Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance (review)
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Reviewed by
Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010. xiv + 342 pp. Ill. $99.00 (978-0-19-957402-5).

In recent decades, the historiography of early modern plague has been a fairly uninspiring affair. With a few laudable exceptions, most studies have been filtered through the same historiographical coffee grains, producing weak results.1 Sam Cohn's recent study appears on the scene like an espresso shot: it has much to say that is new, and it does so with the intensity that is characteristic of Cohn's work. The book's central thesis undermines the widespread assumption that medical ideas about plague remained static during the early modern period. Cohn uses the sudden increase in the number of vernacular plague writings being published after the outbreak of plague from 1575 to 1577 in Italy to prove his case. This severe epidemic affected much of the Italian peninsula and sparked publications from individuals within and beyond the medical profession, broadening the genres of plague writings and the background of those producing them. Within existing genres, such as the plague tract, new sections were added on how to recognize the plague. Taken together, these writings illustrate that contemporaries used their own experiences, rather than simply received wisdom, to shape ideas about public health. As epidemics altered, therefore, so too did the advice given to individuals and to civic authorities attempting to fight one of early modern Europe's deadliest diseases.

Cohn's important contribution owes much to the original body of source material that he has analyzed: it is entirely appropriate that the work is dedicated to the librarians of Edit 16, the census of imprints held by Italian research libraries. This resource deserves far greater recognition and has yielded impressive results [End Page 136] on the impact of plague. The dramatic increase in publications is outlined in the first chapter, "Sources and Perspectives: A Quantitative Reckoning" and the seemingly peculiar Italian case is set within a limited, comparative context. Cohn includes detail on his Milanese research in chapter 2, "Signs and Symptoms" which provides invaluable detail on how the disease manifested itself. From chapter 3, the geographical focus broadens and Giovanni Filippo Ingrassia's plague tract receives much overdue attention as the "Impetus from Sicily" for a new style of plague tract. As the successive genres of the "Successo della peste" (chap. 4), writings for the liberation of the city and plague poetry (chap. 5), are described, many readers, familiar with singular works cited by Cohn, will benefit from the scale of his enterprise and his codification of types of writing. Three important ideas emerge as increasingly prominent in early modern plague writings: the problem of poverty (chap. 7), the responsibilities associated with public health (chap. 8), and the role of "plague psychology" or emotion (chap. 9) as an important focus for government action to keep spirits up and avoid fear among the general populace. Each is astutely observed and warrants further attention in the form of comparative geographical and chronological work.

Cohn's work will be of interest not simply to historians of medicine. His study has much to say that is of interest to the scholar of early modern Italy and of ideas. He contends that the Italian peninsula is unified intellectually in its approach to disease and so has coherence as a unit of study. His is a welcome move away from the rigidly regional approach adopted by so many early modern Italianists. Much remains unanswered about why this publishing phenomenon should be seemingly specific to the Italian states: fleeting references to the power of the state and the way in which these publications may have "boost[ed] absolutist authority" (p. 8) remain undeveloped. It would be fascinating to consider some of the regional similarities and differences in more detail. Much of the action taken in the sphere of public health took into account tradition and the specifics of the local environment. It remains for future researchers to develop those lines of argument.

Cohn's book serves as an important call to scholars. Like his 2002 publication on...


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