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The plague and the state in early modern England 1538-1667

Udale, Charles Warrington (2023) The plague and the state in early modern England 1538-1667. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.00004642


This thesis examines the impact of and state responses to plague in early modern England – a period I define as beginning in 1538 with the emergence of parish burial registers and ending with the disappearance of epidemic plague in c.1667. The main focus is 8 national outbreaks that occurred in 1544-6, 1563-5, 1577-9, 1592-4, 1603-5, 1624-6, 1636-7, 1665-7. The aim is to build on existing studies of plague in early modern Europe by combining detailed, micro history and big data historical epidemiology to answer four key questions: 1. What were the dynamics of national plague outbreaks in the early modern period? 2. How widely were plague quarantine regulations (mandated nationally from 1578) enforced? 3. What was the demographic impact of enforcement? 4. How did English plague responses (the core policy being household quarantine) compare with those on the continent, particularly France and Italy? The results suggest whilst plague was more limited in its diffusion than previously thought, state responses were more comprehensive, sophisticated, and charitable. Plague was a highly urban disease and one that affected a relatively limited number of smaller regional and market towns in any given outbreak. It travelled predominantly by boat, along navigable rivers and sea routes. So, its diffusion patterns in England are best understood as part of a complex, European (possibly Eurasian) disease environment. Within towns, it affected poorer parishes and households most. Whilst there is little to suggest quarantine measures radically altered the severity of epidemics or the ability of plague to spread to new settlements between 1538 and 1667, there is very strong evidence the regulations were enforced with considerable intensity. There was also variation between parishes. Household quarantine policies were enforced most strongly in wealthy, well-resourced parishes. Within them they were enforced across most households regardless of affluence. Yet even as they began to roll out household quarantine, city governments were establishing supplementary pesthouses for the isolation of people who could not expect help if isolated at home – a policy which added previously unnoticed levels of care and support to existing isolation policies in England. The measures developed and implemented in response to plague would inspire public health responses up to the present day.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2023 Charles Warrington Udale
Library of Congress subject classification: D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
H Social Sciences > HC Economic History and Conditions
R Medicine > RA Public aspects of medicine > RA0421 Public health. Hygiene. Preventive Medicine
Sets: Departments > Economic History
Supervisor: Wallis, Patrick and Schneider, Eric B.

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