Ideas about sight, vision, and optics were gradually altering in the seventeenth century. Theories concerning the sense of sight proposed that the eye was a mechanical object rather than an emotional entity. However, at the same time that these theories developed, London was riddled by devastating outbreaks of plague. This paper interrogates the complex history of sight, health, and illness in the early modern period. It focuses on the ephemerality and invisibility of the sense of sight by exploring examples of things that cannot be re-seen or visually replicated by scholars. Through an analysis of seventeenth-century London, this paper combines three distinct approaches by investigating instances of seeing the events of the plague, being seen during outbreaks of plague, and sensory obscurity and absence caused by plague. By scrutinising the significance of ‘Not Seeing’, ‘Seeing’, and ‘Being Seen’, this chapter will argue that the sense of sight acted as an unstable threshold to the inner body during outbreaks of plague. It exposed the body’s vulnerable and pregnable nature by adversely influencing the body, the mind, and the eye itself. Previous research by sensory scholars and historians has highlighted how sight was perceived to be the safest of the senses as it was believed to be the most distant from the body. However, this paper will illustrate that the opposite was often the case, particularly in the early modern period. It reveals that sight was an intensely endangered and resistless sense. The eye no longer served to discern and navigate the urban sphere. Instead, it was relentlessly assaulted by images of disease, contagion, and darkness. By exploring the variety of ways in which people saw during outbreaks of plague, this paper proposes a distinctive history of vision and epidemic disease.
Keywords: plague, senses, sight, London, thresholds
Biography: I am a second-year PhD student at the University of Leeds researching sensory experiences and perceptions of plague in seventeenth-century England. My thesis is provisionally titled ‘Sensing the Plague in Seventeenth-Century England’. The paper I propose to present at History Lab forms the first of five chapters exploring each of the senses during outbreaks of plague.
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