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Literature and Medicine 22.1 (2003) 1-24

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Contagion and Blame in Early Modern England:
The Case of the French Pox

Louis F. Qualtiere and William W. E. Slights


During the first century of its epidemic spread through Europe, the venereal disease called Morbus Gallicus or the French pox occasioned a major shift in the cultural interpretation of contagion. This change can be traced in medical and literary texts dating from roughly 1530 to 1630. As a sexually transmitted disease that threatened the social fabric of Europe, the pox elicited deep medical concern and strong moral condemnation from secular and religious authorities. Throughout the sixteenth century this disfiguring and disabling disease was said to be the result of God's wrath, but by the start of the seventeenth century another, quite different construction of the origin and spread of the pox came to share the stage with the punitive, providentialist explanation. Satiric literature such as Shakespeare's Timon of Athens shifted the focus squarely onto the role of the individual human agent in spreading the pox and so expanded the ethical discourse of contagion far beyond obeisance to God and blaming the victim.

While neither moral depravity nor divine wrath went out of favor as proposed causes for contagion, they lost some of their explanatory force in the face of systematic medical observations and humane literary representations of the pox. As the disease and its physically punishing treatments underwent changes, so too did the ways that the population at large responded to its potential for social devastation. The full realization that this horrible venereal infection could be purposefully and systematically spread gave rise to a body of literature aimed at realigning the moral and the medical in the discourse of contagion. No longer could vague notions of planetary influence, miasma, and divine distaste for sexual excess satisfy people's curiosity about why some diseases, such as the French pox, spread like wildfire through the population while others didn't. 1 [End Page 1]

In this essay a pathologist and a specialist in early modern drama study the impact of the pox on the mental outlook of Renaissance England. We will argue that the intersection of medical and literary discourses throws light on the ways that certain individuals and communities in the period learned to live with this grim disease, while others were torn apart by it. Changing conceptualizations of contagion and the social mechanisms of blame in the early modern period are the subject of what follows.

The pox struck Europe at the end of the 1400s, and by the beginning of Shakespeare's dramatic career in the last decade of the 1500s, England had felt the full force of the epidemic. The detailed description of symptoms in Fracastoro's Syphilidis sive de Morbo Gallico (1525) illustrates graphically how disfiguring the disease was:

[U]nsightly sores broke out over all the body and made the face horrifyingly ugly, and disfigured the breast by their foul presence: the disease took on a new aspect: pustules with the shape of an acorn-cup and rotten with thick slime, which soon afterwards gaped wide open and flowed with a discharge like mucous and putrid blood. Moreover the disease gnawed deep and burrowed into the inmost parts, feeding on its victims' bodies with pitiable results: for on quite frequent occasions we ourselves have seen limbs stripped of their flesh and the bones rough with scales, and mouths eaten away yawn open in hideous gape while the throat produced feeble sounds. 2

The sores that appeared all over the victims' bodies were too prominent and too ghastly to be ignored. So many hideously pockmarked people began to appear in the streets that civic authorities in many nations provided hospitals for the incurabili, partly in an effort to conceal the disease from public view. 3 The astounding spread of the disease throughout England by 1579 amazed the first of the English syphilographers, William Clowes: "It is wonderfull to consider," he writes, "how huge multitudes there...


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