Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 19. A Dialogue against the Fever Pestilence

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

V. The Progress of Social Literature in Tudor Times

§ 19. A Dialogue against the Fever Pestilence

The most important of Bullein’s works, from a literary point of view, is A Dialogue both pleasaunte and pietifull wherein is a goodly regiment against the fever Pestilence with a Consolacion and Comfort against death, of which the earliest extant copy is dated 1564. Although no great plague had visited England for many years, the congestion of the poor in cities made smaller visitations a frequent occurrence. Yet none of the great physicians before Gilbert Skene wrote anything that has come down to us on the epidemics. But Bullein’s tract is a great deal more than one of the earliest treatises to suggest remedies for the plague. In his hands, the Dialogue is hardly less than a drama of death. He sketches twelve types of society as a physician would satirise them in an age when death was rampant. The action is twofold. At the beginning, the interest centres round the grasping money maker Antonius, who is sinking fast, but keeps off the thought of death by attaching Medicus to his person. Antonius, heretofore, had contented himself with an otiose observance of religion, but is now troubled by visions of hell. Medicus, unlike Halle’s ideal physician, is a cynical atheist, but, like Chaucer’s prototype, makes a fortune by attending the wealthy and neglecting the poor. Between these two, the causes and cures of the fever are discussed. This part of the Dialogue illustrates the transitional stage of the science, which attributes fever to infected air and the ill health of the patient, but also accepts eclipses of the moon as a probable cause, and varies such practical safeguards as cleanliness, gaiety and avoidance of emotion with the most extravagant quackeries. Two lawyers, Avarus and Ambodexter, hover round the fortune of Antonius, speculating on his death and scheming to influence his will. The scene then shifts to the home of a prosperous, self-satisfied burgher, who with his wife and servant Roger are travelling into the country to escape from the plague stricken city, with its ringing bells and sounds of woe. The tedium of the journey is beguiled by discussions on portents and comments on the dishonesty of lawyers. Roger, a country wit, with the liberty of the household jester, full of rustic wisdom and folklore, contributes quaint stories and anecdotes after the manner of A C. Mery Talys. They reach an inn where the wife’s admiration for the wall-paintings discloses a series of emblems passing in review the abuses and evils of the age. Another traveller, Mendax, joins them at dinner, and, through his extravagant accounts of foreign lands, Bullein satirises not only Utopia but books of travel and legend from Pliny, Isidore and Strabo to Sebastian Münster and Boiastuau. They proceed on their journey, but black clouds gather, thunder is heard, Roger flees, the wife hides and Mors appears. Civis is warned in terrible words that his last hour has come, and, after fruitless parleyings, is left with a mortal thrust to write his will and, with the help of Theologus, to prepare his soul for death. When the danger is past, Roger reappears, infinitely disgusted that his own name does not appear in his master’s will. As the household is now broken up, he thinks of joining the cozeners and vagabonds, but fears the gallows. If only he had Civis’s money he would soon make a sumptuous living by usury. Thus, in one episode, Bullein satirises moneylenders and points out the vagabonds’ recruiting ground.

No summary can give an idea of the learning containted in the Dialogue. The discussions range from Aristotle’s theory of the elemental forces to symbolic sketches of the chief English poets. Its satire reaches nearly every abuse of the age, and there are passages of unmistakable eloquence and power. The influence of the morality plays is obvious, but the true historical significance of the tract consists in the fact that the thought has outgrown the literary form. The dialogue was a medieval device to convey instruction in an attractive form, and, as the reading public increased during the sixteenth century, this means of sugaring the pill was constantly resorted to. But the exchange of argument between two or more persons loses its effectiveness unless confined to the discussion of a single thesis, or the conflict of two characters. The detached essay and the Theophrastian character are needed to supersede the dialogue when ideas become more varied and the picture of life less simple.