Book Review
Past Practices: A Review of Ruth MacKay’s <em>Life in a Time of Pestilence: The Great Castilian Plague of 1596–1601</em>

Past Practices: A Review of Ruth MacKay’s Life in a Time of Pestilence: The Great Castilian Plague of 1596–1601

Ray Ball

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a number of historians of medicine and other scholars have written and given interviews about past public health crises. E. Thomas Ewing’s look at how newspapers focused on kissing during the 1918 influenza outbreak suggested that the emphasis on kissing via handkerchief 100 years ago signaled potentially troubling questions for how Americans would react to the coronavirus today. Mary Rambaran-Olm recently compared human responses to the fourteenth-century plague outbreak and the current COVID-19 pandemic, discussing the rise in racial violence within both contexts. Others, like Timothy Newfield, have stressed that comparisons to past public health crises lead to anachronistic oversimplification and to “sensationalizing the past to sell the present.” In an op-ed with the sensational title “Nothing Was the Same,” he argues “no two pandemics are the same.”

Cover of Ruth MacKay’s Life in a Time of Pestilence.

Ruth MacKay’s Life in a Time of Pestilence: The Great Castilian Plague of 1596–1601 (Cambridge University Press, 2019) demonstrates that, although no two pandemics are the same, early modern Spaniards had living and institutional memories of past plagues that informed their subsequent responses to disease outbreaks. MacKay makes it clear in her deeply researched study that, contrary to popular belief and the assumptions of some historians, Spanish society did not collapse under the weight of catastrophe; that, even if they slowed, government structures did not grind to a halt; and that people coped in a variety of ways—some admirable and some disappointing—as they faced choices about how to deal with the plague and its economic fallout. She points out that assuming that things completely fell apart is unfair to the people she studies and to the structures and challenges that they faced.

MacKay’s timely study divides the pestilence into seven “sites”: palace, road, wall, market, street, town hall, and sickbed. These chapters are bookended by an introduction and a “postmortem.” The author conceptualizes each of the seven spaces as anchors that provide views of the quotidian amid the exceptional. She then focuses on how individuals made choices that show us “where they placed themselves in their community and how they measured themselves against their past.”1

In the first chapter, MacKay highlights the role of the monarchy in attempting to care for its subjects and run the government. Litigation and the desire for justice did not stop even during a pandemic. The plague’s spread through Castile coincided with the death of King Philip II and the ascension of Philip III to the throne. Both monarchs received many petitions for tax relief. Towns presented tax rolls, baptismal registers showing the decline of new births, and oral testimony about their faltering economies in the wake of slowing trade and the loss of lives and labor. Although they were often unsuccessful, some of these appeals brought relief to the inhabitants of towns and cities. Consequently, even as the peste dealt deadly consequences and the economy of Castile crashed, “it did not destroy” the belief  in “the machinery of justice and politics” that many subjects of the Spanish crown had. 2

The second and third sites, “Road” and “Wall,” demonstrate the continued mobility of people. Municipal governments and the monarchy still needed information, food, labor, and goods. Officials also sent individuals onto the roads as a consequence for criminal behaviors, including accepting letters from relatives in towns known to be infected with pestilence because authorities feared contaminated paper might spread disease. They exiled single women and students who came from diseased regions. Early on in the outbreak, religious shrines along roads became neutral zones where people met, exchanged news, and, in some cases, received medical help. For instance, the Santa Ana shrine between the towns of Revilla del Campo and Los Ausines became a place where people dropped off letters outlining their medical needs and the boticario (apothecary) dropped off medicine, instructions, and recipes. According to MacKay, during the plague, city walls became places where new markets sprang up, where people received medical treatment and religious rites, and where disputes over whether or not other towns were healthy or infected took place. Gates were also frequently open as inhabitants left to tend to their fields. The geography of daily life meant quarantines were flexible. This idea may resonate with our recent experiences during the early days of lockdown when workers deemed essential continued laboring. Like those going to the grocery store in some countries today, Castilian servants and fieldworkers had to carry paperwork with them during the plague. Some people violated the rules by cutting their own makeshift gates into city walls.

