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Plague and Public Health in Early Modern Seville by Kristy Wilson Bowers (review)
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Reviewed by
Kristy Wilson Bowers. Plague and Public Health in Early Modern Seville. Rochester Studies in Medical History. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2013. x + 139 pp. $80.00 (978–1-58046–451-2).

Wilson Bowers has written a great little book. In this well-researched case study of plague and the city of Seville’s response to it, Wilson Bowers challenges our persistent image of the complete social and economic disruption most often associated with plague outbreaks. Wilson Bowers acknowledges that the Black Death did cause unprecedented social and economic breakdown. By the sixteenth century, however, she argues, “people had grown sufficiently accustomed to plague that news or rumor of epidemics in and of themselves no longer caused economic and social breakdown” (p. 55). Furthermore, she argues, the “closed gates” one typically associates with municipal response to plague during the early modern era were “remarkably porous” (p. 54). Citizens of all walks of life continued to move themselves as well as their wares (wine, vinegar, wheat, some textiles) in and [End Page 572] out of affected areas. More surprising, they did so with the approval of Seville’s public health commission. In short, Wilson Bowers describes a city not brought to its knees, but rather one maintaining stability with the continued, albeit reduced, traffic of goods, ships, and people in spite of the arrival of plague in 1582 and again in 1599–1603.

Chapter 1 opens with a brief history of Seville, the seat of economic power in sixteenth-century Spain. She explores traditional municipal controls over public health, including efforts to rid the city of foul smells emanating from an excess of garbage, open gutters, and disinterred bodies in the cemetery. Chapter 2 investigates medical concepts of pestilence, plague, and contagion. In this chapter, Wilson Bowers adeptly highlights the multiplicity of competing, and sometimes contradictory, theories circulating in print and in practice for the treatment of mal de peste. The inability of physicians to agree on the proper diagnosis, signs and symptoms, and treatment of the disease made it nearly impossible for municipal authorities. In one instance, a municipal physician drawing from his experiences with the 1582 plague argued that the disease was not contagious. Even the Crown’s chief medical examiners (protomédico), renowned physicians Luis Mercado and Cristobal Pérez de Herrera, disagreed vehemently on the best course of treatment. With so many competing medical recommendations and at least three commonly accepted causes for plague (God’s will, corrupt air, and the planets and their influence), “it is little wonder,” notes Wilson Bower, “that city councilmen relied as much on their own judgment as that of doctors” (p. 43).

Chapter 3 explores the “negotiation of public health” between the public health commission and citizens anxious to gain admittance to the city and sell their wares. This chapter examines fifty or so successful petitions and retraces the footsteps of one very active commissioner. Wilson Bower suggests that municipal officials sought to balance the needs of the city with the individual needs of its citizens; it was this effort to seek balance and a willingness to reevaluate its response that allowed the public health commission to limit the devastating effects of plague on the city and its environs.

Moreover, Seville’s public health commissioners exercised their judgment to effectively “ameliorate the worst effects of both plague and plague restrictions” (p. 39). The impermanent nature of Seville’s public health board, in contrast to the permanent offices established across northern Italy, afforded officers more flexibility in their decisions to exempt petitioners from the standard quarantine. Well-known scholarship on the Italian health boards, she argues, recognizes that they were motivated “as much by politics as by public health concerns” (p. 45). The negative association of the poor with disease and contagion, for example, was a direct result of such influence and often led to isolation policies that marginalized the poor as the root cause of the pestilence. In striking contrast, Seville’s public health commissioners did not blame the poor for the city’s plight. Rather, they sought to ameliorate the basic conditions of poverty most often associated with disease—hunger and malnutrition. Even...