In this volume, specialists in social and cultural history, early modern literature, philosophy and art history come together to explore the intersection between the material and the metaphorical at time when emerging scientific discovery coexisted with traditional beliefs. An examination of the evolving knowledge, fears and desires of the 15th and 18th centuries can help us reflect on the 21st century preoccupation with contagious diseases such as avian influenza, SARS, West Nile virus, Norwalk virus and the new strain of AIDS. The idea of contagion generates poweful metaphors that colour religious, political and artistic discourse. But during that early modern era, words and images take on literal force: in church or at home reading novels, in the political arena or while travelling, disease shows up in and on bodies under the influence of language.

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