‘Getting’ the Pox: Reflections by an Historian on How to Write the History of Early Modern Disease

  • Claudia Stein


This article reflects upon the recent return to linear history writing in medical history. It takes as its starting point a critique of the current return to constructivist ideas, suggesting the use of other methodological choices and interpretations to the surviving archival and textural sources of the sixteenth century pox. My investigation analyses the diagnostic act as an effort to bring together a study of medical semiotics. Medical semiotics considers how signs speak through the physical body, coached within a particular epistemology. There are no hidden meanings behind the visible sign or symptom - it is tranparent to the calculative and authoritative gaze and language of the doctor. It concerns how diseases came into being, the relationships they have constituted, the power they have secured and the actual knowledge/power they have eclipsed or are eclipsing. From such a perspective, “getting the pox” is not a bad thing. A methodological turn to medical semiotics reminds us that the history of disease should be an inquiry both into the grounds of our current knowledge and beliefs about disease and how they inspire our writing, as well as the analytical categories that establish their inevitability.


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