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Plague and music in the renaissance (Cambridge University Press)



Plague, a devastating and recurring affliction throughout the Renaissance, had a major impact on European life. Not only was pestilence a biological problem, but it was also read as a symptom of spiritual degeneracy and it caused widespread social disorder. Assembling a picture of the complex and sometimes contradictory responses to plague from medical, spiritual and civic perspectives, this book uncovers the place of music - whether regarded as an indispensable medicine or a moral poison that exacerbated outbreaks - in the management of the disease. This original musicological approach further reveals how composers responded, in their works, to the discourses and practices surrounding one of the greatest medical crises in the pre-modern age. Addressing topics such as music as therapy, public rituals and performance and music in religion, the volume also provides detailed musical analysis throughout to illustrate how pestilence affected societal attitudes toward music. Presents an original perspective on both musical and medical history and shows how each affected the other The book's interdisciplinary approach will appeal both to musicologists and to scholars of the history of medicine, art history, literary studies and religious studies Includes detailed musical analysis to show how music and composers responded to thinking and practices surrounding pestilence.
Plague and Music in the Renaissance
remi chiu
Loyola University Maryland
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List of Illustrations [page vi]
Acknowledgments [ix]
Introduction [1]
1 Medicine for the Body and the Soul [11]
2 Sympathetic Resonance, Sympathetic Contagion [52]
3 Devotions on the Street and in the Home [94]
4 The Cult of St. Sebastian [139]
5 Madrigals, Mithridates, and the Plague of Milan [182]
Epilogue [219]
appendix i Complete Scores [223]
appendix ii Select PestilentialMotets and Madrigals,
ca. 14001600 [253]
Bibliography [259]
Index [278]
Just think, in walking around Milan, one heard nothing but song,
veneration of God, and supplication to the saints, such that one almost
wished for these tribulations to last longer.
Paolo Bisciola
Plague, after a near seven-century absence from Europe, returned with
an astonishing ferocity in the autumn of 1347. It blew in from the Orient
along the trade routes linking East and West, making landfall in several
Italian port cities. Within three years, the plague spread across Europe,
including Scandinavia and Russia, and reached parts as remote as
Greenland. According to contemporary reports, swellings as large as an
apple appeared near the groins and armpits of victims sure signs of
impending death. Mortality records for the period are dicult to come
by, but historians estimate that in many places, plague claimed between
one-third and one-half the population, and in a few regions, the death toll
was as high as 60 percent. Few could have guessed in 1347 that the near-
apocalyptic explosion of plague merely announced the start of a pandemic,
the second on record, that would reign over the continent for the next three
and a half centuries (the rst occurred around the Mediterranean and in
Europe, ca. 541750). Large and infamous outbreaks, such as the disaster
in Milan between 1576 and 1578 or the Great Plague of London in 1665,
were connected by smaller outbreaks that, when tallied together, reveal that
multiple parts of Europe contended with the disease virtually every year
until 1700.
In the latter half of the fourteenth century, any given locale was
struck around once per decade. Then, mysteriously, cycles of recurrence
lengthened to roughly once per century, until nally, save a few sporadic
outbreaks, the disease seemed to vanish from the continent.
A third pandemic began in the last years of the nineteenth century and
lasted until the middle of the twentieth century, this time aicting mostly
China and India. It was at the start of this pandemic in 1894 that two rival
Paolo Bisciola, Relatione verissima del progresso della peste di Milano (1577), 3v4r.
Biraben, Les hommes et la peste, 2:375449.
