Showing 1 - 2 of 2 annotations tagged with the keyword "Bubonic plague"

Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise


Carlo Cipolla chronicles the 1630 bubonic plague outbreak in Northern Italy. At various places in the text, he refers to his compact volume as an “essay,” a “tale,” and a “book.” Readers during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic could call it a “prologue,” a “warning,” or a “horror story foretold.”  

The plague ravaged much of Northern Italy from 1630 to 1631. Cipolla focuses on a particular village, Monte Lupo, because “so exceptionally rich is the documentation of [its] story that it allows the historian to recapture emotions, attitudes, and behavior of common people.” The documentation led him to uncommon detail “on the relationship between Faith and Reason, Church and State at a social level” (p. ix). 

Reading like an historical essay, Cipolla first sets up the tensions arising between the Church and State Church during the plague epidemic. The “scientific revolution” had advanced enough by 1630 that regional Health Magistrates acted based on experience rather than faith. Most clergy and their followers still “preferred to believe rather than observe…[and] had not the slightest doubt: processions and similar ceremonies were the only way to placate divine wrath and put an end to the scourge” (p. 7). But, the divide between Church and State in this case is not so clear as that, Cipolla notes, because some of the senior Health Magistrates served as high-ranking church leaders themselves. 

Cipolla points to public health measures taken in Northern Italy before the 1630 plague outbreak that might have, ironically, heightened tensions, even though they were born from the terror and suffering epidemics caused during the previous two centuries. The changes that resulted were, in Cipolla’s view, “a strange mixture of brilliant intuition, sound common sense, and absurd prejudice” (p. 12). However rational these measures seemed, “they caused great misery and severe privations [through] the segregation of entire families in their homes, the separation of kindred in the horror of the pesthouses, the closing of markets and trade, the consequent lack of work and wide-spread unemployment, the burning of furnishings and goods” (p. 13). By the time the plague took hold in 1630, necessary public health measures were already unpopular.

Cipolla uses the walled-village Monte Lupo as his case study. Around 150 families lived inside its walls when the plague struck during the summer of 1630. He details how Health Magistrates struggled to gain control of the outbreak while facing open rebellion fueled by “ignorance, egoism, avarice, and bullying” (p. 14). He names and profiles key figures and describes various events. 

The central event in Cipolla’s tale is a “procession” in Monte Lupo featuring a crucifix people believed had “miraculous properties” (p. 41). The Health Magistracy took aggressive actions to prevent and then stop the procession. Alas, Cipolla reports: “All this was in vain. It was like preaching to the wind: the church was soon packed with men and women, boys and girls, who had come to gaze at and adore the crucifix,” (p. 47). Festivities carried into the evening and on to a neighboring town (San Miniatello). Mayhem, illness, and death ensued. 

The last death in Monte Lupo occurred on August 11. Cipolla follows the subsequent investigations searching for people encouraging exposure to a lethal, contagious disease, and for people who became infected and died as a result. He reflects on the juxtaposition of epidemiological methods used to stop the epidemic and the fight religious leaders and followers waged against them. He muses about “emotions, attitudes, and behavior of all segments of a society in a period distant in many ways from our own” (p. 85). Written in 1977, the objects of his musing were only four decades distant from becoming evident again. 

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O'Farrell, Maggie

Last Updated: Oct-19-2020
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


The underlying premise of this engrossing book is the well documented historical fact that William Shakespeare had a young son who died at age 11, relatively early in his father’s theatrical career. The son, named Hamnet, was one of twins born to William and Agnes Hathaway (O’Farrell refers to her as Agnes rather than Ann based on some public records) in 1585. The cause of death is unknown, but O’Farrell imagines that he fell victim to the plague. She weaves an electric narrative that begins with Shakespeare as an educated young man who is a teacher and private tutor to children in Stratford-on-Avon. His relationship with his glove maker father who has fallen on hard times is at a near break point. In the past, Shakespeare’s father had been an important town official but because of a mixture of misguided business deals and bad behaviors, he has become an object of public scorn. His rage at this reversal of fortune is directed at his bookish son. But then, Shakespeare meets Agnes Hathaway. She is 8 years older than William but entrances him with her unconventional personality and her exotic skillset including bee keeping and an uncanny ability to heal people with herbal remedies. They marry and have their first child 6 months later to be followed in short order by twins, Hamnet and Judith.

Agnes recognizes William’s unique potential and supports his choice to leave his family and head off to London to make his name in the theater world. Shakespeare rarely returns home to Stratford, and we only learn of his growing success indirectly. Agnes is forced to raise her children as a single parent and has to deal with her overwhelming grief when Hamnet dies. As she mourns the loss of her son, she is overcome with doubt about the fidelity of her absent husband, and her faith in their marriage is threatened. Ultimately, Agnes is given a playbill featuring the production of a new play written by her husband and she sets off on a trip to London to confront him on his own turf. She arrives uninvited at the Globe Theater in time to witness a performance of the play in which her husband has been able to channel his own grief at the loss of his son into one of the enduring literary works in the Western canon.

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