Pestilence in Medieval and Early Modern English Literature

By Bryon Lee Grigsby | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE

From Sophrosyne to Sin

There are two main reasons why medieval literary critics should reevaluate the role of medicine in literature. The first is that most scholarship about medieval medicine has appeared since 1980; therefore, a lack of material is no longer a valid excuse for misunderstanding medical discourses. The second is that while most of the work about medieval science and literature emphasizes Chaucer and astrology, there is more to science than stargazing. Now that historians know a good deal more about medieval medicine, its relation to society, and its complex role in medieval thought, one can begin to understand how medical discourses interacted with other discourses which in turn shaped social responses to disease. These social responses to disease are influenced by a variety of disciplines, including the medical, theological, and literary.

The best way to explore the interaction of these disciplines is to examine the construction of health from its Greco-Roman roots to its medieval Christianization. Greco-Roman doctors believed in a humoral system where an individual could maintain health through the practice of sophrosyne or moderation. Sophrosyne was both a mental and physical regimen that was believed to keep the humors balanced. Eventually, the concept of sophrosyne was Christianized and immoderation became sin. The relationship between sin and health provided the foundation and the means of interpretation for many authors in the Middle Ages. Throughout this chapter, I will rely on many sources, both primary and secondary, but I am most indebted to the works of Oswei Temkin for providing the foundation of Greco-Roman medicine and the Christianization of that system.


GRECO-ROMAN MEDICINE

Medieval medicine is neither a precursor to our modern medicine nor a simplistic, primitive system. Rather it is an extremely learned theory that

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Pestilence in Medieval and Early Modern English Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page v
  • Series Editor Foreword ix
  • Contents xi
  • Acknowledgments xiii
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter One - From Sophrosyne to Sin 15
  • Chapter Two - Leprosy, Bubonic Plague, and Syphilis 39
  • Chapter Three - Leprosy and Spiritual Sins in Medieval Literature 79
  • Chapter Four - Plague as Apocalypse in Medieval Literature 103
  • Chapter Five - Learning to Cope with Disease 127
  • Chapter Six - Leprosy and Syphilis in Early Modern Literature 157
  • Conclusion 179
  • Notes 185
  • Works Cited 189
  • Index 197
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