From Diseased Bodies to Disordered Bodies Politic: Rereading Medical Writing on the Plague in England and France, 14th–18th Centuries

Title: From Diseased Bodies to Disordered Bodies Politic: Rereading Medical Writing on the Plague in England and France, 14th–18th Centuries
Authors: Jones, Lori
Date: 2017
Embargo: 2022-11-02
Abstract: Centuries of devastating, recurrent outbreaks made the plague the archetypical disease of late medieval and early modern societies. Yet explanations of where it came from changed significantly over time. This dissertation examines how portrayals of the plague’s origins and place in society evolved separately in England and France, from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. It relies in particular on plague tracts, a long-lasting literary genre that offered standardized therapeutic and curative advice. Medical historians have studied these sources to trace the development of medical thinking and practice over time. This dissertation focuses instead on the tracts’ changing discourses about the nature of the plague that are unique to time and to place. The study elaborates a new analytical method to investigate the materiality and contents of these historical documents: it involves close reading and a codicological/bibliographical comparison of approximately 180 tracts in manuscript and printed form, set into their appropriate historical contexts. Tract producers influenced how the plague was understood locally. England’s centralised print industry fostered the idea that London was the de facto site and source of the disease; France’s diffused industry, by contrast, encouraged the discussion and tracking of outbreaks in multiple cities. Understanding of the plague’s origins also evolved: belief in malevolent celestial events gave way, in turn, to blaming unhealthy local landscapes, then the living conditions of the poor, and finally the Ottoman Empire. By the mid-seventeenth century, tract writers pointed to the Ottoman Empire as the historical and geographical source of the disease. Especially during the tumultuous sixteenth century, religious discord, dynastic factionalism, and incapable rulers also appeared in the tracts as causes and effects of the plague. Plague tracts are direct expressions and reflections of the short- and medium-term historical waves in which they appeared. It is possible to trace through them shifts in political, cultural, and intellectual worldviews. The spread of humanism in particular influenced how tract writers discussed the plague’s origins and influence in society. This study thus demonstrates that understanding disease is a cultural construct specific to time and place. Observing the unique aspects of plague tracts enhances our ability to understand the place of disease in past human societies.
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