‘Infection was Mary’s reward’
Harlots and televising the realities of eighteenth-century English prostitution
in Diagnosing history
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Unlike many period dramas, Harlots, a Hulu original show, does not feature professional medical practitioners, despite frequent references to medicine, disease, and death. Instead, the show’s writers weave the history of medicine into the everyday lives of its characters. Through a close reading of ‘Episode Two’, season one, we argue that Harlots decentres early modern medicine by portraying how syphilis and its bodily effects formed a regular part of life for Londoners. Building on historical studies of medical drama and period pieces, we use Harlots to consider the effect of depersonalised or sensational representations of disease in scholarship and popular fiction. By eschewing the perspectives of professional healers and moralists found in most studies of early modern venereal disease, Harlots reminds us of the everyday lives of sufferers and the women who acted as lay healers and medical experts. Harlots’ reenactment of the material realities of sex work invites viewers to consider the dynamics of a disease that was simultaneously stigmatised and commonplace. The syphilitic character appears for the first (and last) time in this episode; Mary Cooper, we are told, was once a prostitute of great renown. By the time viewers see her, it is through the lens of illness; we become part of the public space that observes and makes meaning of her diseased body. As with the episode’s other characters, we are forced to confront our own notions of gender, sickness, and profession, and the stigmas attached to each.

Diagnosing history

Medicine in television period drama

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