The Bell: Mortality - Renaissance Context
Renaissance "Rebirth" Amidst the Onslaught of the Plague
Donne's Meditation XVII is a response to the plague and society's struggle to control it, segregating infected people during Donne's time. "A preoccupation with analogies between earthly affairs and God's relationship to his creation is a marked characteristic of the religious writing of the time" (Gordon xxv). Many writers of the time period had a preoccupation with death. Death was a major part of daily life because of the poor medical technology and the outbreak of the plague (Gordon xxv).
In just three years, the advent of the plague killed between 25%-30% of all Europeans. The decline in population deeply affected economic structure and the everyday life of society, causing a shortage of workers and severe economic depression. The psychological effects were devastating as well (Greenhaven 13). The Plague, also known as bubonic plague, pestis or the Black Death, was an acute, severe infection caused by the bacillus yersina pestis. This bacillus is primarily an internal parasite of wild rodents, causing acute, subacute, or chronic illness. Carried to man by fleas, the disease may enter the bloodstream directly as the flea bites the host, or indirectly through contact between fleas' excrement and scratches or lesions on the skin. The population of England fell 6% between 1556 and 1560 from the terrible disease (Jessiman).
Because of his observations of a plague-ridden era, John Donne, a great metaphysical poet, was fascinated with the idea of death. The world was supposed to be drawing towards its end, and there were forecasts when it would happen. This was the age of plague, illness and death: "The sense of disaster pervading the period had to take apocalyptic proportions, and one of the favorite themes of late Renaissance poetry is that of the Last Judgement" (Ford). A topic so overwhelming had to affect such sensitive minds as Donne's:
"Death, as all of Donne's contemporaries readily recognized, was not simply inevitable and all-pervasive, it was a familiar presence in an unstable, unhygienic, and disease-ridden world. The tolling of the passing bell for a dying parishioner was to Donne not simply a stimulus to pray for a troubled soul but a personal memento mori*." (Sanders 196)
Many writers and scholars focused on the death of the time period. In the sixteenth century, famine, war, and pestilence were inevitably construed as God's punishment, his "plagues" to punish a sinful, disobedient people. Many humanist writers revived biblical and classical roots and used disease and medical analogies in their political tracts. Following the firm establishment of Protestantism in England with the succession of Elizabeth I to the throne, it became almost impossible for Protestant writers of popular medical books to discuss the plague in regards to the spiritual or corporal body, without mention of the biblical Word. Quotes from the Old Testament - especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy - joined those from Hippocrates and Galen in the physician's attempt to make sense of, and manage, dangerous contagion. The manner and cure of spiritual contagion became a medical pattern, and disease became a vital religious concern (Healy).
The rise in Paracelsian and Neo-platonic interest in the later sixteenth century served to intensify this growing medical preoccupation with the moral and spiritual. Moral epidemics were allotted actual routes of transmission based on medical theories of contagion from body to body. The plague and, ultimately, death, became associated with the playhouses and other gatherings which "spread the plague, moral contagion and possible social unrest." Disorder, like the plague, had become endemic and, like the plague and the playhouses, it was now associated with the unruly suburbs. The dirty overcrowded slums, the masterless men, the immigrants, the whorehouses and the playhouses were all closely associated with the spread of the plague and the contamination of the city and the nation - actual and moral (Healey).
In response to this, plague orders were put together by physicians under the instruction of the Privy Council. In 1603, Robert Cecil warned that the city's "unruly infected" needed sharper punishment to control them. In 1604, a policy was created which isolated the infected in penal sanctions. Anyone with a plague sore found wandering outside could be whipped as a vagrant rogue and, if in company with others, could be hanged. The infected were to be rounded up by searchers and sent to Bridewell. Writers were encouraged to foreground contagion and measures to control it in their accounts of the plague. Some, like Manning in his medical regimen of 1604, did so:
"May not they be condemned for murtherers, which having plague soares will presse into companies to infect others, or wilfully pollute the ayre, or other meanes, which others are daily to use, and live by?" (Haley)
Donne's meditation is a response to the idea that God inflicted doom on those evil souls in society and the segregation that society applied to control it. Donne focused on unity within society, as well as God's "translation" of his people into a better state through death. With death and suffering surrounding Donne, it is not hard to see why he focuses on mortality, God, and unity of His people.
As many writers of the time touched on, the Plague became a reminder of the transience of all aspects of life. It destroyed life, wealth, and many towns throughout England. As with disasters like famine or war, it undermined any assurance society might normally find in family, friends, business and property, or even in the government and nation. At the heart of the conflict between disease and society laid the sufferings and struggles of ordinary men, women and children. The student of history may trace and analyze the available data, evidence, and statistics, but can only guess at the unrecorded private feelings of the silenced victims. (Jessiman)
Pictures from pictures of the plague
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