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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 3: Medical History •

Medical History

Discourses of the Plague in Early Modern London

Margaret Healy

Part of the online series Epidemic Disease in London published by the Centre for Metropolitan History

Epidemic Disease in London ed. J.A.I. Champion (Centre for Metropolitan History Working Papers Series, No.1, 1993): pp. 19-34 (© Margaret Healy, 1993)

Now, what is the cause of disease, or, whence arising can violent illness suddenly blow up death and disaster for humankind and hordes of beasts? .... This fright, this night of the mind, must be dispelled not by the rays of the sun, nor day's bright spears but by the face of nature and her laws. (1)

Central to Lucretius's long poem De rerum natura, which emerged out of the politically turbulent context of Rome in the first century BC, was the belief that supernatural explanations of fearful occurrences - earthquakes, violent thunderstorms, floods and plagues - were potential social dynamite in the hands of power-hungry priests and politicians. In the case of plague the answers to the inevitable questions (How? Why us? and Why now?) can carry a powerful and dangerous political charge. Seeking to counter this threat through his poem, Lucretius attempted to tame the horrors of the unknown, espousing and extolling the rationally-based, 'natural' explanations of Democritus and the Epicureans. He was clearly aware that the way people explain and write about disease has important consequences - rhetoric not only records perceptions, it can influence them too, shaping social responses and significant outcomes.

The battle for the 'rhetorical ownership' (2) of explanations of disease in any age is a fascinating one, but the discourses of the plague handed down to us from the sixteenth century reveal a particularly interesting story of the complex interplay between religion, politics and medicine. This paper will examine the plague-troubled years between approximately 1510 and 1610 and will explore the role of rhetoric, especially metaphor, in both reflecting and shaping the meaning and the experience of that disease, for the plague victim and the community. Although none of us is so naive as to believe that the language of disease simply develops in response to a medical condition, it is my contention that we have insufficiently grasped how a variety of bodies of knowledge which we now more readily see separated into discrete disciplines (eg. medical, religious, economic) were operating in a far more interconnected way in the early modern period. This interconnection had real consequences for the way a disease like the plague was experienced by communities. It is through this context that I wish to examine how some of the discourses ('language in action') of plague functioned within early modern England and in particular to detail the work of the pamphleteer and playwright, Thomas Dekker (c.1570- c.1641).

Quoting from the biblical book of Samuel, Henoch Clapham wrote in his plague tract of 1603: 'Famine, sword and pestilence, are a trinitie of punishments prepared of the Lord, for consuming a people that have sinned against him.' (3) In the sixteenth century, famine, war - particularly civil war - and pestilence were inevitably construed as God's scourges, his 'plagues' to punish a sinful, recalcitrant people. These three things were of course much more palpable and fearful to the English than events like earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. For Thomas Dekker, as for most other writers of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean period, 'THE PESTILENCE, THE SICKNESS', was bubonic plague which as he stressed, 'hath a Preheminence above all others...none being able to match it for Violence, Strength, Incertainty, Suttlety, Catching, Universality, and Desolation'. (4) As Dekker repeatedly described, 'many who had health in the morning, lay in their Graves at night' and black buboes, or 'tokens' on the body, distinguished this particularly horrifying illness which also notably had a nasty predilection for the young.

The discourses reveal that what constituted 'the pestilence' had become much more exact through the course of the sixteenth century. For example, in 1495 the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, construed the new disease of the Renaissance, syphilis, as a scourge, a punishment sent by God for blasphemy like 'hunger, earthquakes, pestilence and other plagues of earlier times'. (5) For the first thirty or so years of its existence, syphilis could be rapidly mortal and spread like wildfire among the warring armies of continental Europe. Even by 1500, though, the imaginative appeal of the disease as a scourge of God had waned, perhaps because its routes of transmission - especially the sexual one - were fairly clear from early on. They were not in the case of bubonic plague, the spread of which remained mysterious, and therefore ripe for speculation and appropriation, until the late nineteenth century when rats and fleas were located as the carriers.

Even in the most down-to-earth, Galenic-based accounts of the plague's spread, an aura of mystery surrounded speculation about 'secret qualities' in poisoned, miasmic air and the power of inanimate objects like clothing - especially woollen stuff and fur collars - to infect. The section on pestilence in Sir Thomas Elyot's Castel of helthe (1539) is particularly revealing. Having given instructions that the reader should flee infected places and persons he thoughtfully added:

Moreover receyve not into your house any stuffe, that commeth out of a house, wherin any person hath ben infected. For it hath bene sene, that such stuffe lyenge in a cofer shutte by the space of two yeres, after that the coffer hath bene opened, they whiche have stande nygh to it, have ben infected, and sone after have died. But there I alwaye excepte the powre of god, which is wonderfull, and also mercifull, above man's reason and counsell, preserving or stryking whom, whan, and where it shall lyke his majestie. (6)