Cohn, Epidemiology of the Black Death,7475. 1
biologists the Franco-Swiss Alexandre Yersin, representing the school of
Pasteur, and the Japanese Shibasaburo Kitasato, student of Robert Koch
independently discovered the bacillus responsible for plague, initially
named Bacterium pestis, but renamed Yersinia pestis in 1954 in the
Frenchmans honor. Its vector was discovered in Karachi in 1898 by Paul-
Louis Simond. Fleas, infected by the blood of diseased black rats, are
responsible for transmitting plague to humans; the plague organism cre-
ates a mechanical blockage in the esophagus of the ea, forcing it to
regurgitate blood into its hosts as it attempts to feed. In humans, the
infection could take three forms: bubonic, the predominant and character-
istic form that causes swellings (or buboes) in the armpits, neck, and groin;
pneumonic, a far more lethal form that arises from bubonic infections and
is also contagious through pulmonary discharges; and septicemic, a form
caused by an infection of the bloodstream, which generally results in death
within twenty-four hours of the rst symptoms.
The majority opinion holds that Yersinia pestis was the same bacterial
agent responsible for the earlier pandemics. Historical descriptions of swel-
lings on the body correspond to the characteristic symptoms of the bubonic
plague. Some period medical reports also described diculty with breathing
and blood in the lungs, pointing to the pneumonic form. Genomic testing
carried out by microbiologists since the 1990s on the dental pulp of plague
corpses have also pointed consistently to the same pathogen.
Still, some
dissenting voices chief among them Samuel Cohn Jr.scontestthatsome
epidemiological characteristics of Yersinia pestis,suchasthelifecycleofeas
or the speed of transmission, simply do not match up with historical records.
This has necessitated a second look at other possible strains of the bacterium
and vectors of transmission (dierent kinds of rodents, dierent kinds of
eas). Such complications are redoubled by the loose usage of the word
pestilenceon the part of premodern writers as a catch-all term for a wide
variety of epidemic catastrophes that may have included anthrax, smallpox,
measles, typhus, or some Ebola-like virus.
Regardless of whatever retrospective diagnosis we may make today,
Yersinia pestis was certainly not the disease experienced by premodern
Europeans. As Andrew Cunningham writes evocatively,
For an overview of the methods and results of studies in forensic microbiology from the 1990s to
2012, see Bolton, Looking for Yersinia Pestis.
See in particular Cohn, Black Death Transformed;Historian and the Laboratory;
Epidemiology of the Black Death.
Scott and Duncan, Biology of Plagues; Shrewsbury, History of Bubonic Plague in the British Isles;
Cohn, Black Death Transformed,6263.
[A]t the moment Kitasato and Yersin decided to go into their respective labora-
tories carrying their blood and tissue specimens, they were working with ancient
bubonic plague. But by the time they came out of their laboratories, they had given
plague a new identity ... The identities of pre-1894 plague and post-1894 plague
have become incommensurable. We are simply unable to say whether they were
the same, since the criteria of samenesshave changed.
Matters of technological capabilities or clinical expertise aside, plague,
broadly speaking, simply had no concrete ontological existence as a disease
in the premodern world.
Under the inherited Galenic-Hippocratic model
of health, doctors saw illness not generated by external trauma as
a disturbance of the normal balance of an individuals four humors
blood, phlegm, and yellow and black biles that impeded the bodys vital
functions. Where disease entities (rabies, plague, phthisis, and so on) were
named, they were described and classied by causes and physiological
signs that is, by the usual conditions that preceded the disease and the
usual symptoms that followed.
Disease itself, however, remained rooted in
the hydraulics of individual bodies, not out there in the world as some
invasive entity. In the case of plague, the symptoms, in addition to buboes
and pulmonary distress, included fever, chills, vomiting, pustules, and
The natural cause was corrupt air, or miasma, possibly
generated by improperly treated refuse, earthquakes, or meteorological
and astrological events. Ultimately, like other epidemic diseases in the
Christian world, plague was the providence of a wrathful God.
Some older narratives of plague paint a picture of paralyzing despair,
colored by the authorsown grim attitudes toward medieval life. Philip
Zieglers popular history of the Black Death, for example, described a pre-
1347 European population for whom
there was nothing except despairing fear, a total and disastrous lack of con-
dence in what the future might hold for them ...The people were physically in
no state to resist a sudden and severe epidemic and psychologically they were
attuned to an expectation and supine acceptance of disaster. They lacked the
will to ght; almost, one might think, they welcomed the termination of their
Cunningham, Transforming Plague,241242.
