Plague Writing in Early Modern England
by Ernest B. Gilman
University of Chicago Press, 2009
Cloth: 978-0-226-29409-4 | Electronic: 978-0-226-29411-7
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226294117.001.0001
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

During the seventeenth century, England was beset by three epidemics of the bubonic plague, each outbreak claiming between a quarter and a third of the population of London and other urban centers. Surveying a wide range of responses to these epidemics—sermons, medical tracts, pious exhortations, satirical pamphlets, and political commentary—Plague Writing in Early Modern England brings to life the many and complex ways Londoners made sense of such unspeakable devastation.

Ernest B. Gilman argues that the plague writing of the period attempted unsuccessfully to rationalize the catastrophic and that its failure to account for the plague as an instrument of divine justice fundamentally threatened the core of Christian belief. Gilman also trains his critical eye on the works of Jonson, Donne, Pepys, and Defoe, which, he posits, can be more fully understood when put into the context of this century-long project to “write out” the plague. Ultimately, Plague Writing in Early Modern England is more than a compendium of artifacts of a bygone era; it holds up a distant mirror to reflect our own condition in the age of AIDS, super viruses, multidrug resistant tuberculosis, and the hovering threat of a global flu pandemic.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Ernest B. Gilman is professor of English at New York University. He is the author of three books, including Iconoclasm and Poetry in the English Reformation, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

REVIEWS

"This ambitious, wide-ranging study provides an impressive reconsideration of plague writing in England, but it encompasses much more than that....Most impressive are the opening and closing chapters, which connect early-modern plague mentality with the contemporary mentality: now, after a period of optimism fostered by vaccines and penicillin, the world is once again living in an age of plagues (AIDS, swine flu). This discussion makes the book all the more valuable....Highly recommended."
— Choice

"A remarkably careful, self-reflective analysis, and a valuable addition to the subject."
— Adam Smyth, Times Literary Supplement

