UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The face of death : prints, personifications and the great plague of London Muckart, Heather Diane


This thesis examines a mass-produced broadsheet printed during the Great Plague of London (1664-1666), which unites the textual modes of poetry and medical prescription with imagery and statistical tabulation, titled Londons Lord Have Mercy Upon Us. The central woodcut on the broadsheet presents a view of London as a bounded expansion, and relegates the images of death, particularly registered in the personification of Death, to the outskirts of the city. This visual separation of the city from the plague sick (and the plague dead) is most profoundly registered on the border of the broadsheet, which is adorned with momento mori imagery. The ordered presentation of the plague city is likewise established in the mortality tabulations on the sheet. These tabulations, which were culled from the contemporaneous London Bills of Mortality, make visible the extent of the disease in the city, while simultaneously linking the plague to the poor London suburbs. Of particular interest are the representation of faces on the broadsheet – the face of the dead, the face of Death and the face of the city – and how these images relate to the plague orders imposed on the city population by the Corporation of London. These orders sought medically and legally to contain, and spatially to control, the larger social body of London through enacting a kind of erasure upon the identities of the sick and dead. These erasures registered themselves in material form as a kind of facelessness, a motif found on the figure of Death and in the skull-faces of the dead. This motif visually registers the various anxieties expressed towards the faces of the plague-sick by many contemporaries living in plague-London, an anxiety about those who visibly displayed the signs of their contagion and, more threatening still, about those who were asymptomatic. An increasing understanding of the plague as both visible and controllable in the early modern city of London was continuously being challenged by the conflicting belief that plague was a disease of invisible extension and manifestation. This variance is deeply registered in the ambiguous depiction of the plague-dead in the frame of the sheet.

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