Rats or Cheese?

Faith, Reason, and the Plague in Seventeenth-Century Tuscany

by Carlo M. Cipolla, translated by Muriel Kittel
Cornell University Press, 113 pp., $9.95

The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller

by Carlo Ginzburg, translated by John Tedeschi, by Anne Tedeschi
Johns Hopkins University Press, 208 pp., $14.00

The plague of 1630—that plague so graphically depicted in Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi—was carried into Italy by German soldiers in the Imperial army on their descent toward Mantua. From Milan it spread to Tuscany, which it reached in August, and it was soon ravaging Florence and the neighboring communes and villages. Some places, like Altopascio, were lucky enough to escape. Others succumbed all too easily. Among these was the little walled village of Monte Lupo, some twenty miles to the west of Florence.

Carlo Cipolla’s Faith, Reason, and the Plague is a study of the reactions of the villagers of Monte Lupo to the onslaught of the plague and to the attempts of the local authorities to check it. Professor Cipolla is one of a number of remarkable Italian historians who, over the past few years, have done an enormous amount to enrich our understanding of the history of early modern Europe. If he is primarily known as an economic historian, he has never allowed himself to be narrowly typecast; and as he wanders engagingly down the highways of European history, he is always ready to explore an interesting by-way if he thinks it can offer us new views of the terrain. Whatever he discusses, whether it be clocks, guns, or literacy, he treats with a lightness of touch which enables him to entertain us even as he instructs.

Any student of early modern European history, staggering beneath the weight of the latest French thèse, would be churlish not to feel a sense of gratitude to Professor Cipolla for this Italian light relief. And yet, and yet…it is hard to escape the feeling that here we are being shortchanged. The story of Monte Lupo is not Professor Cipolla’s first brush with the plague. Seven years ago he gave us a slight, but attractive, book about the plague in Prato. Now we have an even slighter book (eighty-five pages, excluding appendices) about the plague in Monte Lupo. Perhaps it is in the nature of epidemics, but a little plague seems to be going rather a long way.

The story that Professor Cipolla has to tell is such a fascinating one that it seems a pity he should have decided to ration it out. He has rightly seen that a well-documented catastrophe can provide the historian with a unique insight into public and private attitudes. The bubonic plague which raged through northern Italy in the early 1630s is just such a catastrophe. Not only can its passage be closely traced in the archives, but it happened to occur at a moment when the conflict of responses within the population was sufficiently sharp to point to a confrontation of mental worlds with European-wide dimensions.

It would be easy to describe these mental worlds as “medieval” and “modern,” or “religious” and “rationalist,” but Professor Cipolla is far too subtle a historian to fall into this trap. Instead, he gives us a beautifully nuanced story, in which …

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