- Piety and Plague: From Byzantium to the Baroque
That the plague was a shaping force in European history is difficult to deny. The challenge facing scholars through the centuries has been to establish precisely the influences and effects of the disease. The nine essays in Piety and Plague explore religious explanations and cultural [End Page 574] responses of the plague, which range from the positive and pedagogical to the cautionary and commercial.
Five essays concentrate on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and there is a lingering focus on Italy. This bias is unsurprising given that the volume developed out of the conference that accompanied the 2005 “Hope and Healing in Early Modern Italy” exhibition. Three contributors from the 2005 exhibition catalog also appear in this volume. Franco Mormando (on Michael Sweerts’s painting Plague in an Ancient City, which adorns the cover) and Thomas Worcester (in his essay on three writings by Etienne Binet) develop subjects covered briefly in the catalog. Sheila Barker’s fascinating discussion of the imagery of St. Sebastian complements Worcester’s essay on St. Roch in the 2005 publication.
Although the piety considered in the volume is solely Christian and mainly Catholic, there is some originality in the plagues that are studied. Only two essays focus upon particular epidemics: Anthony Kaldallis is critical of what he finds to be a surprising incoherence in sixth-century Byzantine explanations of the plague and its divine causation. Ronald Rittgers’s excellent essay on Nürnberg in 1562–63 illustrates that Protestants provided different explanations of the purpose of the plague in God’s plan to those of Catholic tradition. Two essays focus upon the Plague of Ashdod: Elizabeth Hipps examines Poussin’s painting of the same name, and Pamela Berger presents an ambitious but rather unfocused essay on the iconography associated with this biblical outbreak. William Eamon analyzes the sixteenth-century plague of the pox in Venice. Despite this variety (or perhaps because of it) neither the individual authors nor the editors wade into the swampy debate regarding the nature of the disease under consideration, leaving the reader to grapple with potential comparisons between the episodes that are described.
The essays are of varying lengths as well as quality—Mormando’s aforementioned essay, for example, takes up nearly a quarter of the volume. Unsurprising given its heritage, a genuine strength of the volume is its contribution to our understanding of plague iconography and metaphor—a subject specifically addressed by six of the essays. This is not a new area for research within studies of the plague; however, it is refreshing to see a variety of source material being utilized, ranging from manuscript illuminations to transi tombs in Elina Gertsman’s useful essay on the macabre.
The volume lacks an introduction. The brief preface provided by the editors does not highlight themes beyond those indicated in the title, which is a shame. This weakens the independent contribution made by the work and the historiographical punch of the volume. In terms of chronological spread, the volume does not surpass the valuable conference proceedings Epidemics and Ideas: Essays on the Historical Perception of Pestilence (New York, 1992).Nevertheless, individual essays will prove useful for specialists, offering [End Page 575] insights into the variety of ways in which contemporaries responded (and scholars can study) the uncertainty and devastation caused by the plague.