At the Times Literary Supplement, Lauro Martines reviews Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance, a new book by Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., which explores how reliance on theology and the medical theories of antiquity gave way to new forms of epidemiology:
Tracts and other forms of discourse about plague had been a near monopoly of the university-educated physicians. But these savants were now joined by “surgeons, druggists, gentlemen magistrates, merchants, notaries, lawyers, judges, petty procurators, [city-]gate-officers, clerics from parish priests to the pope, and even artisans”. It looked at times as though the barber-surgeons and other people in the front line of plague work were the true empiricists, battling against the physicians and university professors—men supposedly in thrall to the ancients and to the bunk dished out by the Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino in his Consiglio contra la pestilentia (1481). But this was not so. The professors were themselves sharply divided, with some at the vanguard of the call for direct observation of the onset, symptoms and path of the disease, while others went on voicing the old theories concerning “pestilential” air and the mortal influence of heavenly bodies.