Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

OF MICE AND MOISTURE: Rats, Witches, Miasma, and Early Modern Theories of Contagion

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

OF MICE AND MOISTURE: Rats, Witches, Miasma, and Early Modern Theories of Contagion

Article excerpt

In sixteenth-century England, plague, the witchcraftcraze, and several reported rat infestations corresponded with a period of climatological instability.1 The period between 1350 and 1850 was characterized by a general cooling, bringing about what archaeologist Brian Fagan calls "a lethal mix of misfortunes": famine, serial epidemics, bread riots, and chaos. "Witchcraftaccusations soared," he points out, in England and France the greatest number of prosecutions occurring in the severe weather years of 1587 and 1588 (91). 2 Drawing on Fagan's analysis, economist Emily Oster argues that, "in a time period when the reasons for changes in weather were largely a mystery" (216), witches readily served as a scapegoat for deadly climatic patterns and the crop failures and diseases that accompanied both; she demonstrates a correspondence between the rise of European witchcrafttrials and temperature fluctuations during the Little Ice Age. This environmental context for the identification and prosecution of witches, often overlooked by historians of witchcraftmore focused on national and sociopolitical factors, is crucial to understanding how witches, rats, and plague became associated in the early modern imagination as part of a developing theory of contagion.3

This essay examines the ways in which rats, the plague, and witches were tied to beliefs about fetid or otherwise corrupt air supposedly generated from the earth. Rodents and witches are also dialectically linked-at least in the popular imagination-to unnatural or uncanny modes of reproduction. Even today, as John Kelly points out, the transmission of human plague can be puzzling; its chain of infection is highly mediated and can take several, not always predictable, forms. In one of the more common, a rat community's food supply has been disrupted by "ecological disaster"; the rats search for food in human settlements and, as infected rodents succumb to the plague, the parasitical flea X. cheopis is driven to find other hosts (19). Once infected, humans easily spread the disease. Surrounded by death, famine, and disease but without the benefit of germ theory, both elite and nonelite writers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries recognized that plague was spread through contact, often with animals, but cast about for etiological explanations. In drawing on classical and biblical sources, they struggled to reconcile those authorities with empirical evidence and a nascent, contemporary tradition of naturalistic, rather than purely metaphysical, explanations. Supernatural explanations of the plague vied with material analyses, and especially with theories of "bad air," that marked the corruption of a fallen, postlapsarian earth.

William Austin's Epiloimia epe or Anatomy of the Pestilence (1666) offers a compendium of etiological theory-Lucretian, Aristotelian, and Galenic-reframed for and resituated in a Christian worldview. This poem discloses some of the ways in which rats, plague, bad air, and witches were entangled in complex, often recursive analyses in which metaphysical and material explanations are both distinguished and conflated. Austin argues that the plague first appeared after the Flood; while initially a sign of God's "indignation" (57), subsequent plagues can be perceived as endemic to a fallen world. After raising the Lucretian theory of "plague seed" (50)-according to which the plague is thought to breed in "pregnant" or "cloudy" air (50)-Austin considers what appears to be a notion of anima mundi wherein "Mother Earth" is a living, breathing, consuming, farting entity:

Our Mother Earth some reckon such a flat,

As pudding makes, and never washes gut:

Eats carrion and digests not, then at last

Belches and blows us backward with the blast. (53)

In this image (possibly recalling the London earthquakes of 1649 and 1650), the living earth gives up her dead, putrifying, undigested things in a "blast" of bad air. Following the earthquake comes a famine. …

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