On “The dream of Saint John Damascene: the Virgin attaches his severed right hand” (artist unknown)

While sifting through the Wellcome Library Collection of early modern visual media, one might come across a rather curious 17th century sketch depicting the Virgin Mary leaning tenderly over Saint John Damascene while he gazes upward in gratitude. The archived image has been tagged with the usual array of keywords, including “dream,” “Virgin Mary,” “vision,” and “John Damascene.” However, the inclusion of a sixth word— “amputation”— hints at the drawing’s remarkability in terms of its subject matter. Upon closer inspection, the Virgin Mary is shown grasping the severed hand of the saint; the unknown artist chose to capture the precise moment before the notably unbloody appendage was reattached to the limb’s stump.

L0041636 The dream of Saint John Damascene

The Dream of Saint John Damascene: The Virgin Attaches His severed Right Hand. Drawing, 16–, 1600. https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0041636.html

The illustration captures multiple aspects of the early modern medical imaginary, layering conceptions of embodiment, physicality, and the “sanctioned touch” of the healer. “The Dream” essentially depicts an allegory of reunion; the saint is reunited with the maternal beacon of divinity (i.e. the Virgin Mary) while his hand is reunited with his arm’s stump. The sterile bloodlessness of the limb’s reattachment is somewhat characteristic of depictions from the late 16th to the early 18th century— as Nancy Siraisi remarks in Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine, medical illustrations were often comical in their refusal to engage with the painful violence of surgery, especially regarding amputation. And yet, the absence of overt pain signifiers— the wincing of patients, bystanders to restrain patients— does not preclude these texts’ ability to engage with the wounds themselves. “The Dream,” for example, treats the viewer to a frontal view of the stump, figuring the site of reattachment at the visual center of the drawing. In short, this text demands that one look closer instead of shying away.

Indeed, 17th century European depictions of surgery complicate conventional definitions of “the study” as the product of any one discipline. Such texts often provided representational “case studies” for early modern medical practitioners, but they often served an allegorical and/or aesthetic purpose— i.e. studies in form. The somewhat ambiguous nature such texts accurately reflects the similarly murky distinction between medicine as a rather abstract and theory-driven field and medicine as an empirically based practice during this period; indeed, the word “medicine” as applied to early modern healing represents, to an extent, a misnomer in that it supposes a unified body committed to standardized practices. In reality, the disciplinary landscape was complex in its social, practical, and political stratification.

On Bad Blood and Blocked Fleas

(In which I explore the significance of exchange as a (potentially debilitating) instinct within the play)

In addition to “bribing” Alcibiades and the courtesans to obey their natures, Timon also gives gold to the thieves who find him at his cave. The gold is handed over with one condition: that these rascal thieves:

Go suck the subtle blood o’th’grape

Till the high fever seethe your blood to froth

And so scape hanging. Trust not the physician;

His antidotes are poison, and he slays

More than you rob. (428-433)

The analogy of the thief as a parasite is certainly nothing new; in this instance, the thieves find themselves sucking the blood of infected city, thus getting perhaps more than they bargained for. The initial image is perversely sweet; the “blood o’ th’ grape” evokes the extravagance of a city in which wine flows freely among the lords and senators (and formerly for Timon). The Eucharistic element is unmistakable as well, tempting the reader to think of Athens as a martyred body politic. It is important to recall that the image of the “sucking parasite”– specifically the leech– was also associated with cure in early modern Europe. Serving to balance poorly distributed humors, the leech would have been attached to patients as a means of drawing out the bad fluids and leaving the good– though the cure understandably exacerbated symptoms in many cases. The leech best embodies the disturbingly ambiguous concept of healing through harm, inflicting collateral trauma upon the body as a means of winning the war against disease.

A leech (Hirudo medicinalis). From Brockhaus Kleines Konversationslexikon 1906

A leech (Hirudo medicinalis). From Brockhaus Kleines Konversationslexikon 1906

As was previously stated, this particular “patient” is a city rife with corruption; as a result, the leeching thieves will inevitably develop a “high fever” which will “seethe your blood to froth.” The death would be a merciful one according to Timon; by succumbing to the infection brought on by the bad blood, they would escape the hanging that otherwise awaits them as thieves. Timon’s imagined scenario produces a cycle of parasitism, transmission, the subsequent killing of the host, and the eventual demise of the infected population: the thieves figuratively gorge themselves on the city spoils (“You must eat men” (425)) and, true to Flaminus’ curse, the poisoned meat turns in their stomachs.