Temkin, Scientic Approach to Disease,446.
Siraisi, Disease and Symptom as Problematic Concepts,217222. It was the development of
contagion theories and specic medical treatments in the sixteenth century, especially in
confrontation with the newdisease syphilis, that spurred an ontological view of disease; see
Arrizabalaga, Henderson, and French, Great Pox, 258277.
Cohn, Black Death Transformed,5762.
Ziegler, Black Death,3132.
Introduction 3
And even had they the will to ght when plague struck, it would have been
miraculous if the medical profession had met the Black Death with any-
thing much more useful than awestruck despair. Their eorts were as futile
as their approach was fatalistic. Not only were they well aware that they
could do little or nothing to help but they considered it self-evident that an
uncharitable Deity had never intended that they should.
assumptions about the pessimism of the age colored some evaluations of
fourteenth-century artistic endeavors in response to the disease. Millard
Meiss, for example, assuming the same zeitgeist of renunciation of life
in his landmark survey of Florentine and Sienese paintings in the wake of
the Black Death, argued that the trauma of the mid-century outbreaks and
the subsequent social collapse created a psychological milieu that put a halt
to developments in naturalism, human expression, and realistic narrative
and, instead, spurred a return to self-abnegation, religion, ritual, and the
supernatural, presented in a more alienating, formalized, and hierarchical
mode associated with the Dugento.
Newer research that takes a broader view of plague as a recurrent
condition and that considers plague in premodern terms rather than as
Yersinia pestis, against which Renaissance medicine provided no possible
defense, has revised such pessimistic positions. These new narratives
show resilience, rather than supine acceptance. They show the quick
recovery of communities devastated by plague, aided by strong interper-
sonal bonds of their citizens.
They show physicians combining rst-
hand experience with inherited medical paradigms in their prescriptive
and sanitation ocials developing new strategies for public
health the building of hospitals, and the establishment of necrologies
and civic sanitation procedures.
They contend that what Meiss inter-
preted as a reactionary return to the Dugento in art testied not to the
pessimism of the age, but to a sudden ood of new patrons interested in
familial- and self-memorialization that necessitated a streamlined pro-
duction of simpler, regimented gures.
As Randolph Starn writes,
Ziegler, Black Death, 53.
Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena, 74.
See, for example, Bowsky, Impact of the Black Death upon Sienese Government; Wray,
Communities and Crisis.
Chase, Fevers, Poisons, and Apostemes,155, 160163; Cohn, Black Death Transformed,
See, for example, Laughran, Body, Public Health and Social Control; Crawshaw, Plague
Cohn, Piété et commande dœuvres dart,567570. More recent work on dating shows that
some of the examples that Meiss cites for the post-plague aesthetic turnwere actually
executed before the Black Death; see Van Os, Black Death and Sienese Painting,240.
[the] chronic presence of disease suggests that we should not think of
medieval and early modern societies as caught in the grip of plague-year
panics or as waiting passively to be delivered by modern medicine.
The newer accounts [of plague history] speak of experienced popula-
tions,of well-organized institutional responses, of resourceful strategies
for survival.
This book is about music and music-making as one of those resourceful
strategies for surviving plague. It treats music as an urgent and active
curative with material consequences for the health and well-being of
those assailed by the horrible disease. It shows that the production of
music was animated by the changing experiences and knowledge of pesti-
lence, and that it reected not a defeatist or reactionary psychology, but
a practical resilience on the part of Renaissance Europeans. It makes no
great claims about aesthetic breaks in music on account of trauma; rather,
it focuses on how traditional beliefs about music became embroiled in the
new discourses about plague and how established musical styles, techni-
ques, and practices were marshaled up to combat the disease. While much
research has been conducted on the political, economic, medical, and even
literary and artistic consequences of plague, the connections between
pestilence and music have been comparatively understudied. Most ger-
mane to the topic to date is Christopher Macklins oeuvre, including his
2008 dissertation, his 2010 article on Stella celi extirpavit, and his 2016
article on the composition of a Plague Mass.