MacKay then takes readers into the towns and highlights the critical roles municipalities played in dealing with the outbreak of pestilence. Plague resulted in quarantines, and quarantines resulted in challenging short-term consequences, such as hunger, rising taxes, and efforts to evade the restrictions on business. MacKay looks closely at people’s decisions to flee from infected towns and contends that there were often not only good reasons for doing so but also “laws and customs backing them up.”3 While she finds plenty of records of clothing and linens burnt in bonfires, she finds few cases of criminality or deliberate attempts to spread sickness. What is striking to someone familiar with the pogroms that took place during some outbreaks of plague in the late medieval period is that “scapegoating is conspicuously absent” from this catastrophe.4 Large-scale spectacles of prayer were also absent from the typical Castilian responses to the plague of 15961601. Flagellating children and hysterical townspeople “were no longer common, if they occurred at all.”5 One Valencian friar even noted large gatherings should not be allowed as they always resulted in more people falling ill.6 One shortcoming of the book is that MacKay does not analyze why these elements were absent. Instead she focuses on how towns coped by looking to documents from past plagues for guidance.

This Libro de las enfermedades, or book of diseases, offered advice for doctors wishing to diagnose and cure illnesses in 17th-century Spain. (Public domain)

MacKay’s final chapter deals with the realities of treating plague patients before the advent of germ theory and antibiotics. Some towns did not have adequate supplies or staff. We might find parallels today in considering parts of rural America without hospitals or hospitals without a substantial number of ventilators. Sometimes Castilian towns hired physicians and surgeons but then failed to pay them, leading to lawsuits and complaints. MacKay also examines medical treatises and makes an argument that will be familiar to many historians who have examined these types of texts. They were written not so much in response to actual conditions but “rather to a tradition of scientific debate and competition.” Recipes, with their practical applications, were an exception.7 She closes the chapter with the names of a number of people in Pamplona whose sickbeds became their deathbeds. This reminded me of the New York Time’s poignant recitation of the names of those who had died of coronavirus.

Life in a Time of Pestilence is not a demographic study. MacKay decided early on in her research that she could not reach conclusions on rates of death and recovery across Castile. Although she discusses the economy tangentially, MacKay does not provide any quantitative analysis of the plague’s impact on the economy. Instead, her source base tends toward city council minutes, law suits, ledgers, correspondence, and medical treatises.

Oddly, for someone writing a book about pestilence, MacKay is neither particularly concerned with what the disease itself was nor with spending much time devoted to the historiographical and interdisciplinary debates about the plague. As she puts it, “I am not taking a firm stand on this question, as I honestly don’t care much what the exact disease was or was not, though bubonic plague seems the obvious choice.”8 Her decision parallels sixteenth-century debates about which disease was spreading through Castile and its degree of deadliness. Many physicians, such as those that advised the Council of Castile in April of 1599, did not believe the illness was actually the plague due to lower rates of mortality than they would have expected. But they still believed that there was a serious enough infection underway to warrant stationing guards in the city.9

Since the people studied in this book believed the disease passed from contact with infected individuals or certain objects, MacKay attempts to honor that. A major exception to her avoidance of the scholarly debates about the disease is her discussion of concerns about cloth. Here, she briefly references interdisciplinary work in microbiology, archaeology, and paleomicrobiology. She assesses potential vectors and hosts to establish that sixteenth-century people were making empirical observations and drawing evidence-based conclusions in their assumptions “that cloth could be contagious.”10

Fundamentally, MacKay’s book is about how common people endured. She writes in an engaging way that generally makes her methodological focus on everyday life and her choices as a historian clear. She acknowledges silences in her sources. The reader comes away with a deeper understanding of the consequences of this deadly outbreak on society and politics and of the ways people sought to respond to the disease. This book presents vivid examples of how people with knowledge of the past could use memory and history as tools for combatting a devastating disease in their present. Academic monographs about plague don’t usually provide comfort, but at times this one did. The individuals that MacKay studies “inhabited a space between memory and expectation, a space in which practices and reasoning continued to function and change in accordance with need and knowledge.”11


  1. Ruth MacKay, Life in a Time of Pestilence: The Great Castilian Plague of 1596-1601 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 11. Return to text.
  2. MacKay, Life in a Time of Pestilence, 48. Return to text.
  3. MacKay, 148. Return to text.
  4. MacKay, 196. Return to text.
  5. MacKay, 183. Return to text.
  6. MacKay, 181. Return to text.
  7. MacKay, 229. Return to text.
  8. MacKay, 5. Return to text.
  9. MacKay, 18-19. Return to text.
  10. MacKay, 112-114. Return to text.
  11. MacKay, 247. Return to text.

Featured image caption: “Retrato de un médico” (portrait of a doctor) by El Greco, 1585. (Courtesy Museo Del Prado)

Rachael “Ray” Ball is Associate Professor of Early Modern European and World History at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her book Treating the Public: Charitable Theater and Civic Health in the Early Modern Atlantic World came out last year, and she is currently at work on a book about patronage and news networks in Castile and Spanish Naples as well as a chapbook of poems that explore historiographical and hagiographical themes. Ray tweets @ProfessorBall.