Medical historian to explore relationship of plague to poverty

Notions of class have been rooted at least in part in physiology, says Kevin Siena.

An associate professor of history at Trent University, he will explore the contributions of medical literature to that process in his free public lecture, “Rotten Bodies: Plague, Fever, and the Plebeian Body in Early Modern England,” Friday, March 23, at 5 p.m. in the Oak Room, Vanier Hall.

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century plague and fever tracts commonly connected epidemics with poverty, Dr. Siena says.

“The policing of beggars and the targeting of poor neighbourhoods for urban hygiene projects and quarantine efforts are well-established elements of early modern plague experiences,” he says.

His talk will explore physicians’ theories about why poor bodies seemed especially susceptible to plague.

“Those ideas had a very long shelf-life, as they continued to frame discussions of impoverished bodies straight through to the dawn of the nineteenth century,” Siena says. “The unique biohazard of the plebeian body represented a pervasive cultural force in the eighteenth century.”

Siena is the editor of two essay collections, Venereal Disease, Hospitals, and the Urban Poor: London's “Foul Wards,” 1600 to 1800 and Sins of the Flesh: Responding to Sexual Disease in Early Modern Europe. His lecture is part of the Medical Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities series, sponsored by Steven Palmer, Canada Research Chair in the History of International Health; Reason, Rhetoric, and Ethics in the Human Sciences (RREHS); and Stephen Pender, Research Leadership Chair in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

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