Concepts of Contagion and the Authority of Medical Treatises in 14th-16th Century England

Detail of a full-page illuminated miniature in four compartments, of a doctor instructing an assistant on how to prepare medicine; two doctors operating on the head of a patient whose hands are tied behind his back; and two images of a doctor with patients who have cautery points marked on their heads and bodies. Exploring Concepts of Contagion and the Authority of Medical Treatises in 14th-16th Century England

By Lori K. Jones

PhD Dissertation, University of Ottawa, 2012

Abstract: This thesis examines the authority that historians give to medical treatises as witnesses to what people understood about contagion in fourteenth through sixteenth century England. In particular, it analyses the history, contents, audience, and codicology of six English tractates, four addressing the plague and two addressing the sweating sickness. The central question asked is whether and how historians’ reliance on medical texts has limited the historiography of contagious disease.

Plague tractates were specialised and formulaic medical treatises that were stimulated by the ‘Black Death’ and through which medical practitioners and writers circulated ideas about the causes of, precautionary measures against, and treatments for the plague. Few original texts were written in England before the early seventeenth century; instead, English tractates were translations or adaptations of Continental works, with ‘uniquely English’ content added to make them appealing to a local audience. When the ‘plague tractate’ genre was applied to the sweating sickness, its contents, including concepts of contagion, were modified to fit experiences with, and observations of, the latter disease.

Although the plague figures prominently in studies of pre-modern disease, separating studies of ‘plague tracts’ from those addressing other diseases hinders comparative analyses that can reveal much more about contemporary understanding of contagion than do plague studies alone. The socio-political-professional contexts in which the tractates were written and printed in England affected not only their contents, but also their circulation and, ultimately, their audiences. The tractates reveal as much about the construction of disease for socio-political purposes as they do about contemporary beliefs about disease. In addition, while historians have largely dismissed prefatory dedications as sales tactics, examining the tractates’ dedications in light of their codicological features reveals that they were, for the most part, meant to be accessible to audiences that encompassed both elite and non-elite classes.

Rather than being limited to its medical sense, contagion formed part of the larger discourse about the human condition. As a result, medical tractates do not tell the whole story of late medieval and early modern understanding of contagious disease. To better assess historical understanding of disease, a pluri-disciplinary approach is needed.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Ottawa

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