The contents of the coffer are rather like those of Pandora's box - extremely harmful and only explicable by recourse to a thwarted god. The ability of God to preserve or strike whom He pleased answered, for some, the other big area of mystery as set out here by Thomas Paynell in his Moche profitable treatise against the pestilence (1534): 'Why that some do die and peryshe of the foresayde sycknesse, and some not: and beynge in the sayde same citie or house, why one dothe dye, and another not.' (7) Interestingly, Paynell, a cleric but also a highly educated humanist translator, provides natural explanations on both counts - the stars and the vulnerability of certain humorally imbalanced persons to succumb to the venomous air. Paynell was around this time in Henry VIII's employ so we should perhaps expect him to be echoing a government line.

In his, as in the majority of medical plague treatises of the sixteenth century, the pestilence is contagious because, as he explains:

from infected bodies commethe infectious and venemous fumes and vapours, the whiche do infecte and corrupte the aire. And therfore it is very necessarie to avoyde and eschewe all suche as be infected with any such infirmitie: and also in tyme of pestilence to avoyde greate multitude and congregation of people. For in a greatte multytude maye be some one infectyd the which may infecte manye. (8)

Contagion, for Paynell, was a matter of mini-miasmic clouds breathed in and out. This early sixteenth-century humanist account of contagion was unusually pragmatic: Paynell did not make an obvious moral point, only a medical one - infected people transmit disease, crowds should be avoided. During the course of the century, discourses of contagion in such medical 'self- help' manuals tended to operate more frequently in the moral and social, as well as in the physical disease-process domain. Which bodies were especially contagious and where they lived became important. In order to try to understand why, a consideration of some plague and pestilence metaphors is necessary.

Most of the significant metaphors of the sixteenth century have biblical and/or classical roots. The humanist writers seem to have revived and revivified many of them: following the classical precedent, they were particularly keen on using disease and medical analogies in their political tracts. The Tudor humanist, Thomas Starkey, in his Dialogue between Cardinal Pole and Thomas Lupset (1536), for example, analysed the problems of the English body politic in terms of specific diseases. It should be recalled perhaps at this juncture that Lupset and several other members of Pole's household at Padua had worked on the Aldine edition of the text of Galen making these medical correspondences particularly appropriate. 'Pestilence', Starkey declared, was 'the want of agreement between the parts of the body - commons against ruler, temporality against spirituality': in short it was civil war. (9)

A great source of dissension and fear of civil unrest and war in early modern Europe derived, of course, from religion and the Reformation, and the humanist propagandists (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) utilized the persuasive power of plague imagery to the full. Sir Thomas More was particularly good at it and was behind Henry VIII's castigation of Luther's attempt 'to enfect you [the English Commons] with the deedly corruption and contagious odour of his pestylent errours'. (10) Words and books were becoming dangerous, spreading the moral pollution of Lutheran heretics and potential social discord by the minute. In 1532 Thomas More described heretics creeping around England with abominable books (Tyndale's unauthorized Bible) among good simple souls, corrupting like a canker. (11) Gatherings of people could spread the contagion like the plague; the biblical 'Worde', 'conversacion' and meetings were dangerous - they bred sedition. In a Supplication to King Henry in 1544 the Commons retaliated, declaring: 'The one infection and pestylent poyson is there greate Lordships [the Bishops] and domynions, with the yerely proventes of the same.' (12) Greedy clerical landlords and exorbitant rents constituted the metaphorical pestilence of the Commons.

Earlier, in 1538, Cardinal Pole had replied against charges that he was a scourge with the following words: 'You say, I make many plagues, but lay little or no salve to heal them ... In very dede I make never a plague, when I discover those that be made already.' (13) He was seeking to dissociate himself from, and to project onto his political adversaries, the dangerous label of plague or sedition promulgator within the body politic. A decade earlier such a charge (of disease polluter) had proved disastrous to Cardinal Wolsey. (14) In works such as Erasmus's widely read Colloquies, and in propagandist tracts (for example, Simon Fyshe's Supplicacyon for the beggars), syphilitic pollution, papistry, priests and moral pollution were metonymically linked - Wolsey was dismissed with the help of this alleged dangerous moral and physical disease and the monasteries were argued to be rightly dissolved because of the similar corruption of their inmates. Blowing in faces, odious breath, whisperings in ears, conversation, and meetings were firmly linked in both the pro- and anti-reformists' propagandist writings with moral contagion, heresy and sedition. As plague was also a recurring phenomenon in these turbulent years, especially the late 1540s, conversation and meetings could literally breed contagion, too.

