The Plague of Gnats in Early Modern England

As early as 1546, the Italian physician Fracastoro put forward the contagion theory and, in 1578, he was followed by Massari who similarly questioned the traditional aetiology of miasma. Yet, this medical breakthrough was by no means unanimously accepted in early modern Europe. Shakespeare’s contemporaries still blamed the bad air (literally, malaria) rather than the mosquitoes of the Kent and Essex wetlands for the poor health conditions of its inhabitants. No wonder if references to the ague in connection with toxic air permeate sixteenth-century texts: in the foggy and unwholesome atmosphere of Dunsinane, as Macbeth finally prepares to withstand the assaults of Macduff’s troops, he asks his men to ‘let them lie [here] / Till famine and the ague eat them up’ (5.5.3-4).

Intriguingly, while the real cause of malaria continued to be ignored by most Elizabethan and Jacobean subjects, ‘gnats’ were generally considered as pasture pests which had to be eradicated. Seldom understood as the cause of disastrous epidemics, they were nonetheless seen as symptoms of a degraded world. Early modern playwrights like Shakespeare implied that pests generally thrived in wet, unhealthy climates: the ‘breese’ mentioned by Scarus in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (3.10.14) both ties in with the ‘tokened pestilence’ (3.10.9) mentioned a few lines earlier and with the emollient climate of the Nile region. Furthermore, what was often described in Reformation England as ‘vermin’ was traditionally regarded as a harbinger of disasters. As part and parcel of the Egyptian plagues, it provided monitory examples to all those convinced of the sinful state of the English nation, as can be seen on the frontispiece of Wither’s Britain’s Remembrancer (1628), where a ‘dismall Cloude / Exceeding blacke’ hovers over a map of England (Gilman 2009, 46).

To the climatic and biblical interpretive layers related to the representation of early modern pests should be added a third, geopolitical one. The word ‘mosquito’, which derives from the Spanish diminutive of mosca (i.e. fly), and the term ‘musket’ share the same roots, and both appeared in the early 1570s in the English language, a fact which may well bespeak the imperialist aspirations and anxieties of Elizabethan England.

Against this rather dystopian background connecting ‘gnats’ to pestilential diseases as well as to presumably unhealthy lands to (re)conquer, insects were just beginning to emerge as objects of study for naturalists: Aldrovandi’s De animalibus insectis (1602) and Moffet’s Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum (1634) were the first illustrated books on insects to appear in Europe. In such treatises, these animals so far overlooked or despised featured as interestingly complex creatures, a move which allowed artists to display their artistic skills and to propose less anthropocentric visions of the animal world.

Given these conflicting trends concerning the representation of biting midges, what did poets and playwrights of the period make of the ‘gnats imaginary’ and how did they use it to allude to England’s endangered natural world? I will first focus on the missing links between gnats and actual diseases in the early modern popular beliefs before turning to the intuitive associations made by Shakespeare and the like between insects and pestilence. This should allow me to articulate the epistemological shift which, at the turn of the seventeenth century, no longer made vermin a sign of impending disaster, but rather turned it into a case study for entomologists. I finally hope to show how, today, not unlike what happened in Tudor England, the growth of particularly noxious species of insects (associated as it is with global warming) is increasingly used to emphasise the looming threat of climatic calamities to come.

Sophie Chiari (Université Clermont Auvergne)

Bibliography

  • Aldrovandi, Ulisse. De animalibus insectis, Boloniae, 1602.
  • Fracastoro, Girolamo. De contagione, Venice, Junta, 1546.
  • Gilman, Ernest B. Plague Writing in Early Modern England, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Nutton, Vivian. ‘The Reception of Fracastoro’s Theory: The Seed that Fell among the Thorns?’, Osiris, Vol. 6, Renaissance Medical Learning: Evolution of a Tradition (1990), pp. 196-234
  • Markham, Gervase. The Second Booke of the English Husbandman, London, 1614.
  • Moffet, Thomas. Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum, London, 1634.
  • Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra in The Complete Works, Oxford, OUP, 2005.
  • Shakespeare, William. Macbeth, in The Complete Works, Oxford, OUP, 2005.
  • Wither, George. Britain’s Remembrancer, London, 1628.

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