Health Histories Seminar: Claire Turner

Claire Turner from the University of Leeds presents a paper entitled ‘Household Intimacy during Outbreaks of Plague.’

Comprised of various inhabitants such as blood relatives, servants, apprentices, and journeymen, households were institutions where different tactile relationships played out on a day-to-day basis.

The sense of touch was important in experiences of bodily intimacy in the early modern period. Husband and wife engaged in a passionate embrace while parents hugged and cradled their children.

Though most early modern people believed that plague was spread primarily by miasma or foul air, many also believed that plague could be communicated through physical touch or contagion. As a result, intimate touch was perceived to be dangerous and potentially infectious, sometimes to the extent that a warm embrace became almost non-existent.

This paper explores the significance of attempts to avoid contracting the plague by maintaining a degree of distance from one’s own family.

Mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children and servants all feared making physical contact with each other due to the risk that they might either catch or spread disease.

Cultures of touch were instead characterised by feelings of fear and suspicion along with a desire to maintain physical distance. These fears surrounding bodily intimacy reinforced patriarchal dynamics of touch and disease vulnerability in the early modern period.

Certain people within the household unit were thought to be at an increased risk of spreading the plague precisely because their social status determined who and what they touched.

My paper argues that there was a power play at work in ideas about disease transmission and susceptibility, particularly in relation to the sense of touch.

About the speaker

Claire Turner is finishing her PhD entitled ‘Sensing the Plague in Seventeenth-Century England’ in the School of History at the University of Leeds.

She has recently published an article entitled ‘Intersensory Experiences of the Plague in Seventeenth-Century London’ with the Social History of Medicine, which you can learn more about on the journal’s website.

Claire teaches early modern history and medical history at Leeds and at the Universities of Sheffield and York.