Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, we revisit the presentation by Dr. Kathleen Miller as part of our discussion of Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies.
We would like to thank the Capitol Hill Community Foundation and the Junior League of Washington for their generous support of this program.
Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies depicts a world crumbling under the weight of a plague that has transformed life into something approaching death and the earth into a dystopian nightmare. Suffering from an affliction that both robs people of life and makes them hunger for human flesh and brains, Marion constructs a world that stands at a meeting point between life and death, with the novel frequently conflating the value of beginnings and endings. While the plague that Marion describes has resulted in a zombie apocalypse, the contours of the troubling disease and how it is dealt with are, in many ways, consistent with the ways in which plague was addressed in early modern England. When plague was identified in a community, and plague deaths were a familiar feature of early modern life, it sparked a range of responses, both official and personal.
During a plague outbreak, whether the zombie apocalypse of Warm Bodies or an epidemic of plague in early modern England, the infected are managed in order to stem the infection. After R leaves the airport where he and other zombies reside to accompany Julie back to the stadium where the living have established a city, his infectious potential becomes a focus in Warm Bodies. R’s precarious time within the stadium quickly unravels after he bites a guard, triggering protocols put into place to manage the threat of infection, including a screen that announces the threat – “The screen blinks between this and a word that I think might be: BREACH” – and a public statement:
“Security patrols will now begin a door-to-door search of every building in the stadium. Since we don’t know where this thing might be hiding, everyone should come out of their houses and congregate in a public area. Do not confine yourself in any small spaces”.1
In Warm Bodies, citizens are alerted to the threat of infection, and the healthy are brought out of doors so buildings may be searched; a slightly different approach was taken during plague times in early modern England.
In early modern England, plague orders were issued in response to outbreaks of the disease, outlining official responses to plague, such as shutting up houses where the infected resided. Additionally, citizens were notified of plague infections through the London bills of mortality, which were printed weekly to keep citizens informed of the disease’s progression in the community. 2 In this general bill for the year 1665 from the Folger collection [figure 1], the total number buried in each parish that year is followed by a column specifically noting plague deaths [figure 2]. 3 In addition to plague deaths, the bill lists other causes of death, ranging from “Flox and Small Pox” to “Murthered and Shot” [figure 3].
Citizens used the bills of mortality to track plague deaths, and statistics from the bills of mortality were recorded in personal writing – in diaries and recipe books. One striking example from the Folger collection, a manuscript entitled Medical and Cookery Recipes (ca. 1665), which is attributed to Mary Lyford in the catalog, includes a range of plague deaths from 1665 on a page prefaced with the statement: “what peopl dyed of the plague in the several weeks, in the year of the Lord :1665:” [figure 4]. 4
The figures quoted in Lyford’s manuscript are consistent with mortality statistics recorded in the weekly London bills of mortality. The page captures the increasing threat to life that plague posed, and the manuscript includes mortality statistics from April 25, when two people died of the disease, to August 29, when 6,102 people died of plague. The striking increase in death impresses upon the reader the severity of the outbreak.
One of the greatest fixations in Warm Bodies is the potential for a cure. When R meets Julie, a living person uninfected by the zombie plague, it sparks a series of events that bring about what comes to be understood as a cure in the novel; however, the cure in Warm Bodies is not an external medicine to be applied to the body or consumed but instead seems to emerge from within the infected zombies and from their interactions with the living. Plague in early modern England was also approached as something that might potentially be cured. Medical care could be sought out from a range of sources, and one of these was through the preparation of medicinal treatments in the domestic space, the home. The Folger has an excellent collection of recipe books. Recipe books composed in the early modern period frequently include recipes to cure plague and other diseases, often recorded alongside culinary recipes. Lyford’s book, in addition to recording plague deaths from the 1665 bills of mortality, also contains plague cures, including one that was widely shared in early modern England [figure 5].
Frequently attributed to Dr. Burges, the recipe combines a list of ingredients, including rue, sage, long pepper and ginger. A similar recipe is recorded in Rebecca Winch’s recipe book, which may also be found in the Folger collection [figure 6]. In Winch’s recipe, the cure remains unattributed, simply entitled: “A Drinke for the Plague when itt first seses any one”. 5 While recipes such as these give the impression that the correct mixture of ingredients, combined in just the right way, might cure a plague infection, in practice, and as with the zombie plague in Warm Bodies, the disease was in many ways beyond comprehension. Much as in Warm Bodies, however, plague times in early modern England brought with them an ongoing fixation on articulating the fragile division between life and death and a hope to cure the terrifying affliction.
- Isaac Marion, Warm Bodies (New York: Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 2011), p. 187, 195.
- For a detailed consideration of the printing of the bills of mortality, see Stephen Greenberg, ‘Plague, the Printing Press, and Public Health in Seventeenth-Century London’, The Huntington Library Quarterly, 67.4 (2004): 508-527, 691.
- London’s Dreadful Visitation (London: 1665), n.p. Folger call number, L2926.
- Mary Lyford, 1636- author, Medical and Cookery Recipes (ca. 1665), n.p. Folger call number, V.a.657.
- (Transcription Credit: “Transcriptions made by Shakespeare’s World volunteers (shakespearesworld.org), participants in EMROC classes and transcribathons (emroc.hypotheses.org), participants in Folger paleography classes and transcribathons, and Folger docents.” [https://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/detail/FOLGER~3~3~12~260048:Receipt-book-of-Rebeckah-Winche–ma%3Fsort%3Dcall_number%252Cmpsortorder1?qvq=q:plague%20and%20winch;sort:call_number%2Cmpsortorder1&mi=14&trs=19#]). Rebecca Winch, -1713, author, Receipt Book of Rebeckah Winche (ca. 1666), p. 9. Folger call number, V.b.366.
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