Pestilential Soundscapes: Hearing the Plague in Seventeenth-Century London

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Claire Turner. Claire is a second-year PhD student at the University of Leeds whose research investigates sensory experiences and perceptions of the plague in seventeenth-century England. (Twitter: @_claire_turner_)

During a plague outbreak in London in 1625, tailor George Bicker-staffe was making his way to the Lord Windsor’s house in Mugwell Street when he suddenly heard ‘a great noyse’ which ‘came ratling downe the Stayres’. The noise had been produced by a fawn which, having once been tied up in the garden, had now got loose and was causing chaos in the Lord Windsor’s house. Bicker-staffe had been left ‘half breathelesse, and almost speechlesse, looking very ghastly’ after his ordeal. Several days later, having previously been in good health, he became unwell. Then, a mere eleven days after the event involving the fawn, Bicker-staffe died of the plague [1].

George Bicker-staffe’s strange and frightful experience was one of many to take place during London’s seventeenth-century plague outbreaks. His ordeal was used in medical texts to highlight the idea that feelings of fear increased the body’s susceptibility to contract the plague. Upon hearing the unidentifiable noise, Bicker-staffe inadvertently set in motion a process whereby his body underwent catastrophic emotional and physiological changes. This account is one of several to shed light on the dangerous and perilous nature of sounds heard during outbreaks of plague. It introduces us to the idea that sound was believed to indirectly impact the physiology of the human body.

Have you ever experienced illness through your ears? What noises and sounds do you hear when you or someone you know is ill? Pestilential soundscapes were the landscapes of sound produced during plague epidemics. The people who lived through London’s plague outbreaks experienced a huge variety of sounds, each of which affected how they understood the world around them. From the constant sounding of death knells to the screams of plague victims and their relations, the soundscapes of plague epidemics reveal fascinating insights into how people navigated the city during times of crisis. In this post, we’ll explore precisely how the sense of sound could be intimately linked with contagion in the early modern period.

If you were to travel back to a plague outbreak in London, one sound you were likely to hear would be the suffering of plague victims. Numerous accounts detailed the various instances when plague victims might be heard vocalising their pain and anguish. Several of these accounts took place in one particular spot: the window. Early modern windows were only occasionally fitted with glass. In many instances, they were instead fitted with thin and fragile materials such as paper or fabric. Therefore, unwanted noise travelled through windows with ease. It is unsurprising, then, that windows played a central role in the formation of pestilential soundscapes.

accompanying-image-ct-1

A cart for transporting the dead in London during the great plague. Watercolour painting by or after G. Cruikshank (1792-1878), Wellcome Images.

In 1667, clergyman Thomas Vincent wrote of his experience of the ‘Great Plague’ outbreak in London in 1665. He detailed an incident in which he encountered plague victims who had been enforcedly quarantined in their houses to prevent the spread of the disease. In this encounter, Vincent claimed to see plague victims rising from their beds, leaping about their rooms, and running into the street almost naked. Many others, he reported, were ‘crying and roaring at their windows’ [2]. Vincent was one of several commentators to mention the sounds of suffering people made at their windows during plague epidemics. As early as 1603, dramatist Thomas Dekker had poignantly described the lamentations of a mourning husband exclaiming loudly at his windows. These accounts are compelling because of what they tell us about the linkage between sound and disease transmission in the early modern period.

As well as being unable to prevent the passage of sound, windows were also associated with disease communication. Their liminality made them the perfect gateway through which infection could travel in and out of buildings. Numerous dangerous activities took place at windows during outbreaks of plague. In Westminster, diarist Samuel Pepys reported his horror at seeing the infected, confined to their houses, breathing in the faces of passers-by through open windows. Further afield in Portsmouth, it was reported that the sick had tried to infect the healthy by throwing used and infectious plasters through windows and into the properties of healthy households. Poisonous and infectious vapours entered and exited apertures such as windows with ease, so much so that in 1665, astrologer John Gadbury advised his readers not to talk with plague victims at windows or wickets for fear that their infectious breath could spread the disease.

So, how does sound play into this? By crying and roaring at their windows, the plague victims in Vincent’s account were not simply voicing their suffering, but also spreading their infection. Vincent’s experience contributes to the portrayal of sound as dangerous, hazardous, and perilous. Though not explicitly believed to be the cause of disease, the sounds emitted by plague victims were accompanied by the release of their infectious, contagious breath. Passing with ease through apertures such as windows, these sounds became the embodiment of suffering, contagion, and illness in seventeenth-century London.

Footnotes:

[1] Stephen Bradwell, Physick for the sicknesse, commonly called the plague With all the particular signes and symptoms, whereof the most are too ignorant. Collected, out of the choycest authors, and confirmed with good experience; for the benefit and preservation of all, both rich and poore. By Stephen Bradwell, of London physician (London: Printed by Beniamin Fisher, and are to bee sold at his shop, at the signe of the Talbot in Aldersgate-street, 1636), pp. 36-37.

[2] Thomas Vincent, God’s terrible voice in the city by T.V. (London: s.n., 1667), p. 38.

1 thought on “Pestilential Soundscapes: Hearing the Plague in Seventeenth-Century London

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s