A large part of Macklins
focus is on medieval sacred monophony, particularly in English sources.
In the dissertation, Macklin describes many types of works that reect
a preoccupation with plague, including agellant songs from the four-
teenth century, laude, and, more centrally, Masses such as the Salus populi
Mass and the Recordare Mass. In the earlier article, a comparative source
study, Macklin traces the early Franciscan history of Stella celi, a hymn
invoking Marys help against the plague, and its reection of late medieval
beliefs about the disease. In the most recent article, Macklin traces the
process by which litrugists assembled and disseminated the text and music
of the Recordare Mass in the late Middle Ages.
One of the barriers to entry into the topic of music and plague is
identifying a repertory of pestilentialworks pieces inspired by a
particular epidemic, that textually respond to the disease, or that were
Starn, Foreword,x.
Macklin, “‘Musica sanat corpus per animam’”;Plague, Performance;Stability and Change in
the Composition of a Plague Mass.’”
Introduction 5
used in plague-tide rituals. The diculties establishing the rst criterion
are considerable. As Macklin acknowledged, the biographical circum-
stances of composers and the provenance of compositions from the period
in question are, more often than not, speculative at best. At the same time,
record-keeping of epidemic outbreaks particularly the smaller ones was
Connecting a work to a specic outbreak, consequently,
becomes a matter of highly conjectural triangulation.
The next two criteria put us on slightly rmer ground. Texts that
explicitly mention plague particularly prayers that request intervention
against the scourge present little challenge to identication. Peripherally,
however, there are antiphons and other devotional texts that honor parti-
cular intercessors who have known apotropaic powers against pestilence,
such as St. Roch or St. Sebastian, but that do not explicitly reference the
disease. There are also works that allude elliptically to plague in poetic
tropes. Anne Walters Robertson, for example, suggests the possibility that
Machauts motet Fons tocius superbie, which presents the images of the
dragon,”“scorpion,and most evil beastin the context of the deadly
sins, might refer to the dread disease, depending on which part of the 1340s
we date the work (Kurt Markstrom, on the other hand, reads the motet as
an allegory of the Hundred Years War).
With such rich imprecisions
attendant on textual interpretations, the boundaries of the category pes-
tilential musicbecome hazier still. As for music performed in the rites of
plague, we must interpolate between surviving prescriptive manuals
which can provide a great deal of specicity for prescribed pieces of
music (or the text thereof, at least), but remain silent on the ad hoc
music that accrued to the rituals and descriptive chronicles which
often tell us only that music was performed, not which music was
The works studied in this book cover the range of secureto spec-
ulativemembership in the category of pestilential music(a listing of
polyphony associated with plague is provided in the appendix). Most
explicitly mention plague and make reference to St. Sebastian, who,
among plague protectors, is the best represented in Renaissance music.
The works discussed are not meant to be an exhaustive coverage of all
pestilential music; rather, they were chosen to illustrate aspects of the
culture of plague. I have elected to focus on Catholic Europe during the
Macklin, “‘Musica sanat corpus per animam,’” 35.
Robertson, Guillaume de Machaut and Reims, 138; Markstrom, Machaut and the Wild Beast,
period 14001600 for multiple reasons. Practically, it allows me to stake
new grounds outside of Macklins studies. With only a few exceptions
(most notably, the discussion of Paracelsus in Chapter 2), I have chosen
to limit my historical witnesses to those from Catholic traditions in order
to present as much as possible, and if only at the broadest levels
a coherent, operative theological understanding of illness throughout the
book. The chronological choice, too, is meant to help maintain a consistent
picture of pestilential habitus.During this period half a century on
from the rst waves of outbreaks there was a growing sense of experience
and habituation for the professionals charged with plague management.
