Monday, February 06, 2012

Plague Textual Analysis

Posted by Darin Hayton on 02/06 at 01:40 PM

Prompted by the post Wordle Revisited over at Profhacker about using Wordle in class, I decided to put a couple of 16th-century medical tracts through a Wordle analysis. For those unfamiliar with Wordle, it creates a word cloud of the common words in a block of text. The size of the word corresponds to its frequency. Profhacker found it useful for students:

We created a few word clouds together as a class to make sure everyone knew how to do it, and then I asked the students how looking at these passages through the Wordle lens might change their understanding. What did they notice seeing the words rearranged, and in some cases resized (the size of words in the Wordle is directly proportionate to the number of times that the word appears in the initial text block)? By deconstructing and defamiliarizing the passage, Wordle magically freed students from the summary trap and helped them to think about the text analytically beyond the constraints of plot. Word clouds do not have plots, at least not in the linear convention sense that allows easy summary, so analysis was suddenly less confusing.

My class created some very interesting Wordles, and more to the point, using this tool helped to make the task of literary analysis less daunting, which is often no easy feat! I was left wondering why I don’t use it more often in my classes and am currently trying to figure out ways to incorporate it into other assignments.

I admit I did not immediately see a use for me, but I tried it out anyway. The first text I put in was An Hospitall for the Diseased (1579), a general recipe book for all manner of ailment. It generated the following word cloud for the 25 most common words in this text of ca. 17,000 words:

Wordle: 16th-century medicine

It seems that in general drinking wine and ale was considered a useful remedy for various diseases. When I turned to a plague tract, things looked a little different. Here is the word cloud for Orders … to be executed throughout the counties of the realme … as are or may be herafter infected with the plague (1578?):

Wordle: 16th-century plague tract

This time common words included “infected,” “good,” and “persons.” The only substances to make the top 25 words were water and vinegar. Looking at a third text, A brief treatise of the nature, causes, signes, preservation from, and cure of the pestilence (1660s) begins to reveal commonalities:

Wordle: 25 Common words for treating plague

Vinegar is again a common term, and the only substance listed in the top 25 terms. This time both plague and pestilence appear as common terms.

Clearly, this is too small a sampling to draw any conclusions. And I don’t yet know if I could make much use of Wordle in my course on plagues, but it was sort of interesting. If enough texts were fed into Wordle, I suppose it could be interesting to see how the terms used to talk about plague and the remedies thought to be efficacious changed over time. It might also be suggestive to see the similarities and differences between different diseases, e.g., plague, the French Disease, leprosy, etc.

Wordle may be just interesting enough for me to use it one day in class. I can imagine that it could generate an interesting discussion.

Tags: plague, textual analysis, word cloud, wordle