Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

MIRACLES AND PLAGUES: Plague Discourse as Political Thought

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

MIRACLES AND PLAGUES: Plague Discourse as Political Thought

Article excerpt

Plague legislation had an enormous impact on the early modern English cultural and political imaginary. In part, the plague prompted writers to imagine new forms of social and political control. For instance, when Charles I reissued plague Orders at the beginning of the Personal Rule, he urged the College of Physicians to update its advice, which had remained unchanged since the Orders were first issued under Elizabeth, and he charged his royal physician, Theodore de Mayerne, with developing a public health campaign modeled on new programs in cities including Paris and Venice. Mayerne proposed building state-run public hospitals, and he also urged the creation of a board of health, based on Italian models, that would be granted absolute authority to regulate localities in times of epidemic (Slack 218-19). The project was dropped when it became apparent that outbreaks of the plague in 1630 and 1631 were not going to reach epidemic proportion, but it is still possible to see in Mayerne's plans the imaginative beginnings of modern discipline, in Foucault's sense of the word, in which the state uses the biological sciences to assert and maintain control of individual bodies, on the one hand, and entire populations, on the other (History 145).

But in early modern England, plague legislation goes in a different direction, and so does the political imaginary that derives from it.1 The aspect of plague legislation that this essay focuses on is household quarantine. Quarantine laws initiated a debate over the means by which the state should preserve and safeguard the existence of its population. It will be my argument that this debate far exceeded the question of how to manage and contain a communicable disease; it shaped early modern English understandings of national community, sovereignty, and the role of violence in enacting political reform. Recent scholarship on the plague in early modern England emphasizes the plague as a political provocation. Rebecca Totaro argues that the reality of the plague led certain writers to engage in utopian imaginings, offering a fanciful relief that transformed, improved, and in some cases competed with governmental, religious, and medical public health practices (38-39). And Jonathan Gil Harris persuasively shows how shifts from Galenic to Parecelsian paradigms of infection, disease, and cure led sixteenth-and seventeenth-century English writers to conceptualize political enemies (real and imagined) as pathogens within the body politic and to formulate policy accordingly (Foreign Bodies 19-47).2 This essay extends Totaro's foregrounding of imagination and Harris's emphasis on political enmity to consider the ways in which these issues recommend plague discourse as a mode of political thinking especially attuned to the pairing of sovereignty and violence. Plague discourse, this essay will argue, became a way of thinking about political making. While household quarantine was instituted in a series of emergency provisions that de facto reinforced the authority of the sovereign, some early modern English writers reimagined the plague in a way that qualified and displaced that authority in the name of political and moral reform.

The plague represents the other side of the miracle. As scholars from Carl Schmitt to Francis Oakley have argued, the miracle was an important figure in early modern jurisprudence, to the degree that questions of legality and sovereignty were modeled on a Scholastic distinction between God's absolute power (potentia absoluta) and his ordained power (potentia ordinata) (Oakley). While the former designates God's absolute will to do whatever he pleases, the latter indicates his willingness to act within the bounds of natural law. Miracles underscore God's absolute will even within a natural order and, by analogy, legitimate a juristic theory of absolutist sovereignty (Schmitt 36). Debates about miracles were very often debates about institutional legitimacy and interpretive authority, as Alexandra Walsham and Lorraine Daston have argued in the contexts of religious history (Walsham, "Miracles") and history of science (Daston). …

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