We can, therefore, speak of general routines and patterns of response to
plague for this period. While there were some debates on the merits of
specic treatments (whether bloodletting is useful for plague, for
), there was nevertheless a great deal of continuity in medical
knowledge throughout Europe. Such conditions allow us to more easily
interpret the musical evidence through contextual extrapolation.
The increasing sense of experience and routinization is evident in
surviving medical plague treatises, a corpus of writing that began to crop
up in the middle of the fourteenth century, authored usually, though not
exclusively, by university-trained doctors and surgeons. Plague treatises
were not entirely new at the time of the Black Death, but prior to 1348, they
were few in number and usually circulated as a part of larger medical
Aided by the printing press, the number of these plague
treatises increased dramatically in the two centuries following the Black
Death. Based on data compiled by Paul Slack, for example, there would
have been enough plague treatises at the turn of the fteenth century in
England (with a population of 3.3. million) to distribute one to every 130
At the beginning of their production, the majority of treatises
were written in Latin, many of which were also translated into the verna-
cular. The number of vernacular treatises increased in the sixteenth
Plague treatises varied greatly in length, from a few to a few hundred
pages, and they varied greatly in emphasis as well. Some were highly
philosophical and delved deeply into theology or astrology to explain the
remote causes of plague, while others comprised straightforward lists of
medical recipes.
The most typical and balanced of the treatises consisted
of a discussion of causes and signs of the disease, including the progression
Cohn, Cultures of Plague,1518.
Nockels Fabbri, Continuity and Change,19.
Slack, Mirrors of Health,239.
Cohn, Cultures of Plague,1.
Introduction 7
of symptoms in the patient; regimen and prevention, which often occupied
the bulk of the treatise; and treatment, which included recipes for medi-
cines and, sometimes, guides to surgery. Some treatises included dedica-
tions and prefaces to the readers, and some took on a devotional focus,
commingling medical advice with prayers and sermons that exhorted
readers to mend their ways. Judging by the dedications and content of
these treatises some authors provided cheaper alternatives to expensive
medications, for example
there was a wide range of intended audiences
for these works, from other medical practitioners to lay readers of varying
socio-economic circumstances.
In his study of French plague treatises, which do not dier substantively
from other European treatises, Colin Jones has identied three corporate
groups whose voices can be discerned: medical practitioners, with their
concern for health; churchmen, with their preoccupation with morality
and spiritual welfare; and the representatives of secular authority, with
their concern with community welfare and the workings of authority.
Each group developed specic strategies to preserve health in all three
bodies: the biological, the spiritual, and the civic. Doctors, armed with
venerable Galenic principles, oered their expertise on diagnosis, regimen,
and medicine. Religious authorities, treating plague as divine punishment
for baneful or pernicious behavior, urged moral improvement and con-
ducted devotional rituals. And magistrates implemented embargoes, quar-
antines, and codes of surveillance not only to deter contagion but also to
ensure public order.This is not to say that there was a strict division of labor
or spheres of concerns among the three groups. Typically, a religiously
trained author would not exclude natural remedies from his treatise, nor
would a medical doctor reject penitence and prayers. And doctors who
occupied oces such as royal physicianor civic health ocialwould
be in a good position to safeguard both individual and public health.
Music, explicitly and implicitly, played a role in the healing of all three
bodies under pestilential assault. Chapter 1 begins with a survey of the
medical value of music that was readily described in many plague treatises,
particularly in the sections on regimen. Many authors promoted music-
making as a salubrious recreation, placing it on the pharmacy shelf along-
side anti-pestilential foodstus and other medicines. The promotion of
music was not universal, however. Authors of religiously skewed treatises
Wray, Boccaccio and the Doctors,305306; Nockels Fabbri, Continuity and Change,
Jones, Plague and Its Metaphors,106.
sometimes took an ascetic stance on music and cautioned against its use.
The remainder of the chapter examines how this negative view of music in
their purportedly medicalwriting is consistent with prohibitions against
temporal recreations doled out in sermonic literature, and how some
devotional music might be understood as a rapprochement in this conict
between the doctor and the churchman.
