A watch-man for the pest

September 4, 2008

In his book of advice against the plague (1625), Stephen Bradwell writes about London as his mother.

LONDON is my Mother; in her wombe had I both Birth and Breeding. What Sonne can see his Mother woefully afflicted, dangerously sicke, and desperately forsaken; but he must needs weepe for her teares, labour her recovery, and lend a hand (at least) to hold her vp?

His text is Hippocratic, and he goes on to name the third cause of the plague as ‘The corruption of the Aire’

Which corruption ariseth as well from sublinarie accidents, as from the Influences of the Starres. For noysome vapours arising from filthy sincks, stincking sewers, channells, gutters, privies, sluttish corners, dunghils, and vncast ditches; as also the mists and fogs that commonly arise out of fens, moores, mines, and standing lakes; doe greatly corrupt the Aire: and in like manner the lying of dead rotting carrions in channels, ditches, and dunghills; cause a contagious Aire.

Man has to consume air because, says Bradwell, as meat and drink are the nourishments of our bodies so air is the nourishment of the soul. Bradwell recommends flying from areas of pestilential air, to somewhere far away, ‘where there are high hills betwixt you and the infected coast; which may breake of those blasts of wind that would at somtimes blow that corrupted Aire from thence vpon you.’ The house you fly to should be on high ground, away from noxious fennes, moores, marishes, and mines’, and it should be in the North, which is colder and drier.

One should keep away as long as there are still signs of contagion. Bradwell tells his reader to

Learne therefore of the Wolues of Thracia, who in Winter, when the rivers are covered with ice, will not venter over for their prey (though they be never so hungry) till they haue layd their eare close to the ice; then if they heare no noyse of water vnder it, they know the ice is thicke enough to beare them, and over they goe; otherwise not

For anyone who wants to know more about bogs and fens and stagnant water being the cause of ill health in the C17th, I recommend Mary J. Dobson’s ‘Contours of death: disease, mortality and the environment in early modern England’ which you can download as an e-print here.

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