Plagues, Healers and Patients in Early Modern Europe

By Eamon, William | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Plagues, Healers and Patients in Early Modern Europe


Eamon, William, Renaissance Quarterly


The pandemic that descended upon western Europe in 1347 and continued virtually unbroken through the end of the seventeenth century has generated an enormous historical literature. Plagues were a constant presence in the lives of medieval and early modern people, causing fear, terror, and social disruption. Jean-Noel Biraben, in his monumental Les hommes et la peste en France et dans les pays europeens et mediterraneens (1975-1976), concluded that plague struck somewhere in Europe during every year, save only two, between 1347 and 1670.

What exactly was the agent that caused the Black Death and the succeeding epidemics of the late medieval and early modern periods? Most historians agree that the Black Death was a massive epidemic of bubonic plague, a disease of rats caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis. When transmitted to humans by fleas, the organism spreads, causing the blackened tissue and necrotic pustules classically associated with the disease and which gave rise to the medieval epidemic's name.

But the classical explanation is not without its problems. Many of the symptoms of the disease described by contemporaries, especially during epidemics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, are strikingly inconsistent with those of bubonic plague. One of the most difficult problems to reconcile with the classic model of bubonic plague is the absence of rats in the contemporary accounts of the epidemics. Given the massive human mortality, deaths of millions of rats should have preceded outbreaks of the plague. Yet the historical record is strangely silent about rats. Nor can the rapid speed with which the plague spread be easily reconciled with the rather sedentary habits of the house rat. In order to explain this inconsistency, Biraben favored a model for the pandemics of preindustrial Europe based upon interhuman spread of bubonic plague via the human flea, as opposed to the rat flea model advocated by English historians such as J. F. D. Shrewsbury (A History of Bubonic Plague in the British Isles, 1970). While the French model solved some problems, it raised others, as it failed to account for certain demographic and seasonal aspects of the pandemic. Moreover, contemporary descriptions of the disease's symptoms yield conflicting interpretations: some seem consistent with bubonic plague, while others seem incongruous or inconclusive.

In his short, sweeping essay on the Black Death, the late David Herlihy engages with these issues in a fresh and original way. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West consists of three lectures that Herlihy delivered in 1985, to which Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. has added extensive notes and an introduction that assesses the lectures in the context of Herlihy's oeuvre. Instead of accepting the prevailing view of the epidemic, Herlihy finds clues to the puzzle in a source hitherto untapped by historians: the acts and processes used to judge candidates for sainthood, later collected in abbreviated form in the Acta Sanctorum. Some saints, such as the obscure Rose of Viterbo (d. 1252) were looked upon as spiritual protectors from the plague. Rose was rediscovered during the epidemic that struck Viterbo in 1450; and in gratitude for her help, the local government pressured the pope to initiate canonization procedures. During the process that followed, many citizens came forward to testify concerning cures from the plague.

Although some of the depositions mention buboes, the lymph node swellings characteristic of (but not unique to) bubonic plague, the most common "signs of the plague" were lenticulae (freckles) or pestilentialis punturae (pestilential points) - in other words, darkish points or pustules covering large areas of the body. Such symptoms are not characteristic of bubonic plague, but are common to a number of other diseases such as anthrax and typhus. For these reasons, Herlihy follows the English epidemiologist Graham Twigg in concluding that it was unlikely that bubonic plague was the agent of the Black Death. …

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