- From Body to Community: Venereal Disease and Society in Baroque Spain by Cristian Berco
During the past few decades historical studies of disease have gone through a substantial renewal, with attention to old and new questions from a plurality of historiographic and theoretical approaches, such as those related to social history, social constructivism, new cultural history, “disease in action,” and the linguistic and emotional “turns.”
Sexually transmitted disease is one of the areas where this renewal has become most apparent, not least because their peculiar clinical features (sexual contagion, painfulness, chronicity, disability, and intercurrence of asymptomatic periods) and sociocultural connotations (disgustingness to sight and smell, stigma linked to physical and moral corruption) make them a privileged site for historical and anthropological research.
From Body to Community remarkably deals with the meaning of venereal disease from the perspective of its sufferers in seventeenth-century Spain, where the great pox or French disease was then also known as the bubas. Yet, Cristian Berco’s study not only deals with the poxed patients’ suffering during hospitalization, but also tracks their everyday life before and after, in relation to their familial, communal, and institutional anchors.
Berco’s research focuses on the mid-seventeenth-century patients of the Hospital de Santiago at Toledo, the formerly imperial city that since the late sixteenth century had been gradually declining in favor of Madrid—the new capital of the Spanish monarchy—in terms both economic and demographic (from 70,000 to 15,000 inhabitants in the mid-seventeenth century). Despite these circumstances, its size, history, heritage, and archival records have made the city of Toledo in early modern times instrumental as a splendid micromodel for historical research, as shown by a great deal of works by scholars like F. Javier Aranda Pérez, Jean-Pierre Dedieu, Linda Martz, Julián Montemayor, Jesús Perezagua Delgado, Hilario Rodríguez de Gracia, Juan Sánchez Sánchez, and Ángel Santos Vaquero.1 [End Page 806]
Having originally belonged to the military Order of Santiago, the Hospital de Santiago was turned into a pox hospital in 1500, eventually becoming one of the largest health care institutions “specializing” in the pox in the early modern Iberian Peninsula. Indeed, according to the main source for Berco’s study—the hospital’s magnificent admissions book between 1654 and 1665—of the more than four thousand patients taken in during that twelve-year period, 58.0 percent came from Toledo city and its hinterlands, 37.6 percent from the rest of Spain, 2.4 percent from abroad, and 2.0 unknown. From these records Berco has built a database that includes patients’ names, birthplaces, residences, parents, and marital status with partners’ identities, as well as a detailed account (fabric, color, and condition) of the garments worn when they were admitted into the Hospital de Santiago. These details show a wide occupational variety of male and female poxed patients taken in (priests, artisans, farmers, unskilled and skilled laborers, retailers, administration employees, nobles) who had to endure the rigors of their illness’s inpatient treatment including both physical and spiritual care. Moreover, Berco’s combined use of these and other hospital sources (letters, contracts, inspections by authorities, regulations) with a variety of other primary sources—archival (notarial, inquisitorial, and others) as well as medical and literary (manuscript and printed)—has allowed him to track patients’ physical and social lives beyond the hospital’s walls so that he has skillfully reconstructed the histories of people living with the burden of a chronic, painful, and stigmatizing disease in an early modern European society and analyzed their familial interactions, civic identities, careers, and relationships with different kinds of networks.
Apart from its introduction and conclusion, the book is divided into eight chapters, all of them introduced by patients’ stories allusive to each chapter’s main issue, through which Berco has masterfully examined (1) the pox signs in their physical and social meaning; (2) the meaning of medical concepts and assumptions for the patients and their experiences with...