For Renaissance Italians, combating black plague was as much about politics as it was science, according to Stanford scholar


For Italians in the 14th-century, the bubonic plague at first seemed extraordinary but its repeated return made it so much a part of daily life that it became an economic annoyance and an administrative problem to resolve, and eventually led to advances in medicine and public health, according to Stanford historian and scholar of Renaissance Italy, Paula Findlen.

As the world confronts another global pandemic, Findlen spoke to us about the problems Renaissance Italians faced related to the Black Death, including ones that might seem familiar to us today, such as the difficulties of reliably reporting the disease, misinformation campaigns, and political tensions between states around their response. She also talked about the origins of the word “quarantine” and Giovanni Filippo Ingrassia, whom Findlen likened to a Renaissance version of Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“The history of pandemics – and not only plague – puts our fears about COVID-19 in perspective. Earlier societies repeatedly found ways to recover from the impact of disease, with far fewer resources than we have today. I hope this reminds us to be creative and resilient with our own challenges,” said Findlen, whose research examines how the early history of science, medicine and technology are central to the understanding contemporary society.

Findlen is the Ubaldo Pierotti Professor of Italian History in the School of Humanities and Sciences and director of the Suppes Center for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. Findlen recently authored a review essay, “What Would Boccaccio Say About COVID-19?” about the Florentine humanist’s experience with the Black Death in Renaissance Italy.

Are there any parallels between how we’re managing COVID-19 today and how Italians thwarted the bubonic plague in the 14th-century?

Since antiquity, people have debated whether to remain or flee during an epidemic, and how to prevent others from coming. “Quarantine” is a specific legacy of how late medieval and Renaissance cities responded to plague, not during the initial pandemic of 1346-53, but after its return. The first known legislation (by the Venetians) in 1377 only specified thirty days but it evolved into forty, which is what quarantina means. Forty made more sense to physicians who read Hippocrates on the typical length of a highly contagious disease and also knew, as Christians, that this was the duration of Lenten fasting.



Paula Findlen is the Ubaldo Pierotti Professor of Italian History in the School of Humanities and Sciences

(Image credit: Sunny Scott)