TABLE OF CONTENTS

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgments

- Ernest B. Gilman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226294117.003.0001
Although details have come to light in the research of medical historians, the fact of the plague in its early modern recurrences is amply documented in the historical record, including in the account of the number of its victims as recorded in the English bills of mortality. As Hayden White has taught a generation of his (sometimes reluctant) colleagues, historians seek to accommodate the facts to the orderly structures of narrative. Now, under a revised historical paradigm—one that brings infectious disease into the realm of the ordinary—epidemics count as historical forces, drawn into the matrix of explanation from which they were previously excluded except in histories of medicine as such. Machiavelli's view of history presages this development insofar as his narrative is open to the significant operations of fortune. This book aims to bring to life the many and complex ways Londoners made sense of such unspeakable devastation. (pages 1 - 26)
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- Ernest B. Gilman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226294117.003.0002
[plague narrative, plague epidemics, medical reports, cultural construction, Sander Gilman, infection]
This chapter aims to bracket the historical period of plague narratives between the London plague epidemics of 1603 and 1665, and then to explore more fully the critical paths that may lead us back to the future. As a cultural phenomenon, the plague makes itself known to us only by the images and narratives, poetry, medical reports, and theological disputes through which it is mediated. These are the objects of this study, the incomplete and depleted fossil records of plague as a lived experience. Whatever its microbial nature, the significance of infectious disease, including the very assumption that disease has a significance, is embedded in the history of its cultural construction. Insisting that “the infected individual is never value-neutral,” Sander Gilman sees the symptoms of disease as a “complex text” read, and to be read, “within the conventions of an interpretive community” and “in the light of earlier, powerful readings of what are understood to be similar or parallel texts.” (pages 27 - 70)
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- Ernest B. Gilman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226294117.003.0003
[plague, language event, plague writing, visual culture, epidemic disease, English Reformation]
This chapter contends that, in the English Reformation, the infliction of plague is to be understood fundamentally as a language event foreshadowed by, and issuing from, the Word—an event, therefore, fundamentally discursive, even before it became the subject of plague writing, an event that presents itself as a text to be read. The differences between English and Italian modes of plague representation help to illuminate this point, for in the world of Italian visual culture, not only the veneration of the plague saint but the ways in which the saint's mediation is understood as efficacious provide a resource of comfort and explanation in the face of epidemic disease. Put simply, in the Italian tradition, art relieves language of what would become, in England, the burden of accounting for the pestilence. (pages 71 - 126)
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- Ernest B. Gilman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226294117.003.0004
[Alchemist, Jonson, regime change, plague epidemic, comedy, moral judgment]
The Alchemist has always figured as the richest imaginative document of the Jacobean plague years. Plague sets the scene of Jonson's comedy, and holds the mirror up to the nature of London—and the London theater—under epidemic siege. As Cheryl Lynn Ross has shown, “the world of Ben Jonson's Alchemist—its setting, its rogues and their victims, the structure of the play, and the moral judgments inherent in the text and on its margins—is the world of London during a plague.” Beginning with the plague world of The Alchemist, and as a prelude to Jonson's poetry, this chapter argues that 1603 plague theology and politics also establish a context for understanding Jonson's nondramatic verse, especially the epigram “On my first Sonne.” (pages 127 - 162)
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- Ernest B. Gilman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226294117.003.0005
[Ben Jonson, plague, nondramatic poetry, Alchemist, melancholy, infectious disease, bereavement]
Given the inescapably stark realities of life and death in Jonson's London, it might seem surprising that the plague and its contemporary accounts have not figured more importantly in readings of Jonson's nondramatic poetry. One exception is the work of Patrick Phillips, who shows that the shadow of the plague haunts Jonson's writing career, from the epigrams to his epitaphs for John Roe, through The Alchemist to the Cary-Morison ode—all documents in the history of the poet's bereavement. Such an overview goes far toward probing the sources of Jonson's deep-seated melancholy, his continuing traumatic need to rewrite the death of his “best piece of poetrie,” his returning to the scene of a young man dead of infectious disease and mourned by the older poet, and the motivation behind his paternal sponsorship of a younger generation of the “Sons of Ben.” (pages 163 - 188)
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- Ernest B. Gilman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226294117.003.0006
[John Donne, plague writing, Emergent Occasions, illness, personal crisis, translation]
This chapter aims to set Donne as a plague writer into the context of the fatal and memorable year and, by doing so, correlate the epidemic crisis in London with a transformative personal crisis for Donne, occasioned by his own near-fatal illness two years before. The central texts include three works not usually taken together but all part of Donne's engagement with disease: his own, London's, and the world's. The Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, published the year before the plague as a meditation on his recent illness, would be in the bookstalls during the plague year, along with the 1625 edition of the “Anniversaries.” These earlier poems, with their prolonged lament for a “sicke World,” would now likely be reread in the light of the plague, and in the context of Donne's writing, as a prelude to the Devotions. (pages 189 - 214)
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- Ernest B. Gilman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226294117.003.0007
[Pepys, Defoe, Great Plague, plague writing, Diary, individual experience, infectious disease]
This chapter seeks to read Pepys and Defoe on the plague as reflecting, each in his way, a transitional aspect of the event: an engagement with infectious disease that hovers between the providential and the quotidian. Pepys's diary accommodates the fire—and the plague—by collating their otherwise unaccountable horror with the ordinary events of a life that goes on, rather than by subsuming his individual experience to some great design. Closer to picaresque than to epic, the Diary offers a microhistory suited less to grand narrative than to local observation and chance encounters. Pepys tracks events at street level, notes the fluctuations in the death toll as published in the bills of mortality, and produces a record of the plague indexed to the daily activities of the writer. In this way, his diary entries for the plague year of 1665 are of a piece with the day-to-day accounts in Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, written in 1722, although with crucial differences in social perspective as well as in the proximity of the two narratives to the event itself. (pages 215 - 244)
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- Ernest B. Gilman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226294117.003.0008
[plague writing, pandemics, personal crisis, Defoe, infectious disease, mortal illness]
There is a series of exemplary texts in the history of early modern English plague writing, which form a series in that each responds, in turn, to the three pandemics that ravaged London between 1603 and 1665. They are exemplary in that they speak immediately to moments of personal crisis—the death of Jonson's son, Donne's recovery from a near-mortal illness—and to the crises of their times. In 1665, Pepys offered something new, the perspective of a walker in the plague city, while Defoe reconstructed the same epidemic many years later from an amalgam of childhood memory and journalistic research, at a moment in 1722 when London seemed again vulnerable to an outbreak of plague. Over the century that separates Jonson's epigram on his son and Defoe's Journal, the discourse of infectious disease was gradually, though incompletely, passing from the province of the divine to that of the physician (who was to assume something of the priestly aura of his predecessor, along with the warrant of the new empirical science). (pages 245 - 256)
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Works Cited

Index