It is something to be writing this review in March 2020, as COVID-19 spiderwebs its way across the globe. Historians and journalists are dining out on op-eds and book reviews drawing comparisons with social and political responses to the Black Death and later plague cycles. We are enthusiastic about the opportunity to make our work immediately meaningful for the broad public. Hannah Marcus reminds us in the New York Times not to give in to xenophobia and fear mongering (New York Times, 1 March 2020) and Erin Maglaque takes us into the empty streets of Florence in 1630 in the London Review of Books (42.4, 20 February 2020). In these pieces we read how past societies turned on themselves and on outsiders, and how human foibles like friendship and the need to feed families frustrated the misguided efforts of city governments to quarantine people against the spreading sickness.
Ruth MacKay's refreshing take on the history of Castile's devastating plague of 1596–1601 offers another way of interpreting human behavior during times of epidemic and fear. The argument of her book, handsomely bound in a contemporary map of plague-stricken Castilian towns, is that while thousands sickened and died as plague moved inland from the coast of the Bay of Biscay, in many ways life continued apace. This is not to say that MacKay argues for a normality of plague experience; rather, she makes the compelling case that the machinery of social, political, and economic life struggled on as best it could, as it had before. By no means did this continuity help prevent the spread of plague. It likely worsened it. But MacKay argues richly, with a deep reading of a wide variety of documents, that rather than focus on the crises and disruption that plague can bring (as I am guilty of in my recent monograph on Italian homicide), historians might find more ordinary and more intriguing histories by looking into the many ways in which life went on despite the rising death toll.
MacKay situates her argument spatially, taking us to the sites of Castilian life in eponymous chapters: “Palace,” for a broad view of royal politics and legislation; “Road,” for the experiences of travelers, messengers, and merchants; “Wall,” where guards were newly empowered to protect gates and citizens sought to evade their attention. In the “Market,” city councils attempted to ameliorate an “excruciating need for grain” (119), as marketplaces emptied out and people starved. The “Street” became ghostly as the wealthy and clerical fled cities, as single women and the immigrant poor were expelled, and as street processions were canceled. The “Townhall” continued to adjudicate local conflicts, and municipal decisions shaped local responses to the advent of plague. As pestilence unleashed its fury, medical men and physicians remained with patients in “Sickbed,” treating the condition as they could and offering comfort where they could not.
MacKay argues that in all these sites plague was part and parcel of early modern life. Subsequent city chronicles and histories did not dwell on the experience because “there was nothing much to say” (247). Plague happens. It happened in 1596–1601 in Castile, and it happened again in 1647–51, among other times. For these early modern Spaniards, “it was a part of their memory. They knew what to do” (247). One senses that if one is looking for continuity in times of pestilence, one can find it; if one is looking for chaos, one can find that too. MacKay does not dwell, for instance, on the consequences of the expulsion of thousands of starving poor from urban centers into the surrounding countryside. Spending some more time in criminal records might reveal unusual patterns of violence, which may have had long-term consequences for civil society.
But that is only if one seeks chaos: MacKay's beautifully written account of the Castilian pestilence shows us the usual business of plague. Stories of individual lives, often cut short, make the plague a very human experience here. MacKay's admirable work in many Spanish archives gives us a thick view of the continuation of life, as the bodies piled up at the turn of the seventeenth century.