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.This study of plague imprints from academic medical treatises toplague poetry highlights the most feared and devastating epidemicof the sixteenth-century, one that threatened Italy top to toe from1575 to 1578 and unleashed an avalanche of plague writing. Fromerudite definitions, remote causes, cures and recipes, physiciansnow directed their plague writings to the prince and discoveredtheir most 'valiant remedies' in public health: strict segregationof the healthy and ill, cleaningstreets and latrines, addressing the long-term causes ofplague-poverty. Those outside the medical profession joined thechorus.In the heartland of Counter-Reformation Italy, physicians alongwith those outside the profession questioned the foundations ofGalenic and Renaissance medicine, even the role of God. Assaults onmedieval and Renaissance 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 ofmedical writing, the plague tract.Relying on health board statistics and dramatized with eyewitnessdescriptions of bizarre happenings, human misery, and suffering,these writers created the structure for plague classics of theeighteenth century, and by tracking the contagion's complex andcrooked paths, they anticipated trends of nineteenth-centuryepidemiology.