Cultures of Plague: Medical thinking at the end of the Renaissance

October 31, 2020
Cultures of Plague: Medical thinking at the end of the Renaissance

Cultures of Plague opens a new chapter in the history ofmedicine. Neither the plague nor the ideas it stimulated werestatic, fixed in a timeless Galenic vacuum over five centuries, ashistorians and scientists commonly assume. As plague evolved in itspathology, modes of transmission, and the social characteristics ofits victims, so too did medical thinking about plague develop. Thisstudy of plague imprints from academic medical treatises to plaguepoetry highlights the most feared and devastating epidemic of thesixteenth-century, one that threatened Italy top to toe from 1575to 1578 and unleashed an avalanche of plague writing. From eruditedefinitions, remote causes, cures and recipes, physicians nowdirected their plague writings to the prince and discovered theirmost 'valiant remedies' in public health: strict segregation of thehealthy and ill, cleaning streets and latrines, addressing thelong-term causes of plague-poverty. Those outside the medicalprofession joined the chorus. In the heartland ofCounter-Reformation Italy, physicians along with those outside theprofession questioned the foundations of Galenic and Renaissancemedicine, even the role of God. Assaults on medieval andRenaissance medicine did not need to await theProtestant-Paracelsian alliance of seventeenth-century in northernEurope. Instead, creative forces planted by the pandemic of 1575-8sowed seeds of doubt and unveiled new concerns and ideas withinthat supposedly most conservative form of medical writing, theplague tract. Relying on health board statistics and dramatizedwith eyewitness descriptions of bizarre happenings, human misery,and suffering, these writers created the structure for plagueclassics of the eighteenth century, and by tracking the contagion'scomplex and crooked paths, they anticipated trends ofnineteenth-century epidemiology.