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  • Contagious MetaphorsLiturgies of Early Modern Plague
  • Kathleen Hines

Between 1623 and 1666, plague's broad sweep through England resituated the borders of contagion. Eviscerating once-familiar physical bodies, the disease also transformed literary, religious, and scientific bodies of knowledge. Able to destroy the flesh and defamiliarize the body, plague also asserted its virulence most deeply by infecting language and its practice.

Rebecca Totaro writes:

Experience with plague was neither uniform nor isolated, but was rather simultaneously uniquely horrifying and extensive . … In their literary accounts, early moderns responded in corresponding fashion to this shape shifting terror by representing the plague as… an always hungry monster, consuming bodies regardless of age, gender, reputation, or economic status, or as a tyrant, because it so easily unseated government officials from mayors to monarchs.


Totaro alludes to plague's ability to consume not only the body, but also the language surrounding those bodies. Drawing her descriptions from early modern plays, political tracts, and bills of mortality, she alludes to plague's elusive power—one grounded in its ability to jump from the physical body to the metaphorical one—to shift from its microbial presence to a symbolic one in the written word. Acting as an Aristotelian metaphor, plague jumps from its embodied corpse into language. Once the source of antisepsis, language becomes the repository for the disease's spread across temporal and physical borders. Marking its presence through gruesome "buboes," or blackened and swollen lymph nodes on the infected body, the plague's corporeal course also marks its traversal through medical, theological, and literary bodies.

Early modern sermons perhaps speak best to plague's dangerous translation into what Ernest Gilman calls its own figure of speech and "form of writing" (73). Gilman considers the ways that plague, "makes itself known to us only by…images and narratives… to emphasize the sense of which our understanding is made [via] a thickly elaborated poesis, while remaining still a representational remove from the thing itself" (Gilman, Plague 73–4). Like Margaret Healy, who suggests that the plague's power lies in its ability to incorporate, "a variety of bodies of knowledge [End Page 318] which we now more readily see separated into discrete disciplines, Gilman meditates on the ways that plague's contagion relies on its categorical fluidity as a term (19). The plague destroys the body, but it also disbars itself from the familiar terms writers use to define it.

In England's first major seventeenth-century outbreak in 1603, homilist Roger Fenton wrote, "the word which commonly is used in scripture of the pestilence, is from a word that signifieth to speak, as some think, because, where it is everyone speaketh of it, enquireth after it, how it encreaseth, what remedies there be for it" (5). From his sermon "A Perfume Against the Noysome Pestilence prescribed by Moses unto Aaron," Fenton's words speak to the ways that plague exacerbates its contagion, speaking through language while defying language's efforts to define it. Fenton offers the sermon as a "perfume" against plague's acrid infection; by doing so, he seeks to alleviate its effects by recalculating and reordering the language that plague first invokes.

In "The Dreadfulness of Plague" in 1666, Josiah Hunter echoed Fenton's words; while he labels the plague a "token of God's wrath," he more largely discourses upon its nominally evocative power:

When things are more than ordinarily dreadful, it renders the very name dreadful too… and methinks the word Plague hath something of horror in it… the Scripture never speaks of it, but always one Epithete or other is given to it, as the note of a dreadful judgement.


Hunter defines the plague not by what it is, but by the symptoms and judgements it associatively produces. Plague, beyond its concrete presence, exists as an abstract metaphor—as the "application of a strange term either transferred from… one species to another or…by analogy" (Aristotle, qtd. from Montgomery 13).

In his 1604 Demaundes and Answeres touching the Pestilence Methodically Handled, Henoch Clapham attempted to define plague by its terminological history. He etymologizes the disease the way physicians dissect the plaguy body and parses plague's meaning through...


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