By Gabrielle Barr
History Matters, Issue 9 (2012)
Introduction: Amidst the filth, stench, and rats that pervaded the streets, more than two million English subjects succumbed to the Bubonic Plague between 1348 and 1666. The plague often proved to be dramatically and immediately fatal. Modern science attributes the pestilence to the bacterium Yarsinia pestis, which is often transmitted by fleas. This deadly bacterium infects the lymphatic system, which induces the bubonic, septicemic, or pneumonic plague in its human victims. While today a seven-day dosage of Gentamicin or Doxycycline can cure the disease, no remedy assuaged the physical and emotional suffering that the plague inflicted in Early Modern England. Thus, the English turned to religion to explain the constant curse and chaos.
For most Englishmen in the 1600s, God was the architect who designed the plague as a reprimand for the depraved. This biblical notion of divine punishment characterized the British explanation of the pestilence from the first English epidemic in 1348 to the last at the end of the seventeenth century. Historians have explored the medical, economic, and cultural effects of the disease in Great Britain, particularly of the deadly and demoralizing 1665 outbreak. Although most have mentioned the spiritual climate of the seventeenth century, no scholar has thoroughly examined sermons, a significant religious tool of Protestant sects. As demonstrated by numerous scholars such as Horton Davies, Peter McCullough, and James Rigney, sermons were an essential component to Protestant religious practices in England in this period and can be used to analyze the political and social atmosphere of the time. Thus, the orations of preachers during the 1600s shaped and reflected contemporary perceptions of the plague, even as they influenced social issues that resulted from responses to the plague.
This paper examines the role of the homily in seventeenth-century England and the insights that these sermons provide on the diverse forms of Christianity during the period under scrutiny. The sermons ranged from those of warning to those of lamentation and thanksgiving. Although the paper largely serves as an analysis of the tone, literarily mechanisms, themes, and symbols of the sermons, it also expounds upon the historical and political components included in the speeches. The sermons provide a window into comprehending how a culture guided by faith understood the plague and its ramifications.