Science and the Renaissance - Vol. 1

By W. P. D. Wightman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIV
OF MIASM AND CONTAGION

WITH pathology and therapeutics in general we are not concerned, but in a study of the sixteenth century we can not ignore two major preoccupations which not only dislocated human life, but enlisted the scientific imagination to a degree unsurpassed by any other problem. These were the Pest and the Great Pox. Since the latter was, and is, frequently regarded as a novelty unknown before the close of the fifteenth century, whereas the former had been a recurring menace for perhaps two thousand years, they may conveniently be discussed separately. But since each was a particular instance of the larger question of the widespread outbreak of disease, I shall try to relate them to other forms of epidemic disease. First then to the ancient scourge--the Pest.

The word 'Pest' is a common translation of the Latin pestis, which throughout our period connoted a recurrent visitation made familiar in England by 'the' Plague of London--only the worst of a number of such outbreaks in the capital. It has been necessary to refer to the 'Pest' or 'Plague' as a 'visitation', since it is not 'a' disease in the sense of being represented by a welldefined syndrome of signs and symptoms.1 There are two 'typical' forms--pneumonic, which is highly infectious by air-borne droplets and almost invariably fatal; and bubonic, probably one of the least infectious of diseases, and characterised by the development of a painful bubo commonly in the groin: recovery occurs in a considerable proportion of even untreated cases. Were these all the facts there would seem little justification for supposing that they represented two extreme forms of a single disease; this supposition was however based on the facts that seldom did the pneumonic or bubonic form appear in isolation throughout a single visitation--though after the so-called 'Black Death' the

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1
L. F. Hirst, The Conquest of Plague, Oxford, 1953, pp. 28 f. This work has been an indispensable aid in the preparation of this section.

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