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Sacred hearts and pumps: cardiology and the conflicted body politic (1500–1900)


This article examines how conflicting notions of the body politic between the natural and the spiritual have contextualised the evolution of cardiology. After a brief look at the place of the heart in biblical, patristic and medieval notions of the church, the article turns to the Reformation period. While Martin Luther moved theological gravity to the individual’s heart and conscience, his contemporary Michael Servetus described the pulmonary cycle in the context of an antitrinitarian theology condemned as theological and political heresy. In the early modern period, nature conceived as creation grounded sovereign political authority, which science could then align with. Whereas William Harvey still adhered to an Aristotelian teleology, René Descartes and subsequent mechanistic contributions to cardiology were flanked by an intense ‘cardiolatry’. Both, it is argued, are two sides of the same, almost non-corporeal coin. The emerging Enlightened epistemology allowed for a position distinct from both sovereign and ecclesial powers. The French Revolution was a paradigm shift: the ancien régime falls, and its Sacred Heart devotion is mocked; the new ‘Erastian’ state-university emerges as the context of cardiology. These developments are reflected in the life of René Laënnec and in cultural interpretations of the heart later in the 19th century. It is shown that the heart as a doubly inscribed, both biological and spiritual organ, played a central role in theological, and therefore political and scientific notions of the body politic. These continue to haunt the present, allowing us to interpret normative appeals to the heart particularly in political contexts.

  • cardiology
  • politics
  • cultural history
  • philosophy of science

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