Although neither Shakespeare nor his contemporaries were likely aware of theories of transmission involving the plague bacterium and its preferred flea host, the image of the infected thieves feeding upon the body of Athens is striking in its similarity to modern understandings of epidemiology associated with Y. pestis (the bacterium responsible for the bubonic plague). Conventional theory states that the rat fleas living in early modern England (purportedly X. cheopis, although this is now the subject of debate) would come into contact with the strain, which would produce a blood blockage in their digestive tract. The blockage would then cause the fleas to regurgitate, as the  blood was unable to be digested fully; the backwashed blood (carrying the bacteria) would then be transmitted through flea bites to a new host, thus perpetuating the cycle. The blocked fleas would become ravenous, as the digestive plug prevented them from fully feeding on their hosts; as a result, they may have discriminated less between potential food sources and bitten more often.


A blocked flea (X. cheopis).

Flaminus’ curse in many ways was more prophetic than even the fictional servant would have realized. All of these elements, ranging from the image of the corrupted Eucharist, to the seething leech, and even the malicious physician testify to the ways in which the early modern body was understood to be both delicate and absolutely permeable. Moments in which the play seemingly reminds us of Athens’ solidarity also invoke the horrifying reality of interconnectedness, proximity, and exchange. All of this naturally echoes the same citywide claustrophobia experienced by Londoners during plague-time; those who had the means to flee often did so at the expense of familial bonds and social obligations. The instinct to perpetuate exchange is not necessarily the result of kinship or even compassion; in this case the thieves are described as vectors of contagion whose motives for “transmitting” gold/plague are instinctive, even survivalist. Ultimately, what is most illuminating and terrifyingly realistic about these lines is its characterization of humanity as a species which cannot help but infect– be the contagion pathological, behavioral, or even informational.

The impulse is as natural as the instinct to feed.

O blessèd breeding sun

Of all of the soliloquies within the play, Timon’s from Scene 14 are arguably the most vitriolic, and the most “diseased.” Scene 15 calls to mind Lear’s famous own words (“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks”) from Act III, Scene 2 in that both invoke Nature to restore a terribly upset and neglected balance. The injunctions are strategic; it is not enough that the men have been wronged but that Nature too has been usurped and that, consequently, it is time to reestablish her precedence. When Lear commands the thunder to “Crack nature’s moulds” so that “all germens spill at once / That make ungrateful man” (10-11) one cannot help but compare it to Timon’s demand that Nature “Ensear thy fertile and conceptious womb;/ Let it no more bring out ingrateful man” (188-189). The power invoked is as primordial as it is apocalyptic; allusions to conception, the womb, and monstrous births suggest that both Timon and Lear believe “ungrateful man” to be inherently corrupt. Viewed within the context of Paracelsian theories of cure, only an epidemic could arguably “cure” a population so heavily afflicted. Timon’s opening soliloquy from Scene 14 certainly seems to confirm this philosophy:

“O blessèd breeding sun, draw from the earth
Rotten humidity; below thy sister’s orb
Infect the air. Twinned brothers of one womb,
Whose procreation, residence, and birth
Scarce is divident, touch them with several fortunes,
The greater scorns the lesser. Not nature,
To whom all sores lay siege, can bear great fortune
But by contempt of nature.” (14.52-59)

"Paracelsus", attributed to Peter Paul Rubens (date unknown)

“Paracelsus”, attributed to Peter Paul Rubens (date unknown)

Within the first two lines, Timon ascribes the power of miasmic contagion to the sun, which draws “from the earth / Rotten humidity” and subsequently infects the air. His language succinctly and poetically expresses a common early modern belief that planetary alignment, as well as mysterious vapors, contributed to the spread of the plague. Physician Gideon Harvey’s “Discourse on the plague,” despite being published after Shakespeare’s death, sheds some valuable light on the perceived relationship between the earth, the air, and microcosmic infection. Writing on the cause of the plague, Harvey appears singular in his determination:

“The Earth can only be supposed the Womb of such venene fumes, which imbibing all sorts of stinking or putrid Bodies, embraces them within her close recesses, coagulates and kindles them into Pestilential Arsenical flames; so that all manner of stinks or rotten Bodies expiring into the air, are returned by moderate Rains, and so suckt in by the Earth” (5).

"Astronomer" by Albrecht Durer. From "Messahalah, De scientia motus orbis" (1504)

“Astronomer” by Albrecht Durer. From “Messahalah, De scientia motus orbis” (1504)

Rather than let the Earth simply “embrace” the putrid bodies once more, Timon implores the blessèd sun to draw their contagion out, infecting the air of all terrestrial inhabitants. Nature, “To whom all sores lay siege,” is herself infected; the only remedy for man’s ingratitude is to resort to a state of chaotic inversion, thereby forcing mankind to effectively cancel itself out. In response to “contempt of nature,” Timon demands to “Raise me this beggar and deject that lord” (59-60). Digging in the earth, Timon finds a hidden cache of gold and subsequently praises its ability to bring about such chaotic inversion:

