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Plague is the horrible sickness that reoccurs throughout the life of William Shakespeare, and many listeners will know that plague is to blame for several closings of playhouses around London throughout the 16-17th century.  However, what does that word mean, precisely? What symptoms did people have when afflicted with plague, and how was it  transmitted from person to person? The play Romeo and Juliet offers some evidence of plague responses when we see the messenger detained by confinement in a plague house, but our guest this week shares that there were some much more surprising—and dangerous— remedies utilized in cities like London, including cannon fire, to try and prevent spread of plague. To better understand what plague is, how it was treated in the 16-17th century, what the medical community understood (and didn’t) about microorganisms, and why in the world shooting off cannons in the city was considered an essential part of plague prevention, we have invited our guest, and author of “Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe” for Cambridge University Press, Dr. Mary Lindemann to the show today, to answer these questions. 

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Mary Lindemann is Professor Emerita of History, University of Miami.  She has written extensively on early modern German and medical history. Her most recent books include Liaisons dangereuses: Sex, Law, and Diplomacy in the Age of Frederick the Great (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006); Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe (2nd rev. ed., Cambridge University Press, 2009, first published in 1999); and The Merchant Republics: Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Hamburg, 1648-1790 (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

More on Mary Lindemann

I’ll be asking Mary Lindemann about:

  • When we are talking about “plague” in Shakespeare’s lifetime, is this word used always to describe bubonic plague, the disease known as the “Black Death” from the 14th century?
  • What about phrases we see from early modern history like “the catching disease” or “the dangerous disease”? Are these terms and phrases all synonyms describing bubonic plague?
  • The discovery of microscopic organisms occurred after the life of William Shakespeare, but the life of one of the scientists who observed what were then called “little animals” did overlap with Shakespeare. Athanasius Kircher was born in 1602, and lived until 1680. Athanasius was in college the year Shakespeare died, and wouldn’t make his discoveries about microorganisms until two decades later, in 1646, but it was entirely too close to Shakespeare’s lifetime not to bring it up in context of our conversation on plague. Mary, tell us about the men who discovered microscopic organisms in the 17th century, and were they using instruments similar to our modern microscopes for their observations?
  • …and more!

James Belich, The World the Plague Made.

Monica Green’s work on the history of genetic mapping.

Fictional accounts: Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

Boccaccio’s Decameron

Albert Camus, The Plague

Guido Ruggiero’s Love and Sex in the Time of Plague 📚 

Lloyd Moote and Dorothy Moote, The Great Plague: The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year (2006)

James Amelang’s edition and translation of a diary of a man who lived through a 17th century plague: A Journal of the Plague Year: The Diary of the Barcelona Tanner Miquel Parets, 1651 (1991).


What’s Inside the Detailed Show Notes for Patrons This Week:

  • 16thC Agas Map of London
  • Photograph of a person with pitting edema
  • 1496 painting of a “syphyllic man”
  • Portrait of John Stow
  • 17thC illustrations of Plague
  • 1756 Microscope
  • Portrait of Leeuwenhoeck
  • Quotes from Shakespeare’s plays related to plague/disease
  • 1590 illustration of a medical ward treating syphillus
  • Laboratory image of the bacteria that causes plague growing in a petri dish
  • Image of the flea that carried Bubonic plague
  • Example of a Bill of Mortality
  • Leeuwenhoeck’s microscope
  • Portrait of Kircher
  • …and more!
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Laundry and Touching Disease

Our guest this episode, Steph Bennett, is the author of “Cloth, Contact, and Contagion: Touching Disease of the Past and Present” for the Social History Society. Steph joins us to talk about the 16th century understanding of disease and how proximity, material, and the interactions between the skin and clothing were thought to prevent or transmit disease.

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!