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  • The Governor’s Two BodiesPolity and Monstrosity in Winthrop’s Boston
  • Jonathan Beecher Field (bio)

Scholars of early New England are surprisingly indifferent to monsters. To a contemporary reader, John Winthrop’s allegations that Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson gave birth to monsters are one of the more puzzling aspects of the Antinomian Controversy. Even though this theological and political struggle remains a perennial subject of inquiry for early Americanists, little of this attention has focused on the stories of Dyer’s and Hutchinson’s monstrous births.1 In spite of many disparate scholarly approaches to the Antinomian Controversy, almost without exception this body of scholarship downplays the accounts of monstrous births Massachusetts governor John Winthrop includes in his narratives of the Bay Colony’s struggle with Antinomians. Indeed, some earlier editions of John Winthrop’s Journal either omit the description of Hutchinson’s monstrous birth entirely or translate the more scandalous parts into Latin.2 Scholarship that does consider these monstrous births often focuses on scientific explanations for these phenomena in place of the God’s judgement explanation that Winthrop employs. Instead of beginning with a narrative of monstrosity, and working to explain the inexplicable in scientific terms, this essay proposes to read Winthrop’s account of monstrous births in terms of the tension between the disabled bodies that Winthrop attributes to Hutchinson and Dyer and the idealized able body Winthrop imagines as the form of his Bible commonwealth in “A Modell of Christian Charitie.”

Intellectual history has dominated scholarship on early New England, and scholars in this field do not generally think much about Puritan bodies. Adding a bodily component to this history of ideas can offer new perspectives on familiar texts. In particular, the burgeoning field of disability studies suggests new connections between Winthrop’s “Modell” and his narratives of monstrous births. Winthrop’s discourse, composed around the 1630 voyage of the Arbella from England to New England, articulates [End Page 29] Winthrop’s vision for his Bible commonwealth through the image of the settlers as a single perfect body, united in perfect form through the ligaments of God’s love. Considering Winthrop’s “Modell” from the perspective of disability studies clarifies the Bay Colony governor’s investment in the able body as the figure of his Christian commonwealth. This canonical text of early American literature anticipates what Tobin Siebers has called the “ideology of ability,” where “we imagine our bodies are of no consequence while dreaming at the same time that we might perfect them” (9). For Siebers, this contradiction is central to contemporary imaginations of disability, which exist under “the shadow of the ideology of ability” (9). Siebers speaks to a contemporary moment in his scholarship, and importing this concept wholesale to seventeenth-century discourse runs the risk of anachronism, but the structures of thought he details resonate with the able and disabled bodies Winthrop conjures. In particular, “the ideology of ability simultaneously banishes disability and turns it into a principle of exclusion” (10).

Winthrop’s image of a perfect society as a perfect body raises the question of how this perfect society would understand its members with imperfect bodies. As we will see, Hutchinson and Dyer’s monstrous births are of a piece with their putative inability to reproduce, their inability to read Scripture, and their banishment. For Winthrop, the imperfect bodies Hutchinson and Dyer produce are evidence of their heresy, and a mark of their separation from the godly community of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In turn, this contrast between Winthrop’s perfectly embodied Christian commonwealth and the monstrous spawn of his enemies offers a new, and more persuasive, explanation for the monstrous births. Miscarriages are real, but monsters are not. Turning one into the other is a product of Winthrop’s imagination. The Massachusetts Bay Colony as one ideal Christian body is an image that Winthrop produces in his writing; the monstrous births are another. If there is a material basis for the monstrous birth narratives in miscarriages Hutchinson and Dyer suffered, neither Winthrop’s monsters nor his perfect body have or ever had a physical, embodied reality. If we read the monstrous births as a move Winthrop makes in a...


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pp. 29-52
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