Pestilence in Medieval and Early Modern English Literature

By Bryon Lee Grigsby | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX

Leprosy and Syphilis in Early Modern Literature

Bubonic plague changed how humans approached epidemic disease. Prior to the plague, Europeans conceived of disease, especially leprosy, as a divine punishment sent by God. The sins people believed God to be most angry with were spiritual sins. When the plague first struck, people applied the same interpretations to this new disease and, therefore thought the end of the world was coming unless people would repent their spiritual sins. However, when plague did not end the world, people began to approach the disease practically and pragmatically, paying particular attention to methods of protection and to prescriptions for healing. This approach took the control of the disease out of God's hands and placed it, however tenuously, in man's hands. When syphilis struck, people applied the same beliefs that prior people applied to leprosy, namely giving control of the disease to God and focusing on the spiritual sins as cause of the epidemic. Eventually, people interpreted syphilis as caused less by spiritual than carnal sins, owing primarily to the disease's eruption on the sexual organs. By moving from a spiritual-sin interpretation to a carnal-sin interpretation, one takes the power out of God's hand and places it more fully in man's hands for man's actions become the direct means of transmission. More interesting is the idea that leprosy was also brought over with syphilis and reinterpreted as a venereal disease, a movement that gives man more control over the means of transmission of that disease, too.

Two different moral meanings for leprosy exist in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One follows the medieval association which links leprosy with spiritual sins that damage the social structure. The other moral track develops in relation to the new disease syphilis and connects both leprosy and syphilis to lechery, thus implying a venereal connection for both diseases. In this section, I begin by tracing works that follow the medieval idea that leprosy signifies sins that threaten the community. These works include Girolamo Fracastoro's Syphilis, Edmund Spenser's The Fairie Queene, and Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning. I then demonstrate

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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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