Discursive diversity in the textual articulation of epidemic disease in Early Modern England

Seargeant, Philip (2007). Discursive diversity in the textual articulation of epidemic disease in Early Modern England. Language and Literature, 16(4) pp. 339–360.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0963947007082990

Abstract

This article provides a detailed examination of the way in which the social response to epidemic disease in Early Modern England was constructed through discourse, and of how a matrix of meanings for the ‘plague’ was promoted to fill the conceptual gap between experience and social understanding. It analyses the variety of textual genres that were used to articulate this response, from the sermon tradition to prose pamphlets and the bills of mortality, and considers the dialogic nature of the interaction between these genres and how this facilitated the spread and generation of metaphoric associations for the disease. The article also considers the way in which this discourse itself is structured, and how it is marked by diversity and heterogeneity; it contends that rather than there being a clear hierarchy of dominant and ‘alternative’ discourses, it is more an unstable equilibrium of competing explanations. In part, this diversity is a result of plural and competing meanings being ascribed to the disease; in part, it is due to the range of different voices eager to promote their own opinion. This results in multiplicity not just of ‘product’, but also of ‘process’, with different genres and institutional centres of power (including the church, the civic authorities, the publishing industry) all claiming authority over the prescription of meaning. In this way the discourse itself becomes disordered, as there is no major controlling influence, and the structure of the discourse can be seen to reflect iconically the very themes that it articulates.

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