English Plague and New World Promise(*)

By Totaro, Rebecca | Utopian Studies, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

English Plague and New World Promise(*)


Totaro, Rebecca, Utopian Studies


WHEN BUBONIC PLAGUE visited England in 1348, it was called the Great Mortality. We know it as the Black Death that lasted until 1352 and killed vast populations in Asia, North Africa, Europe, Iceland, and Greenland.(1) In total, it extinguished as much as fifty percent of the world's population.

In England, bubonic plague on average killed at least one-third of all inhabitants between 1348 and 1349. In London alone, one out of two people died during the visitation.(2) The bottom line is that every English man, woman, and child at the time encountered plague in some way, and all feared it.

After 1352, the plague became endemic in England, flaring up routinely and then yearly from 1485 to 1670. Within those two centuries, the plague regularly contributed to dramatic increases in English mortality. English plague tracts and tales came into existence and grew in number: Langland railed against plague-time physicians in Piers Plowman; Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale takes place in plague-time, unlike the other previous accounts of the same story; Hans Holbein--essential painter of Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More--died of plague in 1543; Erasmus wrote many letters on his being nearly imprisoned at Oxford while plague raged in London; Spenser used plague as a setting for his "Prosopopoia or Mother Hubbard's Tale"; it is assumed that John Fletcher died from plague in 1625; Jonson lost a son to the plague and immortalized him in poetry.(3) The list is much longer. It was not until well after 1720 with the last great plague in Marseilles that the litany would wane.

The fear of plague was inherent in Renaissance English society. At least two periods of extensive mortality occurred on average with each reign of an early modem monarch:

Henry VI (1422-61):        1433, 1449, 1451, 1454, 1457-59
Edward IV (1461-83):       1466-67, 1471, 1473
Henry VII (1485-1509):     1498, 1504-05
Henry VIII (1509-47):      1511-21, 1523, 1535, 1543
Elizabeth I (1558-1603):   1563, 1592-3, 1603
James I (1603-25):         1609-11,
Charles I (1625-49):       1625, 1636, 1640-43
(Cromwell: 1643-47)
Charles II (1661-85):      1664-5

No reign was free from threat of plague; therefore, a court page or cook breaking out in a fever was enough to shake the national foundation, as John Davies of Hereford records in his poem, "The Picture of the Plague According to the Life as it was in Anno Domini 1603":

   The King himself (O wretched Times the while!) From place to place, to save
   himselfe did flie, Which from himselfe himselfe did seeke t'exile, Who (as
   amaz'd) know not where safe to lie. Its hard with Subjects when the
   Soveraigne Hath no place free from plagues, his head to hide; And hardly
   can we say the King doth raigne, That no where, for just feare, can well
   abide. For, no where comes He but Death followes him Hard at the Heeles,
   and reacheth at his head. (I.45)

This was no way to keep a monarchy intact or a government or society stable.

In their new worlds, Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Margaret Cavendish, and Cotton Mather each constructed the foundation of a "no-place" for the king "his head to hide." Each hoped to keep plague outside of his or her unspoiled territory; however, containing the plague was not simply a matter of dreaming up a panacea. Rather than easily eliminate plague from their worlds, they grappled with the very presence of plague, both permitting it and attempting to disarm it within their borders.

Before discussing the particular texts, it is important to ask why not one of these strong, often visionary minds was able to see far enough into the future of medical science to envision an elimination of plague. Why did Francis Bacon not guarantee an end to plague provided England follow his plan for the reformation of learning? Why did Margaret Cavendish allow plague in her personal utopia? Why did Cotton Mather not promise his people freedom from affliction in America? …

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