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Lectures from the Allen Room and the Wertheim Study: Plagues and Poxes: Epidemic Disease in Medieval and Early Modern London


February 21, 2013

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Epidemic disease has long been fundamental to the profile of the European Middle Ages - from the spread of leprosy in the twelfth century to the catastrophic pandemics of the fourteenth.  However, the writers and artists of the time are surprisingly reticent on the subject of disease.  Geoffrey Chaucer and his contemporaries have little to say about the plague.  Even when it provides occasion and context for their work they eschew details of bodily disintegration.

By the time of James I's coronation in London in 1603, restraint gives way to excess.  Shakespeare's London is rife with infectious disease and her pamphleteers, playwrights, and poets are busy integrating its grotesqueries into their characters, plots, and political screeds.  Early modern London's audiences are treated, on stage and in the printing presses, to a flood of poxy texts.

What accounts for this sea change in representations of disease?  What can it tell us about our own age of contagion, or contagion anxiety?  This illustrated talk will explore the cultural responses to disease in medieval and early modern London and their relevance for our own time.

Sealy Gilles, a writer in residence in the Library's Wertheim Study, is Associate Professor of English at Long Island University - Brooklyn.  She has published on old English poetry, early medieval geography, and gender dynamics in late medieval literature.  She is co-editor of Text and Territory: Geographical Imagination in the European Middle Ages.  Her current work focuses on the response to disease in medieval and early modern literature, particularly in London.

For other lectures from the Wertheim Study, click here.