- Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology of EarlyNew England Narrative
Christobal Silva uncovers the differing narratives of epidemiology and their impact on the colonial New England landscape. The title references John Winthrop’s justification for the Puritan migration to New England and the decimation of Native American populations along the New England coastline, 1616–19. Silva uses the term “epidemiology” to describe the reading and treatments of epidemics during the period of colonial migration. The bulk of the text, however, focuses on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century conceptions of illness, contagion and treatment, and their parallel evolution to theological, juridical, and political discourses.
Silva explores how epidemiology gave shape to the landscape and the legal justifications needed for land appropriations and the transfer from wilderness to property. In other words, he explores how epidemiology gave shape to the landscape by providing the legal justification needed for land appropriations that transferred the wilderness into personal property. His argument is an invitation to literary critics and cultural theorists to apply this method of historical analysis as a tool for understanding contemporary contagion and mapping on open space. The demographic impact of epidemics was integral to theological and political Puritan thought in New England.
Silva’s book is divided into four chapters. The first chapter begins with the familiar narratives of John Smith, William Bradford, and Edward Winslow who increasingly depicted a transformed landscape to justify migration for the establishment and appropriation of land that God made available through wars and disease. Underscoring the connection between migration and settlement, providence served as a prime agent of religious and political rhetoric that pitted English settlers and fertile plantations against Native American deaths and failed crops. Silva claims the gardening trope was a literary tool focused on placing the landscape as a central figure in neutralizing the juridical discourse necessary for settling the colonial project of New England. Silva also gives examples of legal discourse of civil rights and the transformative nature of hard work that turned vacant land into fruitful property, always superseding the natural rights of Native Americans. [End Page 493]
Chapter 2 focuses on the social manifestations of disease and how the treatment of, and the recovery from, illness divided religious boundaries. Silva argues for the role of medical treatment as a vector for theological innovations in early colonial New England. Justification narratives carried theological assumptions that were implicit within these epidemiological frameworks. Distinct geographic, political, and immunological boundaries existed between settlements and figured prominently in the exchange of knowledge and services between communities. Silva explores William Bradford’s writings on Salem and Plymouth colonies and the theological implications of why one community was touched by infection and another not.
Silva also investigates how an epidemiological rhetoric functioned within the historical record of Antinomianism and its role as a religious epidemic that threatened New England’s churches. Figuratively, this religious fervor created migration patterns similar to those of an epidemic that altered land acquisitions.
Silva shows how John Cotton reflected positively on Anne Hutchinson, not only for her ability to aid and instruct women in childbirth, but also the individual in their spiritual state of mind. Hutchinson’s involvement in religious discourse found the body politic threatened by her involvement in Antinomianism and as such was seen as an infectious figure. Silva argues that Hutchinson’s actions in Massachusetts Bay can be juxtaposed against those of Samuel Fuller, less than a decade earlier in Salem. Both operated on parallel trajectories, using medical practice as a vector for disseminating theological opinions with the potential to disrupt the community. Behaviors were defined as healthy or pathological rather than within the status of an illness.
Possibly, Silva’s most interesting contribution is his analysis of historic narratives that projects past the first decades of settlement. He argues in the third chapter that the deterministic biological histories of colonialism have forestalled further investigation into the complexity of epidemiological events that shaped English cultural practices into the century following settlement. By setting aside the virgin soil argument, Silva is more interested in...