Where the rst chapter deals with the practical aspects of musical
therapy, the second chapter turns to the esoteric side of premodern med-
icine and its relationship to music. While the benecial connections
between music (as a metaphysical concept) and health in premodern occult
thought have been well rehearsed by D.P. Walker and Gary Tomlinson,
among others,
the malignant relationships between music and the pro-
pagation of disease have not yet been extensively explored. The rst part of
the chapter will wade into this new territory and examine the phenomenon
of sympathetic resonance as an explanatory conceit for Renaissance the-
ories of contagion with regard to infectious diseases in general, and
plague in particular. We will see that the ways in which doctors explained
and rhetorically deployed the musical concept yielded dierent models for
the transmission of disease in the Renaissance, from ones based on natural
magic to those that looked forward to modern germ theory. In the second
half of Chapter 2, the focus turns to a dierent, but related, aspect of
sympathy as amityor friendship.As the metaphysical harmony under-
girding the universe broke down in times of pestilence, so too did the
harmony between friends, kin, and compatriots. We will look at the
anxieties surrounding this social breakdown and the role that music may
play in restoring the body politic.
Chapter 3 investigates how the restoration of the body politic led to
another conict of interest between spiritual and medical-civic authorities.
One of the most common practices in Christian communities during
outbreaks was to hold public penitential processions. These crisis rituals
aimed most obviously to placate a wrathful God, but many of its constitu-
ent elements such as the use of relics, the planned routes, and the music
performed also articulated the communal identity of the participants and
aimed to restore the broken social ties described in the previous chapter.
These popular rituals, however, often came under the disapprobation of
civic magistrates who, fearing contagion, sought to limit congregations of
Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic; Tomlinson, Music in Renaissance Magic; Voss, Natural
Magic of Marsilio Ficino; Gouk, Music, Melancholy, and Medical Spirits; Copenhaver,
Scholastic Philosophy and Renaissance Magic; for a study of the musical philosophy in
Ficinos commentary on Platos Timaeus, see Prins, Echoes of an Invisible World.
Introduction 9
people. We will look at the ingenious solution to this problem by Carlo
Borromeo, who, during an outbreak in Milan, encouraged citizens to sing
from their doors and windows in order to collectively perform the public
rituals while quarantined inside their own homes.
Chapter 4 is a study of the cult of St. Sebastian. Taking together recent
research in art history with an examination of the liturgy and devotional
songs that celebrate the saint, the chapter explores the circuitous way by
which Sebastian, who neither contracted nor cured anyone of plague in his
lifetime, became one of the most revered protectors against pestilence. One
understudied facet of the saints persona is his military history and patron-
age of soldiers, which, though eclipsed by his thaumaturgic powers against
disease beginning in the fourteenth century, nevertheless interacted with
his anti-pestilential function. The reconstitution of this cultic layer of the
saint, in turn, reveals the contemporary etiological beliefs about plague
embedded in the semiotics of its representation.
The object of study in the fth and nal chapter is Paolo CaracciolosIl
primo libro de Madrigali a cinque voci, published by Scotto in 1582. Amid
settings of Petrarchan poetry and other amorous texts in the collection are
a series of four works, headed by the spiritual madrigal Santo Guerrier, that
make reference to a major outbreak in Milan between the years 1576 and
1578. These songs bring up important questions about the value of patron-
age of pestilential arts and monuments, as well as the medical value of
commemoration the act of remembering tragedy that may have vital
repercussions on health.
Throughout the book, close readings of individual pestilentialworks
ground the contextual discussions. These readings aim to show how
broader concerns in the medical, religious, and civic discourses about
plague nd their way into the texts and the structures of the music and,
more importantly, how this music that responds to the intricacies of
pestilential thought and practices can be useful as medicine, as spiritual
correctives, as ritual tools in the combat against plague.
10 Introduction

Supplementary resource (1)

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