Pestilence in Medieval and Early Modern English Literature

By Bryon Lee Grigsby | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE

Learning to Cope with Disease

Since bubonic plague recurred time and time again, people living in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries eventually began to cope with the disease in a different way than their predecessors had. While fourteenth-century Europeans saw the plague as an unparalleled event, those in the fifteenth century recognized plague as a normal, albeit unfortunate, part of life. Hays explains:

[B]y the fifteenth century the members of health boards gradually began acting on more clearly contagionist assumptions. Those assumptions led to more direct interference with both individuals and groups. Occasions that brought crowds together became suspect, and were thus objects of regulation: schools, church services, and-especially-the very religious processions that so many towns had sponsored to propitiate God's wrath. The movements of the suspiciously transitory classes-especially beggars, soldiers, and prostitutes-came under scrutiny. Boards of health also, in their attempt to stay informed, began recording the causes of death in their cities. The early censuses of death themselves contributed to changing conceptions of disease. (54) 1

The changing conceptions of disease created a new discourse in which the individual became responsible for protecting himself or herself from disease. It became possible to avoid the contagion, and literature was one of the avenues by which the discourse about plague protection was disseminated.

Rather than examining the collective sins of the community and the possibility that this disease was linked to the apocalypse, literary authors focused more heavily on methods of diagnosis, cure, and treatment. In The Impact of Plague on Tudor and Stuart England, Paul Slack writes,

If some published tracts emphasised God's hand in the origins and incidence of epidemics, others stressed their natural and predictable features

-127-

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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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