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William G. Naphy. Plagues, Poisons and Potions: Plague-Spreading Conspiracies in the Western Alps, c. 1530-1640. Social and Cultural Values in Early Modern Europe. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2002. xiv + 242 pp. Ill. $74.95, £55.00 (cloth, 0-7190-4640-8); $29.95, £16.99 (paperbound, 0-7190-4641-6).
From its first appearance during the fourteenth century until well into the eighteenth century, Europe continued to be beset by epidemic waves of bubonic plague. Despite its lengthy cohabitation with human beings across all European nations, nothing was known of the epidemiology and etiology of the bubonic plague until as late as the 1890s. It is therefore hardly surprising to find out that none of the precautions taken across Europe was particularly effective in stopping the spread of the disease. Not knowing if the disease was airborne or spread through contact with plague victims (neither of which corresponds to the real cause of contagion: its transmission through rodents via fleas), European towns struggled with decisions on how best to contain the epidemic. Milan was the first northern Italian city to establish a public health board to deal with the epidemic, and this model was subsequently adopted by all major northern Italian cities. Despite never implementing permanent health boards, cities across the Alps adopted the norms and measures that had been long established in Italy.
Some readers will be familiar with Alessandro Manzoni's dramatic account of the 1630s cases of plague-spreading in Milan in his I promessi sposi and Storia della colonna infame. William Naphy's book takes as its subject earlier cases of plague-spreading in towns across the Alps, concentrating in particular on Geneva. The first five chapters explore a rich array of archival and printed sources that span from 1542, the time of the first plague conspiracy, to 1571. The last chapter is entirely devoted to the diffusion of the plague-spreading phenomenon in other regions of Switzerland and Europe, discussing documented cases in Lausanne, Neuchâtel, the territory of the duchy of Savoy, Lyon, and Milan itself.
Naphy's study of these trials seems to be moved by two historiographic preoccupations: [End Page 216] the first is that plague-spreading has been often (and, in Naphy's view, quite erroneously) interpreted simply as a form, albeit a bizarre one, of the widespread witch trials that were happening across Europe at the time; the second is that torture was the major tool used by European courts to investigate these cases and that, as a consequence, these trials were brutal, inquisitorial, and unreliable. In response to the first problem Naphy argues that "no Genevan writer, chronicler, council minute or trial record explicitly identified plague-spreading with witchcraft" (p. 4), and that we should read witchcraft trials as separate from plague-spreading, which is instead a form of conspiratorial poisoning. In other words, the conflation of plague-spreading with witchcraft has been historically constructed. As far as torture is concerned, Naphy's opinion is that most present-day readers would quite uncritically interpret any testimony obtained with torture (or with the threat of torture) as inherently suspect. While admitting that some testimonies were influenced by judicial pressure, Naphy argues that "torture does not always, of necessity, produce a lie" (p. 5).
I think that in this respect Naphy touches the core of the problem when he suggests that the Geneva cases, which saw the relatively late introduction of witchcraft into a series of trials for plague-spreading, may have seen the same transformation over time that Carlo Ginzburg has recorded in the case of the benandanti in Friuli. Naphy's brief outline in his introduction of how Roman law operated in these cases, together with his careful and perceptive analysis in the rest of the book, present a convincing case that these testimonies, even if produced within the coercive system of a sixteenth-century trial, reveal nonetheless a set of beliefs and...