“This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless th’accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation
With senators on the bench. This is it
That makes the wappered widow wed again.
She whom the spittle house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To th’April day again. Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that puts odds
Among the rout of nations; I will make thee
Do thy right nature.” (34-44)

Critics from Rebecca Totaro (who has written extensively on the plague in early modern England) to Karl Marx have analyzed the complex role gold plays within the drama. It would be naïve in many ways to suggest that Timon of Athens is not a critique aimed at the greediness of those in power; consequently, gold finds itself at the epicenter of infection, spreading contagion as often as it changes hands. In many ways, however, the play’s many morals revolve around the notion of currency as a mythical construction, paradoxically transient even as it is tactile. While the first half of the play emphasizes gold’s relative scarcity, the second half depicts gold as an elemental, even common product of the earth. When Timon demands a humble root to satisfy his hunger, the earth vomits up gold in response. Such inversion is patterned in the effect the same gold has on society: to raise the status of beggars, whores, and pocky widows despite their lack of “natural” merit.

Ultimately, while the value of a proto-capitalistic critique cannot be denied, it nevertheless dismisses the plague-ridden context in which the play was written. The gold within the play functions less as a figurative embodiment of the plague than as a harbinger of chaotic inversion brought about by natural forces– forces like an epidemic. Much like Thomas Dekker, who proclaimed in 1604 that “the plague’s the purge to cleanse the city,” Timon’s vision of a cure involves nothing short of a total pestilential sweep. Those harboring (gold) “tokens” (a colloquialism for the red spots which appeared on plague victims) will be marked for the culling.

On Fortunate Poisons

The following is a bit of text taken from my dissertation chapter draft which sums up some of the points I was driving at in the previous post– namely that the play’s treatment of plague centers upon ideas of bodily checks and balances and does not, perhaps contrary to common readings, figure plague as a mere gateway to civil chaos.

To best understand the seemingly paradoxical nature of plague’s status within Timon, it is worth revisiting some lines from Measure for Measure. Late in the play, Escalus encounters the disguised Duke and asks him “What news abroad i’the world?” The first of Vincentio’s responses, before he launches into a series of riddles, is “None but that there is so great a fever on goodness that the dissolution of it must cure it”(III.ii. 225-227). There is some ambiguity in the Duke’s statement– is fever or goodness to be dissolved for the sake of curing the latter? The idea that “goodness” or the healthy limbs of the political body must be sacrificed in order to cure the whole is certainly not as farfetched as it might initially seem. As Gil Harris points out, “By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the seemingly paradoxical notion that social poisons might have medicinal properties had come to supplement, and even eclipse, the earlier models of political cure”(50). As a real-life example within early modern courtly life, Dominic Green provides a colorful portrait of the political character Anthony Perez, dubbed “The Monster of Fortune” who recommended a prescription during plague-time which “almost killed [The Earl of] Essex’s secretary, Thomas Smith… Smith did not have Perez’ addict constitution, and when he took Perez’ habitual dose, he collapsed”(175).

"Enter Apothecary" by William Blake, after Fuseli

“Enter Apothecary” by William Blake, after Fuseli

Similarly, in Romeo and Juliet Friar Lawrence reflects upon the double nature of medicinal plants, musing aloud: “Within the infant rind of this weak flower, poison hath residence and medicine power (II.iii.23-24); his declaration of the flower’s dualistic properties only heighten the sense of tragedy for the young lovers for whom the poison is destined. Despite the fact that it is uttered only half as much in Timon of Athens, however, the word “poison” possesses an equal, if not more potent function in the play as both a remedy and a toxin. Its paradoxical nature is summed up by Timon himself, who counsels a group of bandits to: “trust not the physician;/His antidotes are poison, and he slays/More than you rob”(xiv.431-432). Notably, the word “poison” becomes synonymous with a more general type of infirmity, plague-like, representing both the corrupted friendship between Timon and the senators of Athens and embodied in the curse Timon threatens to unleash upon his faithless city: “Destruction fang mankind! Earth, yield me roots!/Who seeks for better of thee, sauce his palate/With thy most operant poison!”(xiv.22-24). When Timon commands Alcibiades to deliver retributive justice upon Athens, his condition is that he “Be as a planetary plague, when Jove/Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison/In the sick air”(xiv.109-111).

To simply read plague as an embodiment of corruptive practice, or as a curse levied by Timon upon his prodigal countrymen, unfortunately detracts from Shakespeare’s treatment of plague within the play as a historically cyclical process– both natural and naturalizing. The vision of the plague that Shakespeare presents us in Timon of Athens is not anarchic at all, but a necessary step for for the greater project of civilization. Understood within these terms, Timon is neither a victim nor the embodiment of a city’s plaguey curse; rather, Timon acts as a marginalized spectator for own civilization’s narrative, embodying the sole power of the exiled to appear prophetic even from beyond the grave.

