

Rachael “Ray” Ball is Associate Professor of Early Modern European and World History at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her book Treating the Public: Charitable Theater and Civic Health in the Early Modern Atlantic World came out last year, and she is currently at work on a book about patronage and news networks in Castile and Spanish Naples as well as a chapbook of poems that explore historiographical and hagiographical themes. Ray tweets @ProfessorBall.