Plays, Plague, and Pouches: The Role of the Outside in Early Modern English Plague Remedies

Edward B.M. Rendall, University of Bristol

Isabella Rosner, King’s College, London

A curious frog pouch lies within the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Figure 1).1 But the sparse amount of literature exploring the symbolism of this item is concerning, since the physical form of the pouch at the Ashmolean recurs in another pouch within a heavily-worn embroidered cabinet at the University of Alberta (Figure 2) and at least four other examples.

The meaning, which recurs in the physical appearance of both pouches, still requires exploration in scholarly discourse. What rationale, in other words, brought about the production of these pouches in early modern English society, and what made them appealing within the early modern marketplace? The anarchic, unpredictable, and unfamiliar landscapes recurring in early modern English drama, we shall go on to show, may answer this question; the frog-like animal features within the Senecan forest of Titus Andronicus and in the tempestuous landscape of a Scottish heath in Macbeth. The ambivalent, albeit hellish, setting in Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Queens (c. 1609) reserves a place for this creature too. These strange settings beyond the experience of the early modern Londoner went with those otherworldly landscapes sourcing the materials that lay within these areas.

An otherworldly power adorns these pouches as a result, as individuals sought to find new ways to counter the miasmatic effects of plague in early modern England. The mystery of these pouches strengthens when we note how scholars have disagreed over their purpose and production date, although their minute size and materials suggest that they were sweet bags made in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

The little mention of these pouches in contemporaneous texts does not help things either, and they do not appear in the visual record. But, given their similarities in size, materials, and purpose to bellow-shaped pouches from the latter half of the seventeenth century, it is likely that these frog pouches are from the same time.3The reasons why the pouch appears like a frog are difficult to pin down too. These containers could have been inspired by any number of frog-centric events or print sources. The prominence of the frog in the cultural zeitgeist of early modern English society may become clear when we consider how this animal may have been socially and politically relevant. The frog, for instance, may have returned in stitched form after it featured in the royal court towards the end of the sixteenth century. Francis, Duke of Anjou and Alençon, gave Elizabeth I an earring imitating this animal, and Elizabeth gave him the affectionate nickname of ‘frog’ as a result. When Francis died in 1584 at the premature age of 30, the queen was heartbroken. The pouches, then, may have become monuments to the queen’s lost love (Weir 1998, 50). The return of the frog in other contexts, however, complexifies any attempt to uncover the symbolism of this animal. This creature returns in dramatic settings; the hags in Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Queens speak of a purset made from the skin of a frog’s back (1970, ll. 171–173), while the ‘toe’ of a frog descends to the bottom of a hellish broth brewed by the weird sisters in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (4.1.14).

These animals feature in the second edition of John Ogilby’s The fables of Aesop paraphras’d in verse as well; an engraving complementing the fable entitled ‘Of the Frogs Fearing the Sun Would Marry’ displayed clothed frogs gathered outside the town hall in Amsterdam. The anti-Dutch satire emerges here, and the use of the ‘frog’ as a seventeenth-century derogatory term for the Dutch becomes clear in turn. These pouches, then, may have enabled the English to achieve a form of physical control over their enemies in the Anglo-Dutch Wars.There are, of course, problems meeting the hypotheses given above. Certainly, the legacy of Francis does not explain why these pouches return in the seventeenth century: the memory of the Duke may have dissipated after Elizabeth I died in 1603, and the similarity of these frog-shaped pouches to the bellow-shaped pouches made in the seventeenth century reveals an interest succeeding the political contexts of Elizabeth’s court.

A political reason seems difficult to justify too, since it is likely that these pouches did not feature exclusively within court circles. Anyone who could afford the monetary costs of the materials that constructed these items could purchase them. The return of the frog in dramatic settings, moreover, recalls the importance of the frog in the cultural zeitgeist as well. The influence of anti-Dutch sentiment in the frogs that fall into the murky liquid of the potion in Macbeth, for instance, hardly seems likely. But the symbolism of the frog in dramatic performances remains potent. The physical form of these pouches is thus significant; the frog became a particularly powerful image in early modern society that went beyond the confines of court circles. The physical characteristics of the pouch muddies hypotheses about their use as well. These pouches may have been used as tiny purses for coins. But it is much more likely that these containers were sweet bags used to hold fragrances, since the drawstring mouth is too small to reach into with more than a finger (Brooks 2004, 76).

What merits, in other words, would emerge if one could only extract coins from the pouch with a single finger? Such a task would doubtless irritate any buyer paying for goods in the early modern marketplace. But the function of these pouches as the carriers of sweet-smelling substances brings another hypothesis into view; an emphasis on smell may recall plague treatments in the seventeenth century. This focus on cleanliness, whereby sight and smell played a role in discussions about how one contained and countered pestilence in early modern England, becomes particularly clear in a pamphlet written by Thomas Thayre in 1603:

that al ye stréetes, lanes, and allies be kept cleane and swéete, as possible may bée, not suffering the filth and swéepings to lie on heapes, as it dooth, especiallie in the suburbes, but to be caried awaie more spéedily: for the uncleane kéeping of the stréetes, yéelding as it dooth noisome and vnsavuory smelles, is a meanes to increase the corruption of the aire, and giueth great strength vnto the pestilence.

The danger of unsavoury smells from sewage piled in city streets comes into focus in the passage above. The diffusion of such smells corrupted the air; bad smells were seen as pathological for, when breathed in, harmed the inside of the body (Wear 2000, 319). Indeed, the ‘sweete, cleane, and healthie ayre’, Christoph Wirsung claimed in a treatise in 1598, maintained a healthy heart (654).


Read Full Text:



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
University of Florence

University of Florence

The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy