UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Contagious seeds : disease ecologies and colonial exchanges in early modern literature Pasciano, Karoline Almeida


This thesis investigates the rise of new medical perceptions of contagion theorized by Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro (c. 1476-1553) and German physician Theophrastus von Hohenheim (c. 1493-1541) in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In contrast to traditionalist physicians, who believed that diseases were caused by an imbalance of one’s humours in response to changes in one’s environment, both Fracastoro and Paracelsus individually argued for an understanding of disease causation as the penetration of material entities, which they both denominated “seeds,” into human bodies. In this study, I posit that within these seeds’ infiltration into human bodies lies a phenomena of transformative becoming, which further intensifies the reciprocal kinship of the microcosm of the body and the macrocosm of the natural world, reframing pathogens and infection as parts of an ecological process which intimately intertwines corporeal and verdant landscapes. Through a historiographic approach to European medical, ethnographic, and literary texts, each chapter explores the material, cultural, and ecological influences connected to the modes of contagion and embodied experience of these epidemics. The first chapter investigates the medical and cultural responses to the rise of pox epidemics in Europe. Along with a rhetorical analysis of early reports and treatises, this chapter discusses the repercussions of the disease in Italy, France, and England by considering how the pox is linked to ecological and (super)natural phenomena. The second chapter examines the sociopolitical effects of smallpox epidemics in indigenous populations. Applying Michel Foucault’s conceptualization of “biopolitics,” this chapter demonstrates how conceptions about contagion and disease have been instrumentalized in colonial and mercantile enterprises as a means to obtain control over indigenous bodies and the environments in which they dwelled in the Americas. In exploring this interweaving of literary, artistic, and medical works, I chart how new conceptualizations of contagion in the sixteenth century influenced early modern literary and historical representations of infected bodies and their surrounding environs.

Item Citations and Data


Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International