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Response to Review no. 564

It is an honour to have Imagining Contagion in Early Modern Europe reviewed by such an eminent historian of medicine, although one might wish that he had been able to appreciate fully the nature of the project. The book’s preface explains its conception and evolution: the team of authors met for an intensive workshop (rather than a conference) in Victoria, British Columbia, each having previously submitted a one-thousand-word abstract of her or his proposed contribution. At that meeting, links among the chapters were discussed so that each author could take the work of the others into account, including explicit references to other chapters. The result was a volume that coheres, rather than a collection of disparate essays. Unfortunately, the translation of quotations into English took up the space that should have been devoted to an editorial introduction, and, as Vivian Nutton rightly notes, the book would have benefited from well-developed presentation of the European medical and social context. That said, our aims were not to assess scientific advances or to describe social realities, but rather to explore the elusive ‘imaginary’ associated with the notion of contagion.

The authors are social and cultural historians, literary scholars, a philosopher and an art historian, all of whom have worked in the history of medicine, but from the perspective of their own discipline. Each contribution does indeed have something new to offer to scholars interested in the discourse surrounding the threat of contagion as it emerged at various moments and in different locales in early-modern Europe. Together, these varied perspectives contribute to our understanding of the fears and desires of those threatened by disease, of the body or the soul.

A revealing example of the advantages of such an approach appears in the chapter Dr Nutton singles out for apparent bibliographical omissions, Hélène Cazes’s ‘Apples and moustaches: Montaigne’s grin in the face of infection’. It should be noted that she cites the French original of Alain Corbin’s Le miasme et la jonquille (p. 90, note 4; also in the Index); more important is the choice to examine Montaigne’s Essays rather than his Journal. The approach to the plague Cazes finds in the Essays is quite different from Montaigne’s discourse on the disease as a public figure, the Mayor of Bordeaux. In the Essays, instead of focusing on the smell caused by the disease or on possible treatments, Montaigne discusses those odours that will protect one from the plague by creating a personal space, penetrable by others yet prophylactic. ‘To the collective danger embodied by contagious illness, the writer answers with personal invention…’ (p. 89)—just as the Essays themselves negotiate the relationship between individual writer’s integrity and the influence of the classics.

Rather than a ‘dead’ metaphor, the notion of contagion is powerful in its ability to probe the gap between mind and body and to explore early-modern strategies for mediation between the individual and society. Linking literary or other non-medical texts with medical responses to contagious disease was of less interest to the authors of Imagining Contagion in Early Modern Europe than examining how representations of disease illustrate shifts in social perceptions. For scholars from any discipline who are interested in what rhetoric can reveal about society, each chapter provides a small piece of the complex story of how physical suffering meets metaphor in the concept of contagion.