Alice Thornton (1626-1707) wrote four autobiographies. A common theme in these books is the illnesses suffered by Thornton herself, her children, family and friends. One striking cause of illness is sudden grief or betrayal leading to near-fatal illness from a flux of humours. For example, in 1655, just after giving birth to her second daughter Betty, Thornton became very ill when her toddler, Nally, began to suffer fits. Recounting the incident, she wrote:
And all the time of this poor child's illness, I, myself, was at death's door by the extreme excess of those - upon the fright and terror came upon me - so great floods that I was spent and my breath lost, my strength departed from me and I could not speak for faintings and dispirited so that my dear mother and aunt and friends did not expect my life but were overcome with sorrow for me (Book 2).
So, Thornton and those around her thought her death was near because a sudden shock of grief caused an immediate humoral imbalance.
This paper will first give a brief autobiography of Thornton and introduce her four books. It will then give some background on early modern medical concepts. We will then examine the events Thornton claims cause illness in herself and others. While Thornton's accounts may seem melodramatic, I will show that grief and betrayal as causes of near-fatal illness can be explained with recourse to the conventional Galenic medical framework of the time: the passions had a profound effect on the body's humours.
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