Given the way the figurative language of plague and contagion operated in the political/religious discourses of the Reformation years, it is possible to imagine that writers of popular medical books such as the Catholic lawyer Thomas Phayre had specific political agendas. In his treatise of the pestilence of 1545 Phayre warned his reader that:

... the venemous air itself is not half so vehement to infect, as is the conversacion or breath of them that are infected already, and that by the agreeing of natures. (15)

This has a Galenic source, but is he perhaps hinting at the Lutherans here? He moved rapidly on to 'counsel every chrysten man, that is in doute of thys dysease to cure first the fever pestylencial of hys soule'. There was certainly a generalized moral discourse in this plague tract but read from a historically specific viewpoint it is probable that there was a more covert political one too: any literal, face-value reading of contagion as represented in the vernacular medical tracts should definitely be undertaken with caution.

Following the firm establishment of Protestantism in England with the accession of Elizabeth I to the throne, it became almost impossible for Protestant writers of popular medical books to discuss the plague without recourse to the spiritual as well as the corporal body and without recourse to the biblical Word. Quotes from the Old Testament - Leviticus and Deuteronomy, especially - join those from Hippocrates and Galen in the physician's attempt to make sense of, and manage, dangerous contagion. In his Institutes, Calvin had represented Original sin as an hereditary corruption or disease of the soul. Given that the soul was increasingly construed as capable of infecting the physical body, it became possible to assert the reverse: bodily diseases could indicate the state of your soul. The manner and cure of spiritual contagion became a medical matter and disease became a vital religious concern: their discourses by 1600 share a remarkably similar vocabulary.

The physician William Bullein, one time rector of Blaxhall in Suffolk, former Marian refugee, and kinsman to Anne Boleyn, was the first English medical writer of the sixteenth century to fuse the two in any extended, developed way. His Dialogue of the fever pestilence, published in 1564 in response to the plague epidemic of 1563 which swept away up to 20 per cent of London's population, appears to be the only English plague pamphlet of this period written by a physician which includes witty dramatic exchanges, local colour, moral tales and proverbial wisdom. (16) Its humour is deceptive. In fact, it was a Protestant propagandist tract to defend the poor Commons, advocating faith and compassionate behaviour in the face of the plague and the moral pestilence of greedy duplicitous merchants, physicians, apothecaries, lawyers and landlords. There are two plagues here, physical and moral. Bullein offers more politically specific satire: the buying up of old lands (especially by foreign Catholic merchants) and converting them from tillage to pasture causing widespread dearth and poverty are his particular concerns. The plague, and his posture of addressing it as a physician, provided him with an excellent opportunity for airing political and social opinions to a wide audience. Medical information takes up just a fifth of this book, which proved popular, undergoing further editions in 1564, 1573 and 1578. Interestingly, Bullein is buried in the same grave as the Protestant martyrologist, John Foxe.

The rise in Paracelsian and Neoplatonic interest in the later sixteenth century served to intensify this growing medical preoccupation with the moral and spiritual and this is most obvious in the discourses of contagion, where abstract ideas were increasingly given concrete attributes, words or signs pointing to other systems of mental categories. Moral pestilence was allotted actual routes of transmission based on medical theories of contagion from body to body, as in Thomas Newton's The touchstone of complexions published in 1576. Of good and evil angels Newton declares:

Now, for so much as Spirits be without bodies, they slyly and secretly glyde into the body of man, even much like as fulsome stench, or as a noysome and ill ayre, is inwardly drawen into the body and there not onely incense and pricke a man forwarde to mischiefe, but also like most pestilant Counsellers promyse the party reward and impunitye. (17)

Here, moral pestilence is no longer merely a metaphor: Newton and others of his persuasion (and the writing of this period suggest there were many) believed it to be an actuality. But the old metaphor of the pestilent counsellor which had been dear to the earlier humanists was central to informing this physician's theory of moral contagion. Evil is breathed in and out like the plague and like the conversation of seditious people. In the early seventeenth century psychic contagion was a real worry and physicians such as John Cotta writing in 1612, dwelt on the power of the imagination to both induce and cure diseases. (18) Psychic and supernatural phenomena were far more of a medical preoccupation in the early seventeenth century than they were in the early sixteenth century and the metaphors associated with contagion not only reflected these ideas, but inevitably, through inscribing them in discourse, encouraged their circulation too.

