Rotten Bodies Class and Contagion in Eighteenth-Century Britain Kevin Siena

Publication date:
09 Jul 2019
Yale University Press
352 pages: 235 x 156 x 22mm
8 b-w illus.
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A revealing look at how the memory of the plague held the poor responsible for epidemic disease in eighteenth-century Britain

Britain had no idea that it would not see another plague after the horrors of 1666, and for a century and a half the fear of epidemic disease gripped and shaped British society. Plague doctors had long asserted that the bodies of the poor were especially prone to generating and spreading contagious disease, and British doctors and laypeople alike took those warnings to heart, guiding medical ideas of class throughout the eighteenth century. Dense congregations of the poor—in workhouses, hospitals, slums, courtrooms, markets, and especially prisons—were rendered sites of immense danger in the public imagination, and the fear that small outbreaks might run wild became a profound cultural force. Extensively researched, with a wide body of evidence, this book offers a fascinating look at how class was constructed physiologically and provides a new connection between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and the ravages of plague and cholera, respectively.

Kevin Siena is associate professor of history at Trent University. He is the author of Venereal Disease, Hospitals and the Urban Poor: London’s "Foul Wards," 1600–1800, which was shortlisted for the Jason A. Hannah Medal. He lives in Peterborough, Canada.

"Excellent...This is a terrific book and comes highly recommended."—Samantha Williams, Family & Community History

“[A] fine addition to Siena’s existing body of work on pre-modern disease and an excellent reminder that the history of medicine forms an integral part of political, economic, and social history.”—Dr Michelle Webb, Reviews in History

Rotten Bodies’ illuminating discussion of medical discourse on epidemic disease offers a valuable corrective… Siena’s mastery of the medical sources relating to his subject over the longue durée (and an unaccustomed longue durée at that) will be of considerable value to medical, cultural and social historians of the eighteenth century, and indeed those scholars working on the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries too.”—Neil Davie, Books & Ideas [Journal]

“Fear – fear of contagion and fear of the poor animated eighteenth-century Britain.  Kevin Siena’s Rotten Bodies supplies an all-important new understanding of the histories of poverty, class and race.”—Tim Hitchcock, author of Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London

“Kevin Siena has produced a lively, smart, and thoughtful history of the pestilential ‘plebeian body’ and the fears it produced throughout the long eighteenth century. As it moves through sites as varied as debtors prisons, slums, cotton-mill towns, and the homes of the poor, this book insists on both the centrality of class as a category of analysis for medicine in the Age of Reason and the importance of medicine for the history of emergent conceptions of class. It is a work sure both to challenge and reinvigorate the history of medicine and British intellectual and social history more broadly.”—Suman Seth, Cornell University