This project involves the creation of a hypertext collection of materials on the Impact of Bubonic Plague on Renaissance Society between the initial outbreak in 1348 and the mid-sixteenth century.
The coming of the Black Death, when in just two years perhaps one third to one half of Europe's population was destroyed, marks a watershed in Medieval and Renaissance European History. Bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis) had been absent from Western Europe for nearly a millenium when it appeared in 1348. The reaction was immediate and devastating. Up to two thirds of the population of many of the major European cities succumbed to the plague in the first two years. Government, trade and commerce virtually came to a halt. Even more devastating to Europeans, there was hardly a generation which did not experience a local, regional or pan-European epidemic for the next two hundred years. There was virtually no aspect of European society that was not affected by the coming of plague and by its duration. At the most basic level, recurrent plague tended to skim off significant portions of the children born between infestations of plague, dampening economic and demographic growth in most parts of Europe until the late seventeenth century. The responses of Europeans are often treated as irrational or superstitious. Yet medical tracts, moral treatises and papal proclamations make clear that for most Europeans there were, within the medieval world view, rational explanations for what was happening. Plague stimulated chroniclers, poets and authors, and physicians to write about what might have caused the plague and how the plague affected the population at large the framing story of Boccaccio's Decameron is merely the most famous of the writings. Nonetheless, in the wake of the first infestations there were attacks on women lepers and Jews who were thought either to have deliberately spread the plague or, because of their innate dishonor, to have polluted society and brought on God's vengeance. The violence against outsiders demonstrated, in a tragically negative manner, the nature and the limits of citizenship in Europe. This was a society which defined itself as Christian and recurrent plague changed religious practice, if not belief. Christians had long venerated saints as models of the godly life and as mediators before God, in this case an angry and vengeful one. A whole new series of "plague saints" (like St. Roch) came into existence along with new religious brotherhoods and shrines dedicated to protecting the population from plague. The recurrence of plague also affected the general understanding of public health. Beginning in Italy in the 1350s there were new initiatives aimed at raising the level of public sanitation and governmental regulation of public life. And, finally, by the sixteenth century a debate over the causes of plague spread in the medical community as old corruption theories inherited from Greece and Rome were replaced by ideas of contagion. The story of plague in Renaissance society is not merely a medical, religious or economic subject. To properly understand the impact of plague it is necessary to consider almost all aspects of society, from art and music to science.
Although we like to recount history in a logical, linear narrative, in reality, matters usually are not so straight-forward. War, plague, economic depression all affect people differently depending on age, class, sex and the like. Collections of texts and images, since they do represent multiple points of view, are ideal ways to accurately convey the multi-faceted nature of human reality. Through a collection, annotation, and translation, where necessary, of chronicles, diaries, letters, government documents, religious literature and contemporary images this project aims at the creation of a hypertext archive through which scholars and students can study the medical, governmental, religious and personal responses to the problem of epidemic disease.
The collection initially will be concentrated in three parts of Europe: Tuscany in central Italy, the Avignon-Montpelier region in France, and the Rhineland towns of Germany. The three areas are not unique, but they do offer sources that deal with the initial infestation of plague in the 1340s and 1350s as well as information on the subsequent plagues that almost generationally swept through parts of Europe. They also have the advantage of offering a sense of Europe's geographical diversity and how the experience of plague differed in various economic and social environments. Thus the archive should function much like a well designed archeological excavation in which by digging deeply at various point on a site one can study spatial as well as temporal variations. Searchers will be able to follow topics of special interests either by moving throughout Europe at a particular time or by following particular themes in subsequent plagues. From the very earliest plagues, for example, there were simple embargoes preventing movements of goods and people from one area to another. By the sixteenth century, however, there were well articulated systems of quarantine in place in many parts of Europe. Similarly, during the epidemics, physicians and medical writers in various parts of Europe had to deal with questions of the nature of medical knowledge and the extent of the doctor's ethical responsibility to the ill. Medical consilia from each of the three areas include discussions of each of these issues. Over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, European Christians developed a number of saints who set an example of helpful charity toward victims and who also were understood to preserve the healthy from the ravages of plague. The veneration of St. Roch of Montpelier grew steadily during the fifteenth century, especially in Italy and Germany. And finally, spatial and temporal comparisons of how chroniclers and diarists described plague and the social response to epidemics can demonstrate how commonplace observations like Boccaccio's description of abandonment were picked up by other writers. Images of abandonment can be traced from Florence to Avignon and from Avignon into the towns of Germany.
The initial stages concentrating on three core areas will provide a basic context into which selected images, medical consilia and narrative fragments from other parts of Europe can be fitted.