The equating of political sedition and plague was also pronounced in the fears expressed about meetings. As mentioned earlier, 1563 saw an extremely nasty outbreak of plague in London. In 1564 Edmund Grindal, bishop of London, warned of the:

common playours; who now dayle, but speciallye on holy dayes, sett up bylles, wherunto the youthe resorteth excessively, and ther taketh infection besydes that goddes worde by theyr impure mouthes is prophaned, and turned into scoffes. (19)

Grindal wanted to stop the popular religious drama of the medieval cycles (which he probably associated with unreformed Catholicism), and maintained that such gatherings spread the plague, moral contagion and possible social unrest - a triple evil which through the course of the century informed a powerful linkage and conflation of plagues with playhouses in some circles. Among the reformers who had now become the establishment in the Church and City, plays, and their strange bedfellow of large unorthodox religious gatherings, both potentially gave rise it seems to the spirit of enthusiasm which bred sedition as well as plague. In the next large London plague outbreak of 1592-3, Bishop Aylmer declared his unease about the opportunities which long services associated with plague fasts gave for Puritan enthusiasm and for the spread of infection. (20) The city fathers had reason to worry: between 1581 and 1602 the city was disturbed by no fewer than thirty-five outbreaks of disorder associated mainly with economic disasters, protests against the administration of justice or the influx of alien workers. (21) Disorder, like the plague, had become endemic and, like the plague and the playhouses, it was now closely associated with the unruly suburbs - the Liberties of London which were outside the city walls and beyond the Sheriffs' control. Here stood the dirty overcrowded slums, the masterless men, the immigrants, the whorehouses and the playhouses all closely associated with the spread of the plague and the contamination of the city and the nation - actual and moral. As Sir Nicholas Woodrofe, Lord Mayor of London, wrote to Lord Burghley in 1580:

Some things have doble the ill... both naturaly in spreading the infection, and otherwise in drawing God's wrathe and plage upon us, as the erecting and frequenting of houses very famous for INCONTINENT RULE out of our liberties and jurisdiction. (22)

From the civic perspective, all this personal and urban disorder had to be stabilized if England's mercantile capital was to remain in business supplying the nation with wealth. The medical plague tracts of the 1590s reflect this growing civic imperative. Simon Kellwaye's A defensative against the plague (1593) provided a regimen for cleaning the individual body and home and then dealt with ways to make the city more hygienic. His text is infused with a spirit of duty and desire to order things, clean them up, replace bad smells with good by strewing flowers and herbs and burning sweet woods. Each item of regimen should be carried out habitually, in a particular way at a particular time of day. It is as if he sought to counter the bodily and social chaos threatened by the plague through a strictly regimented approach to life - order pitted against potential chaos.

Plague orders were put together by physicians under the instructions of the Privy Council throughout the latter part of the sixteenth century. The London regulations of 1583 were endorsed, very revealingly, as 'Orders to be set down of the Lord Mayor for repressing of disorders' - plague and disorder here are completely conflated. (23) Responding to a further outbreak of plague in 1603, Thomas Lodge's plague tract of that year dealt at length with the ordering of the body and the city in plague time. (24) Here, as in Kellwaye's tract, urban stench, dirt and infected people and their clothing are most closely associated with the spread of infection.

In 1603 Robert Cecil warned about the city's 'unruly infected' whom he felt needed sharper punishment to control them. This came in a rather harsh way in 1604 when the policy of isolating the infected was backed up by penal sanctions. Anyone with a plague sore found wandering outside could be whipped as a vagrant rogue and if in company with others he could be hanged. (25) Vagabonds plagued the city and like the evil smells they needed to be kept out: in 1603 they were to be rounded up by searchers and sent to Bridewell. This order is endorsed in Lodge's medical treatise:

... for such as are vagabonds, masterless men, and of servile and base condition, for such I say, they ought not to be admitted [into the City]. (26)

He was lending medical authority to government policy. Writers were encouraged to foreground contagion and measures to control it in their accounts of plague and some like Manning in his medical regimen of 1604 obliged to the following degree:

May not they be condemned for murtherers, which having plague soares will presse into companies to infect others, or wilfully pollute the ayre, or other meanes, which others are daily to use, and live by? (27)

The keeping of the body under strict control - exercising proper regimen - was for Manning both a godly and a civic obligation: transgression would be met with both divine and earthly punishment. Plague in such medical/religious discourses was by then very much a penal matter associated closely with the dirty, unruly poor, especially the unemployed, living outside the city walls - the place of the plague, the sinfully polluted suburbs.

But were the boundaries of London literally the place of the plague between 1592 and 1610? It would be easy for a modern reader to be carried away by the sway of such rhetoric but a note of caution is sounded by the fact that in 1593 half the reported plague burials still occurred within the city proper. (28) This is a surprisingly high proportion given the accounts of the mass exodus of the city wealthy - especially its children - during the worst plague outbreaks. A further note of caution is sounded by the work of the anthropologist Mary Douglas. In Purity and danger, Douglas argues a very convincing thesis that:

... ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below ... with and against etc. that a semblance of order is created. (29)

