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Reviewed by:
  • The Plague in Print: Essential Elizabethan Sources, 1558-1603
  • Stephen J. Greenberg, M.S.L.S., Ph.D., Coordinator of Public Services
The Plague in Print: Essential Elizabethan Sources, 1558-1603. Transcribed and edited with critical commentary by Rebecca Totaro. Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press, 2010.

This book has the laudable aim of making a selection of sixteenth-century English plague documents more readily accessible to a scholarly audience. To that end, Totaro has selected six printed sources: a book of plague remedies, a pamphlet of prayers, a Socratic-style dialogue, a royal proclamation, a bill of mortality, and a journalistic summary of events, with commentary and extensive notes.

Although the texts were obviously selected with considerable thought, it is an odd mélange. The first, Thomas Moulton's Myrror or Glasse of Helthe, is not properly "Elizabethan" at all, as it was first published in 1531, during the reign of Henry VIII, and two years before Elizabeth was born. Totaro rightly points out that Moulton's work was reprinted many, many times, but often it was simply appended to other, newer texts; a common printer's method of squeezing the most out of a text in hand before copyright in its modern form was even thought of. This may be a small terminological point (the book could just as easily been subtitled "Essential 16th Century Sources"), but in a larger sense it is representative of the uneven level of scholarship throughout the book.

The same issues crop up in the three glossaries (a medical and herbal glossary, a glossary of names, and a general glossary), which raise the larger question of the intended audience for this book. Do we need to be told (in the medical and herbal glossary) that pence is "plural for penny" (270), or that rosewater is "water distilled from roses" (272). And is it necessary (in the general glossary) to define lust (283)?

If an undergraduate audience was intended, then there are even greater problems. Uniformly, the works have been stripped of any bibliographical [End Page 328] context or typographic link to any physical form. There are title page photographs of each item, to be sure, but they are poorly reproduced and give little evidence of the physical book. Moreover, the formatting of the reprinted text gives little sense of how the text was presented to the original reader. The mortality bill is especially poorly served by this method (or lack of method). It is reduced to a mere string of numbers, and is impossible to understand unless you have already seen one as originally printed, and have at least a basic realization that in a strictly censored world where one could be jailed and physically mutilated for publishing a private letter telling of events overseas without government permission, that same government subsidized the printing and distribution of plague mortality statistics. It would be nearly another century (and a civil war) before Milton would even broach the subject of a free press in the Areopagitica. But Totaro makes no effort to anchor her texts in any historical reality. Who purchased and read these items? How were they distributed in London or in the shires? How many copies were printed, and were they registered with the Crown or with the ubiquitous Stationers' Company (a legal but often flouted legal requirement after 1558).

In short, simply presenting a historical text, no matter how carefully selected or edited, is not enough for the undergraduate audience that seems to be the target for this book. Both historical and bibliographic contexts are essential, and they are not provided here. It is (to stay roughly in Totaro's period) rather like teaching "Hamlet" without mentioning that it is a play, and written for performance.

Stephen J. Greenberg, Coordinator of Public Services
History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Bethesda, Maryland 20894


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pp. 328-329
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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