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  • Giovanni of Capestrano on the Plague and the Doctors1
  • Ottó Gecser (bio)

In her authoritative collection of contemporary sources on the Black Death, Rosemary Horrox subdivided the part dedicated to 'explanations and responses' in three sections: 'The religious response', 'Scientific explanation', and 'Human agency'.2 Even if there are overlaps between these categories, they offer explicit or implicit explanations of pestilence and suggest adequate responses to it in different terms. Documents in the first are centered on God's anger and punishment for human sins, those in the second on natural mechanisms not immediately dependent on God's will, while those in the third on alleged conspiracies and secret machinations of the Jews (and, in one case, the urban poor). If we look at the relationship between content and genre in this rich and balanced selection of texts from different geographical areas and social milieus, we find an interesting discrepancy. It is not a mistake in the editor's careful work but, most probably, a characteristic of the available source material itself or, perhaps, even of late medieval expectations and intentions behind that.

The discrepancy is this: while scientific explanations had their own genre, the plague tract, that was largely born with the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century,3 there was virtually no genre or sub-genre [End Page 27] to transmit the religious response beyond prescriptions and descriptions of specific rituals (like processions or pilgrimages) in specific contexts. There is very little by way of reflection, interpretation, and explanation in any sustained form in all the letters, prayers, poems, chronicles, moral treatises, and sermons selected by Horrox. And, indeed, it is quite difficult to find such texts. Whereas plague tracts are known to have survived by the hundreds from the late Middle Ages, of plague sermons, the genre most comparable to plague tracts on the religious side, merely a handful have been found.4 Heinrich Dormeier has shown that in Italian humanist circles there emerged a topic, starting with Petrarch, that made prolonged discussions of the religious meaning of pestilence possible: the permissibility and reasonability of fleeing the plague-ridden city.5 But as long as the medium of discussions was correspondence, contributions to this topic remained limited to exclusive groups of elite scholars. It is merely from the second half of the fifteenth, and especially from the sixteenth century that we encounter more and more argumentative religious texts dedicated to the plague.6 [End Page 28]

Giovanni of Capestrano was one of the earliest authors who reflected at length on the religious understanding of pestilence in a form that was ultimately meant to address the broadest possible audience. These reflections originally belonged to his treatise on legal theory, the Speculum conscientie, but subsequently they were detached from it as a separate treatise together with further sections of the original work pertaining to doctors and medicine. Giovanni's relevance for the history of late medieval epidemics seems to have escaped the attention of scholars working in this field. The aim of this paper is to reconstruct his views on the religious and medical aspects of the disease and interpret them in the just outlined context.

From the Mirror of Conscience to the Short Treatise on the Plague and the Doctors

At the beginning of the 1440s Giovanni was stationed in Milan as a guest of Filippo Maria Visconti. Here he was invited by two high-standing officials of the ducal court, Franchino Castiglioni and Nicolò Arcimboldi, to assert his views on the problems of legal decision-making based on conflicting authorities.7 This is how Giovanni himself introduced his answer to the invitation, the Speculum conscientie, in a letter addressed to Castiglioni and Arcimboldi and added as a preface to the treatise:

O men of magnificence, highly considered senators of the duke and consuls of the Ligurian state,8 illustrious scholars and aristocrats, hinges and columns of the entire fatherland, splendor and glory of the Latin race owing as much to your sharp intellect, astute character, and eloquent style as to your moral integrity, honest virtues and righteous way of life and, above all, to your careful observance of the orthodox faith of Jesus Christ, which...


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