The rhetoric of dirt, pollution, contagion and exclusion in Douglas' view inevitably has more to do with ordering society - not necessarily in a negative way - than with controlling disease. The situation in early modern London does, however, suggest a very complex picture in which the biological and the social issues are inextricably linked. As the seventeenth century progressed the densely populated slums of the suburbs did become the greater focus of infection as the statistics testify: poverty, associated with overcrowded living and less frequent changes of clothing, probably did render one more susceptible to infection and more inclined, too, to revolt against the city governors, the wealthy and their inadequate measures to help. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the relationship between dirt, the people who live in it and bubonic plague has been overstressed in the past and overly influential in determining measures against it. In British-run Bombay in 1897, fire engines pumped carbolic acid solution onto the walls and floors of plague victims' houses, and millions of gallons of disinfectants were pumped through the sewers every day. Much to the surprise of everyone involved, the infection spread even faster: the dirt/bubonic plague equation actually proved detrimental to plague control. (30)

As Ian Archer reminds us, (31) the state's self-representations were just one component of a complex social discourse among the various political 'voices' in early modern England. It is important to look also at different 'voices': one such was that of Thomas Dekker, a prolific, highly regarded playwright and pamphleteer who lived in the suburbs - Whitechapel - and from time to time was an impoverished and imprisoned debtor.

The circumstances of Dekker's private life are fairly obscure: he is thought to have been the offspring of refugees from Catholic persecution in the Netherlands. Julia Gasper in her recent study of Dekker's plays, characterizes him as a militant Protestant. (32) In terms of literary affiliation he is known to have had a very high regard for the writings of Spenser and Chaucer and it is the Chaucer heritage which is most detectable in his pamphlet outpourings, especially in the humorous, satirical tales of London life which pepper his first four so-called 'plague pamphlets' which seem to have emerged anonymously when the theatres were closed. Dekker announced that he 'scribbled' them to make money but his writing reveals a strong political and moral impetus. The best known of these works is The wonderfull yeare, published in the late summer of 1603. Parodying the usual fashion of dedicating one's plague pamphlet to a city governor who stayed behind instead of fleeing, Dekker addressed his scribbled papers to a probably non-existent 'Water-Bailiffe' of London:

If you read, [he announces] you may happilie laugh; tis my desire you should, because mirth is both PHISICALL, and wholesome against the PLAGUE, with which sicknes, (to tell truth) this booke is, (though not sorely) yet somewhat infected. I pray, drive it not out of your companie for all that; for (assure your soule) I am so jealous of your health, that if you did but once imagine, there were gall in mine Incke, I would cast away the Standish, and forsweare medling with any more Muses. (33)

Dekker's book is personified and dramatized as a plague victim threatening to thrust itself into the water-bailiff's company. Wittily drawing on fashionable medical commonplaces he recommends mirth in the face of plague and fortifying the soul against fearful imaginings (in this case, that his book seeks to infect or harm). In his 'Dedication to the reader' which follows Dekker proposes that 'thin headed fellowes that live upon the scraps of invention' (hungry hack-writers not too different from himself) have the 'Statute of Rogues sued upon them ... because their wits have no abiding place'. Through such irreverent mockery of the physicians' commonplaces and the city governors' harsh statutes Dekker adds another more humorous, heavily sardonic and at times profoundly poignant 'voice' to the 1603 plague debate. But, in its protean, metamorphosing manner, the book presents a rather different plague than we have been led to expect.

Following a cheerful picture of London in springtime with its notably 'sweet odours' and 'excellent aires ... streets full of people and jollity', occurs an account of the Queen's sudden sickness and death, with Death attired like a courtier, entering her chamber and summoning her to the Star-chamber of heaven. 'Oh, what an Earth-quake is the alteration of a state', Dekker declares, and proceeds to paint a vivid picture of the kingdom in the grip of fear of sedition, civil war and war. These were the first plagues to threaten in 1603. Launching from prose into verse, Dekker colours his outline with images such as feverish, sweaty rich men burying their gold, 'without priest or Clarke'. The apt analogy here is with the rich who, through fear, buried their plague-dead servants in secret without priests (a nasty practice which he mentions elsewhere) to avoid the detection, and thus the shutting-up, of their plague- infested houses. Poor servants are likened to material commodities through such an analogy. There are also quaking, fearful and unpleasant-sounding 'wise-acred landlords', 'tongue-travelling lawyers' and usurers who usurped the abodes of the poor in order to hide themselves and their earthly goods from ruffian thieves who threatened to turn the world upside down in the absence of authority in such transitional times. The emphasis is on the greed and hypocrisy of the wealthy and it is not an attractive picture. As this extract reveals, Dekker's sympathy, and increasingly the reader's, is with the poor villain exploited by the rich man:

In unsought Allies and unholsome places,
Back-wayes and by-lanes, where appeare fewe faces,
In shamble-smelling roomes, loathsome prospects,
And penny-lattice windowes, which rejects
All popularitie: there the rich Cubs lurke,
When in great houses ruffians are at worke,
Not dreaming that such glorious booties lye
Under those nasty roofes: such they passe by
Without a search, crying there's nought for us,
And wealthy men deceive poor villaines thus. (34)

