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23.08.17 Jones, Patterns of Plague

23.08.17 Jones, Patterns of Plague


Plague tracts emerged as a novel and unique genre of medical literature in response to successive outbreaks of the Black Death between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, during what is now known as the Second Plague Pandemic. To medieval people, ignorant of the scale and breadth of the First Plague Pandemic between the sixth and eighth centuries, this was a new and terrifying disease. As the first outbreak spread across Europe between 1347 and 1353, physicians rushed to characterise, explain, and offer treatments for this disease through treatises. They deployed formulaic structures, beginning with the causes and traits of the disease, recommendations on avoidance, and treatments for the infected. The basic structure, and indeed the nature of the advice, in these treatises did not change radically, despite the proliferation of tracts written by a multitude of different authors across Europe over nearly four centuries, and this repetitious conventionality explains the general lack of scholarly interest in them: until now. Lori Jones argues convincingly that a careful comparison of their narrative features over time (mid-fourteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries) and place (England and France) serves to “lift plague tracts from the source-dustbin and restore them to their rightful place as valuable historical documents” (6). It also allows local perspectives, experiences and understanding to be identified.

Jones subjects over two hundred plague tracts and fifty other contemporary texts to both diachronic and synchronic analyses through three inter-twined methodologies. First, they are considered as material objects whether in manuscript or print form, based on characteristics such as their size, illustrations, and marginalia, as well as their authors, distributors, and booksellers (chapter 2). Second, the social, political, and religious contexts framing the approach of an author are reconstructed, with particular attention to the prefaces of the tracts, which Jones believes reveal the finer points of an author’s thinking about plague as a historical, geographical, or socio-cultural phenomenon (chapter 3). Third, Jones attempts to understand how from the sixteenth century Europeans developed an interest in the history of epidemics and, in doing so, increasingly associated plague with the eastern Mediterranean and the Ottoman Empire and increasingly portrayed those “foreign” lands as swampy, filthy, disease-ridden, and foul-smelling (chapter 4). These three main chapters are sandwiched by a brief introduction, which includes an accessible and helpful summary of the latest scientific research and understanding of the epidemiology of plague, and a nine-page conclusion. There are fourteen black and white illustrations of plague tracts. The book is well structured, and the writing is sophisticated. The author is formidably knowledgeable, as evidenced by the substantial bibliography, ranging from open access medical research journals to histories of the Ottoman Empire.

Jones explores the tracts as tangible objects carrying meaning, and she plots changes over time. The production of beautifully illuminated and crafted manuscripts in the late fourteenth century contrasts with the small, portable, printed books from the late fifteenth century, which brought information about plague to a much wider audience at an affordable price. The dominance of London over the English printing industry meant that a small number of printers and stationers determined which tracts became popular, whereas the French printing industry was more decentralised and provincial, providing consumers with greater variety and choice. This allowed French authors to emphasise the local and the particular, including vehement anti-Protestant sentiment which was absent from English treatises.

After the universal first and second great plague epidemics, observers began to recognise the localised nature of later outbreaks: whether in one city rather than another, or in one area of a city more than others. London appeared to be a plague magnet, a characteristic attributed to its chronic sanitation problems and the sinfulness and debauchery of its inhabitants. It was also obvious that the wealthy could evade plague by leaving as an epidemic unfolded, while the poor suffered high mortalities. The link between the poor and plague was attributed to their overcrowded and filthy living conditions and their moral corruption, and municipal plague orders increasingly focused on dealing with such concerns. One early seventeenth-century writer, Francis Herring, differentiated between the dishonest and immoral poor (the idle grifters and vagabonds who spread the disease) and the moral and honest poor (the infirm and elderly), who were afflicted because they could neither flee nor afford medicines and were therefore worthy of charity and compassion. By the eighteenth century, writers were calling for medical inspection, cleansing, and evacuation of poor neighbourhoods whenever an outbreak seemed likely.

The earliest tracts had pointed to the generalised astrological and environmental events that triggered epidemics and to specific unhealthy places from which plague then arose locally. In contrast, by the early modern period treatises were politicising and globalising the origins of epidemics, with the finger of suspicion pointing firmly towards the Ottoman Empire. Ironically, seventeenth-century French writers had lauded the wealthiness and healthiness of Turkish cities, before changing their descriptions to fit the emerging narrative of the importation of disease from filthy foreign lands: the orient had gone from affluence to effluence. The association of plague with the orient--an entirely Eurocentric and politicised construct--in these tracts formed the basis of the widespread myth in the nineteenth, and indeed twentieth, centuries of plague as an oriental disease.

Some scholars consider the late fifteenth century as a key period in plague tract production, linked to the shift from manuscript to print, but Jones shows that this change had little impact on their content. Instead, she identifies the turn of the seventeenth century as the most transformative period for content, as the re-discovery of classical texts released knowledge of the First Plague Pandemic and as some authors began to trace the progress of outbreaks from one place to another--in many ways, the awakening of a concept of epidemiology.

There are some minor quibbles. Occasionally, a comment misses the mark. For example, we are told “in England poverty levels were quite high before the Black Death,” though not when compared with sheer scale of poverty under pressure of rising population in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (188): but the English population was higher in the early fourteenth century than in 1600, and levels of welfare as measured through real wages were lower than at any time in the last millennium. The bibliography of manuscript sources simply lists a series of libraries and archival repositories, rather than the individual manuscripts and their catalogue references, as a result of which it is difficult to identify exactly which treatises are used in the study.

The contribution of this book to the burgeoning scholarship on plague, and its great strengths, will be apparent from the above discussion. Its chronological and geographical range is exceptionally wide for a plague study, and its determination to locate the texts in their material, intellectual, cultural, social, and medical settings requires a firm grasp of a wide literature across very different disciplines. This represents an immense achievement.