Science, religion and plague

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In 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.

more from Lauro Martines at the TLS here.

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