lunedì 15 febbraio 2010



Science,religion and plague
Old and new ways of thinking proceeded side by side in sixteenth-century Italy

Lauro Martines

n this brilliant study, a leading expert on the history of plague finds the origins of our understanding of the disease not in the science of seventeenth-century Protestant Europe but in the heartland of Catholicism, Counter-Reformation Italy. Here, in the upper part of the peninsula, the epidemic of 1575–8 gave rise to passionate debate, issuing in a stream of writings that would challenge the tenets of classical, Arabic and medieval views of plague.

Learned doctors in Milan, Padua, Verona and other cities continued to cite Galen, Hippocrates, or Arab authorities. And religious processions – cocking a snook at the idea of virulent contagion – were allowed to take place. But knowledge of the ancient authorities, and the idea of striving to placate God’s wrath by means of orchestrated prayer, did not stymie close empirical observation of the symptoms and pathology of plague. Old and new ways of thinking proceeded side by side. Yet in the teeth of plague, doctors and medical workers were revolutionizing the approach to it by rejecting Galenic and other mistaken assumptions about “corrupt air”, humours and the malign configuration of the stars. They chose, instead, to concentrate on exact symptoms, contagion, the movement of people, poverty, filth of all sorts, water pollution, the sequestering of the infected and the intervention of the state.

Tracts and other forms of discourse about plague had been a near monopoly of the university-educated physicians. But these savants were now joined by “surgeons, druggists, gentlemen magistrates, merchants, notaries, lawyers, judges, petty procurators, [city-]gate-officers, clerics from parish priests to the pope, and even artisans”. It looked at times as though the barber-surgeons and other people in the front line of plague work were the true empiricists, battling against the physicians and university professors – men supposedly in thrall to the ancients and to the bunk dished out by the Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino in his Consiglio contra la pestilentia (1481). But this was not so. The professors were themselves sharply divided, with some at the vanguard of the call for direct observation of the onset, symptoms and path of the disease, while others went on voicing the old theories concerning “pestilential” air and the mortal influence of heavenly bodies.

In a report commissioned by the Venetian senate (1576), a panel of distinguished physicians from the University of Padua concluded that the current disease was not “true” plague, because “it did not satisfy Hippocratic or Galenic criteria”. Later, after the epidemic had wiped out a quarter of Venice’s population, the star of the group, Girolamo Mercuriale, slyly recanted. But it must be emphasized that the group had met under a juggernaut of pressure. Like many in denial today, in the face of climate change, no Venetian in the 1570s really wanted official confirmation of the fact that the city was in the clutches of plague. For the senate and health authorities would then have had to step in with draconian measures, bringing trade to a halt. Shops would be shut down; thousands of artisans and workers, who lived from hand to mouth, would suddenly be out of work; plague-stricken houses would be barricaded, with surviving family members locked inside; the infected would be corralled into large quarantine facilities (lazaretti) or special plague-huts. And with food supplies sharply curtailed, famine would soar, especially among the many thousands of men and women without the wages to buy bread or other comestibles. Violence, moreover, would snap all controls, and the poor would be likely to revolt. How could the authorities stand up to all this? Nevertheless, at different times, health magistracies in Milan, Venice and other cities were driven to impose brutal strictures, having first organized the charitable distribution of food for the destitute.

An energetic concern with public health, more than with individual patients, edged into the forefront of medical thinking. The primary signs and symptoms of plague had been charted: explosive contagion, swift death, the household clustering of victims, continuous fever, headaches, vomiting, glandular swelling and buboes or other bumps. Poverty, filth and malnutrition were now consistently seen, for the first time, as the chief promoters, if not the causes, of plague; and this gave the lie to Galen’s claim that the malady was not “true” plague if it failed to cut a swathe through the ranks of the rich and privileged. This elite, in any case, had usually abandoned the stricken cities long before the disease had raced out of control.

Thanks to translations and direct influence, Northern Europe would learn from the change in medical thinking that issued from Italy’s experience of plague. By 1598, Joachim Camerarius, for one, a prominent Nuremberg doctor, had issued Latin translations of five of the principal publications that came out of the years 1575–8. Floating fascinating detail on relentless research, Samuel K. Cohn’s Cultures of Plague is a tour de force.

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr
Medical thinking at the end of the Renaissance
342pp. Oxford University Press. £65 (US $99).
978 0 19 957402 5

Lauro Martines, former Professor of History at UCLA and an expert on the Italian Renaissance, is preparing a book on war in Early Modern Europe, 1400–1700. He is the author of Scourge and Fire: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy, 2006.