Sticking Her Nose In: Hester Pulter’s Fleshy Gift

Dr Emily Cock discusses nose transplantation and Interregnum politics


I have recently published my first monograph, all about Rhinoplasty and the nose in early modern British medicine and culture. Exciting! But, according to some people, a strange topic.

Why the nose?

Ah, my friends. It is often the things that we take for granted that hold the biggest surprises. And following a thorough investigation, I can assure you that a large number of people, including in early modern Britain, did not take their noses for granted.

One such person was the poet and dramatist Sir William Davenant (1606–1668). Davenant, as you can see, had a distinctively sunken nose: the result of pox (syphilis), and its customary treatment with mercury.

Sir William Davenant

Davenant’s nose prompted ridicule from his peers, but it was light-hearted enough due to his elevated social status. Others who lost their noses to the disease (or other causes, but who were tarred by the association of pox, or the nose’s tendency to be cut for particular crimes, or in acts of violence suggesting immorality for men or women—’I’ll slit your nose and mark you for a whore’—which irrevocably associated noselessness with shame) were not so lucky.

Davenant found another, surprising supporter in the Dublin-born noblewoman, Lady Hester Pulter (1605–1678). Pulter spent the Commonwealth period at her Hertfordshire marital estate, Broadfield, maintaining diplomatic relations with friends and family on both sides of the political divide while composing fervently Royalist manuscript poetry. Though she describes herself as ‘unknown’ to Davenant, she wrote him a remarkable poem: ‘To Sir William D. upon the Unspeakable Loss of the Most Conspicuous and Chief Ornament of his Frontispiece’. A transcript and manuscript is available online.

I’ll wait while you read it.

In this poem, Pulter uses contemporary understanding of nose reconstruction and transplantation to engage with Interregnum politics, by imaginatively offering Davenant a piece of her own body for the reconstruction of his nose. It is a great text with which to utilise the interdisciplinary questions and angles of the medical humanities: the poem requires understanding of the medical culture and knowledge to make sense, but also tells us new things about early modern rhinoplasty and about women’s engagement with science and medicine. It also allows Pulter to use Royalist poetic conceits of hospitality, elegy and friendship to imaginatively position herself at the centre of politics from the safety of Broadfield.

Seventeenth-century British discussions of nose transplants were based on misunderstandings of the procedure outlined by Bolognese surgeon Gaspare Tagliacozzi in De curtorum chirurgia per insitionem (1597). In this book, Tagliacozzi explains in ample detail how to use a skinflap from the arm to reconstruct the nose, lip, or ear. This was not a new procedure: Indian surgical texts exist from the sixth century BCE, taking the flap from the forehead or cheek, and Tagliacozzi is likely to have learnt about rhinoplasty from the Sicilian Branca or Calabrian Vianeo families, who were in turn probably indebted to exposure to Arabic and Asian trade and ideas.

Tagliacozzi’s operation. Image credit: Wellcome Collection

But—in a fair warning for any academic—it was Tagliacozzi who published, Tagliacozzi who took the credit, and Tagliacozzi to whom Britons attached all subsequent misunderstandings and concerns about nose surgery. This not only included the idea that the skin would be grafted from another person, but also that when that person died, the nose would rot off due to ‘sympathy’. A joke to this effect in the first part of Samuel Butler’s wildly popular poem Hudibras (1662) cemented this popular understanding and levity. Even The Lancet would quote it alongside any mention of Tagliacozzi, essentially until the substantial use of plastic surgery in World War I made jokes about the field at least temporarily unacceptable.

But Pulter, writing before Butler’s ridicule, was able to use the idea of nose transplantation and sympathetic communication between bodies for her own ends.

It is clear from the poem that Pulter’s knowledge of rhinoplasty is derived from sources other than De curtorum chirurgia. In this she was not alone, and particularly affected by the male-dominated libraries and owners to whom I’ve traced copies of the book. Publication in Latin further precluded most women, although the detailed illustrations in De curtorum chirurgia would have enabled curious non-Latin-readers to understand the principles of the operation.

Instead of the procedure detailed in De curtorum chirurgia, Pulter’s discussion of a transplantation of skin from her leg to create Davenant’s new nose accords with accounts of sympathetic medicine by writers like Kenelm Digby, Walter Charleton, and Robert Fludd. ‘Sympathy’ explained communication between like matter at a distance—everything from putting medicine on a sword in order to treat the wound it caused (known as the ‘weapon salve’), to the coordination of internal organs, and the travelling of a yawn. This was a fairly contentious doctrine, and the sympathetic nose story was often used to ridicule believers, but it was also quite well known and seriously discussed. Pulter uses sympathy to emphasise the obligation established by her gift: Davenant must now pray ‘For [her] as for [him] Self’, as her physical safety is now in his interest, and he is sympathetically attached to his benefactor’s body through the nose.

Formal scientific networks are evoked but precluded in the poem when Pulter suggests that she is ‘unknown’ to Davenant (and there is no evidence that he ever saw the poem). Davenant’s patron was Sir William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, and if Pulter had not met the former she is unlikely to have had a relationship with Cavendish or his wife, Margaret—now perhaps better known—who would go on to publish a number of works in natural philosophy. (I confess that I had fervently wished to find a link, having fallen in love with the fantastic Margaret Cavendish in an undergraduate ‘Renaissance Writing’ module with Dr Heather Kerr, complete with an enthusiastic essay on the homoerotics of The Convent of Pleasure… but it was not to be).

Pulter raises the possibility of giving her own nose to Davenant as a replacement, which was a strain of sympathetic transplant mythology that preceded Tagliacozzi, and would continue in both satirical and serious accounts. For Pulter, this remedy presents additional problems since the donation of her own nose will leave her open to the charge that she herself has lost that member to the pox—only God, ‘that bright eye above’, will know the truth (line 17). Moreover, as a woman this will have a more detrimental effect on her reputation than it has had on his.

Whatever obligation the moral economy might place upon Pulter to offer assistance, her own nose is too great a price to pay. Pulter’s compromise is that Davenant ‘Excuse [her] nose, [and] accept [her] leg’ as a source for the skin graft (20). That this is a less valuable part of her body than her nose is implied in her observation that she must ‘beg’ Davenant’s ‘pardon’ for the offer (19). This qualification also fulfils gendered requirements of humility, as Pulter does not presume herself to be able to fully replace Davenant’s own, God-given nose. She modestly insists that ‘any’ man or woman would be compelled to do the same, but is also clear to point out the toll to herself, that she must ‘slight the pain’ for his benefit. Thus she is careful not to devalue her offer entirely.

The graft employed to reconstruct the nose was understood to remain absolutely part of the original person, which is why it ‘died’ with its source body. Other texts would use differences in skin colour to emphasise the division, reassuring readers of their physical autonomy.

Thus, through the logic of the transplant, Pulter’s private body is imaginatively brought into public politics and the masculine spaces of war. The constructed nose will not just be Davenant’s nose—it will be Pulter’s leg in the middle of Davenant’s face, and he will be obliged to pray for her wellbeing to preserve it. Within the poem, the success and longevity of Davenant’s nose and the Royalist project and authority it represents become contingent upon Pulter. If he fails to offer sufficient loyal service, prayers for Pulter, and care for the nose in recompense, he will be truly worth the dishonour of noselessness.

Dr Emily Cock is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Associate in History at Cardiff University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.