Thou disease of a friend…

Some thoughts on the significance and power of Flaminus’ curse

In Scene 5 we witness a rather heart-wrenching display of loyalty from Flaminius, a servant of Timon’s. Flaminus has just tried and failed to convince Lucullus to lend Timon money; after the latter tries to bribe the former into “seeing him not,” Flaminius curses him in a bitter rage. The passage is worth quoting in its entirety:

FLAMINUS. May these add to the number that may scald thee.
Let molten coin be thy damnation,
Thou disease of a friend, and not himself.
Has friendship such a faint and milky heart
It turns in less than two nights? O you gods,
I feel my master’s passion! This slave
Unto this hour has my lord’s meat in him.
Why should it thrive and turn to nutriment,
When he is turned to poison?
O, may diseases only work upon’t;
And when he’s sick to death, let not that part of nature
Which my lord paid for be of any power
To expel sickness, but prolong his hour. (5.50-62)

These lines once again plunge us into the prevailing trope of the body as it is seen from the inside-out, conjuring up the image of meat turning to poison within the stomach while “prolonging the hour” of the victim. Throwing the coins back at Lucullus, Flaminus vows that they “scald” their lord as “molten coin.” The invocation of infernal heat, combined with Flaminus’ epithet for Lucullus (“Thou disease of a friend”) recalls the favored early modern treatment for syphilis– hot water tubs and thermal soaks. A certain “A.T., practitioner in physicke,” prescribes molten allum, strained through a “coulender, or else thorough some course linnen cloth, and put yt into a Gallypot or Glasse” as a remedy for sores or bruises. Lucullus, in Flaminus’ eyes, is no better than a walking infestation of the pox.

Dürer's "Syphilis", c. 1496

Dürer’s “Syphilis”, c. 1496

At this point Flaminus’ description takes a peculiar turn. Rather than curse Lucullus’ life, Flaminus expresses his desire for a sort of living death. In a moment which exemplifies many early modern attitudes toward disease, the servant wishes contamination upon the contaminator, desiring for the meat to turn sour within the lord’s stomach. The curse, paradoxically, turns the concept of a “cure” on its head, given that Renaissance remedies often often incorporated potentially dangerous components with a “fight fire with fire” mindset. Common recipes for treacle, for example, traditionally contained viper flesh as a primary ingredient in the hopes that its poisonous properties would counter the poison of any infectious agent. As it stands, any diseased meat would serve to partially combat the lord’s inherent sickness, though it would not cure him completely. Flaminus’ words thus condemn Lucullus to a life of extended misery as if two infectious vipers were to forever battle within his body.

A caduceus, commonly mistaken as a "medical symbol." In reality it is debatable whether the symbol was used before the 19th century within a medical context.

A caduceus, commonly mistaken as a “medical symbol.” In reality it is debatable whether the symbol was used before the 19th century within a medical context.

The idea of diseased human flesh corrupting the body of its consumer also resonates with an early modern Italian text, “Capricci medicinali”, studied at length by William Eamon in his article “Cannibalism and Contagion: Framing Syphilis in Counter-Reformation Italy.” Written by “Bolognese surgeon,” Leonardo Fioravanti, the text “advanced the strange and novel theory that the syphilis epidemic was caused by cannibalism” (3). Fioravanti’s theory is ultimately based upon the notion of linked taboos; as cannibalism epitomized the most grotesque of stigmatized behaviors in early modern Europe, so it followed that the most grotesque of stigmatized diseases must be inevitably related. Such causality had value on a figurative level as well; as Fioravanti’s experiments seemed to confirm that cannibalism resulted in syphilitic symptoms within the body, his rationale could be extended to include the body politic. As Eamon summarizes:

“Fioravanti believed that the cause of Italy’s moral and political decline was an internal pollution that began in the courts and spread outward to contaminate the entire commonwealth. Just as the ‘bad quality of the stomach’ spreads its contagion to all the body’s organs, so corrupt rulers and their fawning courtiers ruined the whole body politic” (20).

The fluid ease with which Fioravanti transitions between discussions of the body physical and the larger, more dynamic political body is unsurprising to the reader accustomed to blurring between medical and social contexts typical of the era. What is most interesting in this case is the direct link Fioravanti supposes between the consumption of human flesh and the resulting pox-like symptoms– one of the more unique theories of its kind. The text in many ways sheds a different light upon Flaminus’ words, in which he desires diseases to work upon Timon’s meat in Lucullus’ stomach. More than the curse of indigestion, Flaminus’ injunction addresses the offending body politic as a whole, essentially foreshadowing a shared stigma among the lords who had voluntarily “tasted Timon” without regard for reciprocity. Anticipating Timon’s later curse, Flaminus has essentially wished a morbid and painful fate upon all of the gluttonous, and arguably cannibalistic, denizens of Athens.