This inverted cony-catching story, points to the chaos - real or imagined - in the metropolis at this time. Whilst England was 'shooting arrows at her own breast' (35) - an allusion to plague arrows and the threat of civil war - Catholic countries waited their chance to aim theirs. But, Dekker declares, 'God stuck valiantlie to us, For behold, up rises a comfortable Sun out of the north, whose glorious beames (like a fan) dispersed all thick and contagious clowdes'. James VI of Scotland, a Protestant and furthermore a male with an heir, is proclaimed King. Appropriately as a poet in Apollo-like fashion he is invoked as England's physician, warding off the threatened plagues of civil and international war. Dekker repeated this construction of James I as Apollo and healing physician in the pageant he was asked to create to celebrate James's accession; it can also be found in Shakespeare's Macbeth. The motif can thus be read as part of a Jacobean propaganda exercise which attempted to counter Catholic rumour that James's accession had, in fact, incurred the wrath of God on England. It was, indeed, a matter of some embarrassment for the Protestants that the new King's arrival in England coincided with the outbreak of plague: in later pamphlets Dekker himself drew attention to this, explaining the plague epidemic as God making England atone for the sins committed throughout the previous reign. Plague is even accorded a positive, regenerative role - getting rid of sins and excess people which produced that other scourge, famine.

Tinged with a heavy note of irony, The wonderfull yeare proceeds, describing the actual plague ravishing London in many guises, following the short-lived celebrations welcoming the new King to London. In Dekker's pamphlets the plague is inevitably conflated with death and personified. He - it is always a he - is above all a militaristic tyrant besieging the city and deflowering its maidens: a rapist, a thief, a hunter, a dragon or a Tamburlaine who has set up his camp - pitched his tents of winding sheets - in (Dekker's heavily ironic words) 'the sinfully polluted suburbs'. The allusion is to Christopher Marlowe's play about a tyrant scourge, which was performed in that other 'plague' of the city, the playhouse, situated in the place of the plague (according to the city fathers' rhetoric), the Liberties. Dekker appropriates the old plague metaphors and through his exaggeration and witty exploitation of their full figurative potential he makes his readers laugh, helping to tame the fear inherent in the ghastly images and perhaps in the plague itself. At points he achieves the same effect depicting potentially tragic London scenes:

I am amazed to remember what dead marches were made of three thousand together; husbands, wives and children, being lead as ordinarily to one grave, as if they had gone to one bed. And those that could shift for a time, and shrink their heads out of the collar (as many did) yet went they (most bitterly) miching and muffled up and downe with rue and wormewood stuft into their eares and nosthrils, looking like so many Bores heads stuck with branches of Rosemary, to be served in for Brawne at Christmas. (36)

Dekker's tone is not, however, always playful - there are very dark passages in these pamphlets particularly where he describes man's inhumanity to man, as in this extract:

I could draw forth a catalogue of many poore wretches, that in fields, in ditches, in common Cages, and under stalls (being either thrust by cruell maisters out of doores, or wanting all worldly succor but the common benefit of earth and aire) have most miserably perished. (37)

He is extremely hard on the uncharitable runaways and on the hard-hearted 'hobbinalls' of the countryside who exercised no pity for stricken and fleeing Londoners. The strong message in all his tracts is that fleeing was useless - the smiting angel would get you wherever you were. In A rod for run- awaies he recommends a strategy which is an ironic counter to the London plague policy, enforced by the constables, of barring suspected vagabonds from the city. The runaways should be prevented from leaving their houses until they have contributed, via the constables, a sum of money for the upkeep of the poor:

It were a worthy act in the Lord Maior, and honourable magistrates in this City, if, as in the Townes to which our Merchants, and rich Tradesmen flye, the Countrey-people stand there, with Halberds and Pitchforkes to keepe them out; so, our Constables and Officers, might stand with Bils to keepe the rich in their owne houses (when they offer to go away) untill they leave such a charitable piece of Money behinde them, towards the maintenance of the poore, which else must perishe in their absence. they that depart hence, would then (no doubt) prosper the better; they that stay, fare the better, and the generall City (nay the Universall kingdome) prosper in blessings from Heaven, the better. (38)

Dekker's persistent message is that charity will be rewarded by the cessation of plague: SIN and not contagion causes the plague, and uncharitable behaviour linked with greed and selfishness is the root of God's displeasure. These were in fact very brave messages to try to convey, flying in the face of authority as they did. Henoch Clapham was imprisoned for saying much the same thing in a far less humorous way in 1603. Dekker's views cannot have been popular with the city governors.

