The Physicality of Divine Feeling

Flea, Archives of the Lister Institute (1886–1982). Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
Flea, Archives of the Lister Institute (1886–1982). Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

by Olivia Formby (The University of Queensland)

23 June 1665. It is a summer evening in London. The naval administrator and diarist Samuel Pepys travels by hackney coach along the River Thames from Whitehall to his residence near Tower Hill, a journey he describes as having ‘become a very dangerous passage now-a-days, the sickness increasing mightily […]’.[i]

Pepys tended to use the adverb ‘mightily’ a lot. In this instance, he was using it to evoke the contemporary understanding of plague (‘the sickness’) as a great and natural force of divine feeling, namely, as a force of divine wrath. That plague was the direct product of God’s anger was common knowledge in early modern England. It is perhaps all too easy as modern historians to see this as a feeble or secondary explanation for what we know to be a bacterial infection carried by the fleas that thrived in warm weather. Yet, even medical writers like the physician Thomas Lodge understood plague foremost as the work of God’s mighty anger. During an earlier epidemic in 1603, for instance, Lodge had described the metropolis as being ‘under the fatherly correction of Almightie God, and punished for our misdeeds by his heavy hand’.[ii] The perfumes and powders he would go on to prescribe for his readers in A Treatise on the Plague were only perceived to be effective remedies after sorrowful repentance to the enraged deity.

The corporeal imagery of plague as God’s ‘heavy hand’ wielding discipline on his sinful flock recurs throughout the contemporary literature that was proliferated in epidemics – medical and otherwise. In The Wonderfull yeare (1603), the dramatist Thomas Dekker lamented ‘the hand of pestilence’.[iii] In Gods Three Arrowes (1631), the popular London preacher William Gouge declared: ‘plague is an effect of Gods wrath, an immediate stroake of his hand’.[iv] This image of God’s striking ‘hand’ encapsulates the highly physical nature of ideas about divine emotions in the early modern period. Indeed, God’s feelings, especially his wrath, were described both in terms of the human body (as with the personification of his ‘hand’) and seen to be made manifest upon the bodies of his flock.

In his 1631 work, William Gouge likened divine wrath to the bodily experience of man’s anger:

When a man is angry, passion will soone manifest itselfe in his face, by bringing bloud into it, and making it hot, by bending his browes, by a fierce cast of the eyes, and other like signes. In which respect wrath is said to come from the face of a man, that is, in and by the face to shew it selfe. Thus by a Metaphor, and by resemblance to man, when the Lord doth by any visible signes manifest his wrath, it is said to come from his face.[v]

Like the hot ‘bloud’ of anger, rising into and ‘shew[ing]’ from man’s face, Gouge described the wrath of the Lord as a fire stoked by human iniquity and made most ‘visible’ in the horrors of plague. This comparison was intended to appeal to Gouge’s early modern readers, who would relate to such graphic and physical depictions of emotion. However, in theory, divine feeling was markedly distinct from human ‘passion’. Gouge was careful to emphasise that while man’s bodily emotions could be ‘perverted’ by human will, God’s wrath was a pure and mighty ‘Essence’ that existed entirely to correct his incorrigible children.[vi]

Frontispiece and titlepage: 'The Christians Refuge'. Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.
Frontispiece and titlepage: ‘The Christians Refuge’. Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

The effects of God’s hot wrath, seen in his face and met out by his punishing hand, were felt upon the bodies of English women, men, and children in seasonal plague epidemics throughout the early modern period. The plague sores – swollen buboes and blackening spots – were seen as direct marks of this punishment, fleshly ‘tokens’ of divine feeling.[vii] The appearance of these marks displayed God’s wrath to others and served as a clear warning that all should repent.

This emotional narrative, in which incidences of plague were understood as earthly eruptions of divine feeling, is vital for comprehending how early modern individuals reacted to outbreaks of this natural phenomenon. By conceiving that plague was the work of God’s wrath for human sin, early moderns could draw emotional, albeit not physical, strength from their suffering and repentance. More simply, this narrative reveals how humanly close the early modern God was thought to be. As close and ‘dangerous’, indeed, as Pepys imagined from the inadequate refuge of his hackney coach.

Olivia Formby is an MPhil candidate at The University of Queensland (UQ). She completed a BA (Hons) at UQ in 2014, and was awarded the UQ University Medal and the History Honours Research Prize. Her research explores the intrinsic relationship between religion and emotional experience in the early modern period, and her MPhil project specifically focuses on the role of religious belief and ritual in sustaining emotional communities under plague in early modern England.

[i] Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Henry B. Wheatley (London: George Bell & Sons, 1893), 23 June 1665.

[ii] Thomas Lodge, A Treatise of the Plague: Containing the nature, signes, and accidents of the same, with the certaine and absolute cure of the Feuers, Botches and Carbuncles that raigne in these times . . . (London, 1603), sig. B1v.

[iii] Thomas Dekker, The Wonderfull yeare. 1603. Wherein is shewed the picture of London, lying sicke of the Plague . . . (London, 1603), sig. C4v.

[iv] William Gouge, Gods Three Arrowes: Plagve, Famine, Sword, In Three Treatises . . . (London, 1631), p. 119.

[v] Ibid., p. 66.

[vi] Ibid., pp. 66–67.

[vii] Lodge, Treatise of the Plague, sig. B2v.

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