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Women’s Plague Writing in Early Modern England

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Womenswriting (Women’s Plague Writing in Early Modern England)

Reporting period: 2017-09-01 to 2019-08-31

Plague writing has gained in increasing visibility over the past decade within the disciplines of early modern literature, history and medical humanities, with scholars paying greater attention to the connection between plague in early modern England and corresponding textual responses. Despite the range of scholarship addressing the disease and its literary manifestations, the gender dimension of plague writing has been largely neglected – how women wrote about the disease and how the textual construction and experience of pestilence was gendered in early modern England. My project, Women’s Plague Writing in Early Modern England, addresses the skewed emphasis on male-authored texts in the scholarly literature on early modern plague writing. By uncovering previously under- or un-studied female voices in plague literature, this project changes the canon of early modern plague writing. This process reveals the essential role women played in shaping discourse on the disease in early modern England.
Recent scholarship has illuminated the important ways in which women contributed to early modern medical discourse and care. Large-scale digitization projects of manuscripts at major research libraries have increased visibility of the texts in which women shared medical knowledge. My project applies a historicist reading to women’s plague writing, while critically extending the genres and forms of writing typically discussed in plague writing studies. This approach allows me to access and interpret the diverse texts created by women in response to plague in early modern England, including spiritual diaries, letters, recipe books, miscellanies, religious writing, poetry, scientific writing and life writing. As part of this process, my research extends recent work on women’s active participation in early modern medicine, to capture how women increased knowledge of the disease, its treatment and scientific basis in early modern England. My research project lies at the forefront of recent, specific developments in the medical humanities that change how we think about women and science by illuminating the ways in which women shared their knowledge of medicine and medical issues.
To this stage in the project, I have spoken at a number of conferences, including: The Worlds That Plague Made conference at New York University in April 2018, where I presented my paper ‘The Countess of Kent’s Powder and the Great Plague of London in 1665’; at Congress 2018, held at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan in May 2018, where I present my paper ‘Dr. Burges’ Plague Cure and Women’s Medical Writing in Early Modern England’, presenting as part of the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies; the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Network at Queen’s University Belfast in October 2018, where I presented my paper ‘Women, Public Health and Print During the Great Plague of London in 1665’; and at the Renaissance Society of America conference held in Toronto in March 2019, in a panel sponsored by the Margaret Cavendish Society, speaking on ‘Margaret Cavendish’s Mountebanks, Physicians and Plague’. These speaking opportunities have allowed me to receive feedback on my project results as my research has progressed.
I have engaged in a range of professional development activities that have bolstered my skill set and ability to address my subject successfully. In April 2018, I attended the London Bills of Mortality Symposium at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. spending three days with eminent scholars in the fields of plague literature and history. The Symposium leaders are organising a corresponding edited volume, which will include my chapter, ‘ “we are yet in the Land of the Living”: Women and Mortality Statistics During the Great Plague of London, 1665’.
My professional development activities have included extensive work on English paleography and developing my accompanying skill set. This is essential to my work on manuscript texts. My study in this area has been fostered by opportunities to work with the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC). I have participated in two transcribathons: one organized by EMROC in November 2017 and another convened by the Folger Institute as part of their Introduction to English Paleography course in December 2018. I have submitted blog post proposals to the Early Modern Recipe Online Collective, and I hope to write on my experience recreating a plague recipe at the European Researchers’ Night event taking place at Trinity College Dublin in September 2019. I was accepted to the Introduction to English Paleography course, which took place in December 2018, and the Teaching Paleography course, which was held in August 2019, both of which were organised by the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library. These two courses have not only increased my skills as a paleographer and given me the necessary knowledge to transcribe for publication, but they have also placed me in a position to teach other students of paleography in the future.
Research for my monograph entitled Women’s Plague Writing in Early Modern England has progressed apace. To date I have researched extensively toward the entire book and have written up half of the monograph. I have also submitted the article ‘Plague Recipes in the News’ to the journal the Seventeenth Century. As my scholarly network has grown over the course of the fellowship, I have had the opportunity to organize my own edited volume, entitled Medicine and Religion in the Trans-Atlantic World, 1550-1800. Leading contributors, from the fields of religion, medical history and Atlantic studies, have committed chapters to the project. I am contributing the chapter ‘Printing England’s Plague Past in New England’ to the volume, as well as composing the book’s introduction.
During the final period of the project, I will complete my monograph. I will also submit a final article that addresses the gendering of disease over time. My completed research project will correct the historical record through its holistic examination of how women contributed to plague discourse in early modern England. Furthermore, the study will demonstrate how an enhanced range of genres and forms can be used to more fully reconstruct our understanding of early modern plague writing. Through public-facing activities, such as participating in the European Researchers’ Night at Trinity College Dublin, I will further be sharing facets of my research with a non-specialist community. My project has broader implications for current challenges we face in approaching the history of disease in the academic community. By drawing attention to the absence of women’s voices in previous constructions of plague writing in early modern England, my project encourages a critical approach to how we interpret and understand illness and disease in the past.