It is explicitly these authorities whom he took on in his second plague pamphlet Newes from Graves-end: sent to no-body (1604). The epistle dedicatory is directed at NO BODY (i.e. Mr Nobody) - the implication being that because all the city worthies had deserted the sinking ship of London in plague time there was no one left to whom he could dedicate his tract. Dekker extends his witty conceit through many pages in this manner:

...in this pestiferous shipwrack of Londoners, when the pilot, botswaines, maister and Maister-mates, with all the chiefe Mariners that had charge in this goodly Argosy of governement, leapt from the stern... never sownded in places of danger...but suffered all to sincke or swim, crying out onely, Put your trust in god my bullies, and not in us, whilst they hid themselves in hatches, or else scrambled to shoare in cock- boats: yet thou (undaunted nobody) then, even then, didst stand stoutly to thy tackling, step courageously to the helm, and manfully runne up and downe, encouraging those (with comfortable words) whose hearts lay coldly in their bellies. ...And (not as your common constables, charging poore sicke wretches, that had neither meate nor money, in the king's name to keepe their houses , thats to say to famish and die.... (39)

Towards the end of this tract, now in poetic voice, Dekker menacingly warns:

Tis now The Beggars plague, for none
Are in this battaile overthrowne
But Babes and pore: The lesser fly
Now in this spiders web doth lie.
But if that great and goodly swarme [the runaways]
(That has broke through,[through fleeing] and felt no harme,)
In his invenom'd snares should fall,
O pittie! twere most tragicall. (40)

Dekker declines to speak of any medical cures for the plague in spite of James' command (acknowledged in the pamphlet) for writers to do so - as a poet, he declares, he cannot be so confined and anyway he does not believe that the medical cures of either the Galenists or the Paracelsians are efficacious. Disease emanated from the plaguey soul of a sick society in which COMMODITY overrode CHARITY. Employing mercantile and market-place language and allusions throughout his satire, and redeploying the homiletic commonplace associating greed and usury with God's wrath and plague, Dekker sets up this moral dichotomy.

In the absence of any real knowledge about plague (and this applied up to the twentieth century), the best way to survive an epidemic was definitely to get as far away from the infected place as possible or to set up barriers to exclude anything associated with it from your vicinity. It is clear from these discourses that the city's elite understood this - magistrates, physicians, merchants and lawyers fled in droves to the countryside. Their money and means enabled them to do so. The wealthy who had to stay were no doubt in favour of the plague orders which attempted to keep the baser sort out of the richer quarters of the city proper. Thomas Dekker, inspite of being a successful dramatist around 1603, probably lacked sufficient capital (he was always in debt) either to flee or to reside within the city walls. He, along with the bulk of the metropolitan population, was forced to observe both the full horrors of the sickness, and the dysfunctioning of the capital city when trade had ceased. Food prices were high and people who survived the illness could starve. In the absence of effective alleviating measures, the middling sort, like Dekker, were clearly desperate for the runaways to return so that the trade and business on which their livelihoods depended could resume.

Dekker might have believed that fleeing was not efficacious because God's smiting angel was all pervasive, but contradictions in his rhetoric suggest that he was motivated more by pragmatic concerns than religious ones. His pamphlets were meant to be read by the runaways, no doubt the same people who bought the medical tracts like Lodge's and Manning's which justified in medical, religious and ethical terms (a powerful trinity), the efficacy of fleeing. Dekker's opposing construction of the causes of plague - sin (embodying greed and selfishness) and smiting angels - suited his underlying political argument: that the management of the plague in 1603 was socially divisive, blatantly unfair to the poor and devastating to trade as well as to the people left to fend for themselves in the capital. Equally, it seems that the underlying political strategies of the city's elite, including the physicians, were bolstered by constructions of the plague which emphasized contagion and natural causes and associated sin and moral misdemeanours with the dirty poor living in the Liberties. Policies like shutting people up in infected houses and whipping those with plague sores found wandering in the streets required a powerful justifying rhetoric. The fear generated by the plague inevitably stimulated the instinct for survival on both sides of the social/commodity divide, a divide characterized by the ability, or not, to finance one's segregation and sustenance outside or inside the metropolis during the trade-dead plague summers. This commodity divide, I would argue, was far more significant and fundamental than any religious one in determining collective responses to the plague in the first decade of the seventeenth century.

In ancient Rome, Lucretius associated supernatural explanations of the plague with harmful political appropriations. The discourses of the plague bequeathed to us by early modern Londoners suggest that more rationally- based explanations of epidemics could be equally dangerous and socially divisive. As the survey of the rhetoric of pestilence in the sixteenth century has indicated, to be associated with the source of any contagion in this period was unpropitious. The stigma and fear generated, even if the association was based more on metaphor than reality (as in the cases of Cardinals Pole and Wolsey) were considerable. When contagion was yoked to coercive sanctions and punishments it became a powerful and unpleasant engine for social control. Indeed, the desire to order society can generate disease and dirt allegations which are unfounded.

