Rebecca Totaro, ed. The Plague In Print: Essential Elizabethan Sources, 1558-1603. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2010. vii+300pp. ISBN 978 0 8207 0426 5.

 Christopher Madson
University at Buffalo

Christopher Madson. “Review of Rebecca Totaro, ed. The Plague In Print: Essential Elizabethan Sources, 1558-1603." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.2 (2010-11): 7.1-5 <URL:>


  1. “[D]eath, like a thief, sets upon men in the highway, dogs them into their own houses, breaks into their bed chambers by night, assaults them by day, and yet no law can take hold of him. He devours man and wife, offers violence to their fair daughters, kills their youthful sons, and deceives them of their servants” (236). Written during a bubonic plague outbreak in 1603, Thomas Dekker’s fiction captures the fear and pain the disease evoked from many of London’s citizens. Printed shortly after Queen Elizabeth’s death, The Wonderful Year walks its reader through a plague-stricken London, one where “every house lookt like Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital, and every street like Bucklersbury” (228). Though Dekker’s work looks towards King James’s arrival and England’s restoration, it documents an interim period defined by social disorder. Soldiers lay down their swords as they daydream of peace and the once pious “Citizen…resolves to worship no Saint but money” (221-22).

  2. Like each of the six works in Rebecca Totaro’s edited collection of early modern plague writings, The Plague in Print: Essential Elizabethan Sources, 1558-1603, Dekker’s prose pamphlet attempts to understand and contain plague. If that work humanizes disease through individual stories of contagion and death, William Bullein’s A Dialogue both pleasant and pietyful (1564) focuses its gaze as much on the person inhabiting the sick body as on that body itself. “They do swoon and vomit yellow choler, swelled in the stomach… The extreme parts very cold, but the internal parts boiling… No rest; blood distilling from the nose…scalding of the tongue; ordure most stinking” (91). In writing A Dialogue, Bullein, a physician and humanist, produced the first literary treatment of the plague in English. The work is certainly not restricted by genre; it moves between being a medical treatise, theological reflection, seriocomic drama, anatomy lesson, and utopic vision of a sinless England, a place Bullein calls Taerg Natrib. Initially Bullein's characters are unsatisfied with the order offered by church and state, various characters break from social prescription and instead come to define themselves through their relationship to wealth. As if on cue, plague comes to affect each of Bullein’s characters. In the end, the protagonist, Civis, confirms the restoration of order when he prays, “Lord receive my soul into thy hands, thou God of truth” (Totaro, 165).

  3. In her introduction to this collection of primary documents, Totaro writes that her project “performs the important function of revealing…the power of plague in these years… [It] was in Elizabethan England that plague writing first unfolded fully into recognizable subgenres that addressed religious, medical, civic, social, and individual needs” (xi). The parish clerks’ The Number of all those that have died (1583) captures the plague’s force through the state-mandated tallying of persons killed by that disease. In these parish-by-parish records it is revealed that 17,404 Londoners—nearly 10 percent of the city’s population—died of plague in 1563. The threat of death must have felt omnipresent. As such, the bubonic plague redefined how early modern Englanders moved through their world and how they conceived of their bodies. While Totaro’s 2005 book, Suffering in Paradise: The Bubonic Plague in English Literature from More to Milton, explores the impact plague had on early modern literature, this work does something quite different. It simply offers a collection of early modern pamphlets and tracts about that disease. Each of the six works is preceded by a short historical introduction and a medical and herbal glossary can be found at the end of the compilation, yet for the most part the reader has unmediated access to the works. Though the lack of footnotes and historical contextualization is certainly The Plague in Print’s greatest drawback, this editorial choice offers readers who are unfamiliar with this genre of literature the opportunity to map the disease’s impact on early modern English culture by reading primary works from the period.

  4. What we find is a society that believed plague to be “a divinely instituted punishment for sin” (20). “[S]in that reigneth among the people and namely that sin that reignth among head men and the governors of the church and of the law is cause of the Pestilence: vengeance taken for sin” (6). In response to the 1563 outbreak Queen Elizabeth’s A Form to be used in Common prayer urges her people to repent and pray. “[T]he corrupt nature of man is so slothful and negligent in this his duty [to be devout], he hath need by often and sundry means to be stirred up and put in remembrance of his duty” (21). Elizabeth cites passages from both the Bible and Book of Common Prayer as she works to guide her people towards physical and spiritual health. The politics of the pamphlet are complex, Elizabeth must accept God’s punishment while never appearing to have lost his favor, something she does by framing God as a “heavenly schoolmaster” who “teach us thus to fly from sin and to follow righteousness” (48).

  5. This work becomes all the more interesting when read in tandem with Elizabeth’s Orders thought meet (1578). Written 15 years after A Form, England’s queen no longer looks to solve bubonic plague through prayer. Here Elizabeth administers medicinal remedies for infection while at the same time she simultaneously outlines how local governments will monitor and quarantine the sick. Orders recognizes plague as a threat to the health of both England’s citizens and the body politic and it confronts the disease by employing the appropriate medicinal and political policies. Totaro’s collection will prove itself a fantastic tool for students interested in Renaissance England’s interpretation of and response to bubonic plague. Her choice of works pushes the reader to question how plague came to define both early modern English communities and the shared experience of living in the compact vibrancy of a city as pathologically dangerous as London. The effects of plague and plague literature can be felt throughout the works of dramatists and playwrights as canonical as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, yet it is only after reading pamphlets and dramas like those in this collection that we can come to more fully understand the weight of those references.  



Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).