Research Stream


Olivia Formby
The University of Queensland

An Emotional History of Plague in Early Modern England, 1631-38

In early modern England, plague was understood to be a fearful, physical manifestation of God's wrath. This project explores the role of religious belief and ritual in sustaining emotional communities under plague.

An Emotional History of Plague in Early Modern England, 1631-38.jpg

This thesis explores the inherently emotional interpretation and experience of bubonic plague in early modern England, primarily by analysing the wills of ordinary people. Traditional plague historiography has perpetuated a fearful “dystopic vision” of popular disorder during epidemics, based on grim mortality statistics, and supported by early modern plague tracts which condemned ungodly fear and flight from Christian duty. However, I will argue that the detailed bequests of plague wills in early modern England (1631-38) reveal the ways in which religious belief and ritual worked to sustain, rather than fragment, these emotional communities under plague. Wills have been an underutilised source for social history, even though they present insights into the final, important decisions of the dying, and are sometimes the only direct source for the middling and lower sorts of people. By constructing an emotional history of plague from below, this project will counter the “dystopic vision” on the most fundamental level.

Image: Frontispiece, ‘London’s Lamentations’ (1641) in Walter George Bell, ‘The Great Plague in London in 1665’ (1924) © Wellcome Images, London.