In the light of the contending voices surrounding the 1603 plague, it is only possible to speculate about the extent to which the dirty poor living in the sinfully polluted suburbs were the focus of the actual plague in the early seventeenth century. It remains to be seen too, to what extent the plague orders for the repression of disorders were a response to the bubonic plague, as opposed to that other increasingly fearful plague of the growing body of discontented unemployed who had pitched their tents in the suburbs.

Related publications:

Margaret Healy, 'Plausibility in Renaissance Domestic Tragedy' in Sue Wiseman and Erica Fudge (eds), Science as Culture: At The Borders of the Human (Macmillan, 1999)
Margaret Healy, Fictions of Disease: Bodies Plagues and Politics in Early Modern Writings

  1. Lucretius, The nature of things (transl. 1977), VI.1090-2 and I.146-148. Back to 1
  2. Susan Sontag, Aids and its metaphors (1989), p. 93. Back to 2
  3. Henoch Clapham, An epistle discoursing upon the pestilence (1603), sig.B2v. Back to 3
  4. Thomas Dekker, 'London looke backe', in F.P. Wilson (ed.), The plague pamphlets of Thomas Dekker (1925), p. 181. Back to 4
  5. In B. Boehrer, 'Early modern syphilis', Journal of the History of Sexuality, 1:2 (1990), p. 204. Back to 5
  6. Sir Thomas Elyot, Castel of helthe (1539), sig.L6r. Back to 6
  7. Thomas Paynell, A moche profitable treatise against the pestilence (1534), sig.A2v. Back to 7
  8. Ibid., sig.A3r. Back to 8
  9. In David George Hale, The body politic (1971), p. 64. Back to 9
  10. Henry VIII, A copy of the letters wherin... King Henry the Eight... made answer unto a certayn letter of Martyn Luther (1528), sig.A6. Back to 10
  11. 'Letter to Firth', in Elizabeth Frances Rogers (ed.), The correspondence of Sir Thomas More (1947), p. 441. Back to 11
  12. 'A supplycacion to our moste Soveraigne Lorde Kynge Henry the Eyght' (1544), in F.J. Furnivall (ed.), Four Supplications (1871), p. 47. Back to 12
  13. John Strype, Ecclesiastical memorials, 1, App. lxxxiii, 208; cited in Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edn., 1989), 'plague' (1). Back to 13
  14. See M. Waugh, 'Venereal diseases in sixteenth-century England', Medical History, 17 (1973), pp. 192-199. Back to 14
  15. Thomas Phayre, The regiment of life (1545), sig.L3v. Back to 15
  16. For example, 'It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good' (i.e. miasmic air benefits physicians' and apothecaries' purses and through killing the rich enables the poor to be clothed from the backs of the dead): William Bullein, A dialogue bothe pleasaunte and pietifull, wherein is a goodly regimente against the fever pestilence (1576), f. 22. Back to 16
  17. Thomas Newton, The touchstone of complexions (1576), f. 22. Back to 17
  18. John Cotta, A short discoverie (1612), p. 51. Back to 18
  19. In Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the popular voice (1989), p. 20. Back to 19
  20. Paul Slack, The impact of the plague in Tudor and Stuart England (paperback 1985), p. 237. Back to 20
  21. Brian Manning, Village revolts: social protest and popular disturbance in England, 1509-1640 (1988), p. 187. Back to 21
  22. In Stephen Mullaney, The place of the stage (1988), p. 49. Back to 22
  23. Slack, Impact of the plague, p. 303. Back to 23
  24. Thomas Lodge, A treatise of the plague (1603). Back to 24
  25. Slack, Impact of the plague, p. 211. Back to 25
  26. Lodge, Treatise of the plague, sig.F1v. Back to 26
  27. James Manning, I am for you all, Complexions Castle (1604), p. 2. Back to 27
  28. Paul Slack, 'Metropolitan Government in Crisis: the response to plague' in A.L. Beier and Roger Finlay (eds.), London 1500-1700. The making of the metropolis (1986), p. 64. Back to 28
  29. Mary Douglas, Purity and danger (1984), p. 4. Back to 29
  30. Charles Gregg, Plague (1978, rev. 1985), p. 57. Back to 30
  31. Ian W. Archer, The pursuit of stability: social relations in Elizabethan England (1991). Back to 31
  32. Julia Gasper, The dragon and the dove (1990). Back to 32
  33. Thomas Dekker, The wonderfull yeare (1603), p. 3. Back to 33
  34. Ibid., p. 17. Back to 34
  35. Ibid, p. 10. Back to 35
  36. Ibid, p. 33. Back to 36
  37. Ibid, p. 37. Back to 37
  38. Thomas Dekker, A rod for run-awaies (1625), p. 149. Back to 38
  39. Thomas Dekker, Newes from Graves-end: sent to no-body (1604), p. 71. Back to 39
  40. Ibid., p. 97. Back to 40

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