Christian Complexions in Seventeenth-Century England

E. Pagitt, Heresiography (1662 edition), p.244.

I suggest the pulpit was a crucial medium for promoting understanding of physical difference. From it, divines routinely engaged with the Galenic paradigm, which reckoned that human physiology comprised four essential humours — the sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic — albeit in diverse combinations. Sermons invited parishioners to consider the ultimate cause of these combinations, and exhorted them to monitor the ramifications of their humoral complexions in daily life. If God had created humanity in His own image, then there was both debate about how to recognize godly folk in this world and a widely held assumption that a sanguine complexion was somehow inherently Christian as well as English. Certainly the cultural consequences of iconoclasm have been exaggerated. Quite fervent Protestants contemplated the Incarnation and, for many of them, Christ’s humanity was fair-skinned. Therefore, contrary to recent scholarship, I argue that people could not only conceive of a ‘white’ Jesus, but also began slowly to identify themselves as ‘white(s)’. Rather than assume a Christian universalism simply retarded the rise of racial discrimination, religious discourse sometimes served as its catalyst.


Mark Dawson is lecturer in early modern history. This paper draws on his monograph project, Bodies complexioned. Human variation in early modern English culture, c.1600–1750, which he will complete as RSSS-HRC Monograph Fellow in 2017.

Date & time

Wed 05 Oct 2016, 4.15–5.30pm


McDonald Room, Menzies Library, ANU

Event series


School of History


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