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Life in a Time of Pestilence
The Great Castilian Plague of 1596–1601


  • Date Published: August 2019
  • availability: In stock
  • format: Hardback
  • isbn: 9781108498203

£ 34.99

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About the Authors
  • From the Middle Ages onwards, deadly epidemics swept through portions of Spain repeatedly, but the Castilian Plague at the end of the sixteenth century was especially terrible. In late 1596, a ship carrying the plague docked in Santander, and over the next five years the disease killed some 500,000 people in Castile, around 10 percent of the population. Plague is traditionally understood to have triggered chaos and madness. By contrast, Ruth Mackay focuses on the sites of everyday life, exploring how beliefs, practices, laws, and relationships endured even under the onslaught of disease. She takes an original and holistic approach to understanding the impact of plague, and explores how the epidemic was understood and managed by everyday people. Offering a fresh perspective on the social, political, and economic history of Spain, this original and engaging book demonstrates how, even in the midst of chaos, life carried on.

    • Offers a fresh perspective on the social, political, and economic history of early modern Spain
    • Resists characterising the period as one of death and destruction, instead focusing on how the people of Castile carried on living, even in the midst of chaos
    • Engagingly written and full of surprises, vividly combining social, legal, and political history
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'Mackay revisits the most deadly early modern Spanish epidemic to challenge the time-worn cliché of the utter collapse of political and social order. This is extensive archival research - and well-honed critical thinking - at its best.' James Amelang, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

    'MacKay's account stands out for the originality of its approach. Through innumerable examples, she tells the story of a society that does not passively succumb to the approach of disease but looks for ways to halt its onward march and deal with its consequences. In doing so she brings us poignantly close both to the victims and the survivors.' John Elliott, University of Oxford

    'Plague studies are legion, but this is in a class by itself. Beautifully written and deeply- researched, this engaging study breathes life into one of those moments in history otherwise associated with suffering, stagnation and death.' Richard L. Kagan, The John Hopkins University

    'MacKay excavates the extraordinary experience of epidemic disease to lay bare the values and concepts that structured the lives of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spaniards. Deeply researched, elegantly argued, this book brings to life the everyday political culture of early modern Spain.' A. Katie Stirling-Harris, University of California, Davis

    'This is a truly astonishing book, a work of immense scholarship … This is a book about the indestructibility of the human spirit, the primeval urge to live, to hang on to life. But above all else, it is one of the best histories available of the towns and villages of northern Spain at the end of the sixteenth century, their people, their structures, their day-to-day existence, made possible by hours and hours of working in local archives. We can only be grateful that there are still some historians who have not given up on archival work.' Trevor J. Dadson, Hispanic Research Journal

    '… Ruth MacKay's Life in a Time of Pestilence … is a well-researched, engaging, and enlightening book.' Kathryn Wolford, H-Net Reviews

    'In this extraordinary book, Ruth MacKay masterfully explores the topic of plague in Castile at the end of the 16th and start of the 17th century through a deep and thoughtful contextualization that leads to valuable insights to advance our understanding of plague and the broader historical period in which the epidemic surfaced and played out. In this book MacKay has sought to find the ordinary in the extraordinary and, along the way, she has uncovered the ways in which both were embedded in the very fabric of society in law, custom, memory, and the common good.' Dean Phillip Bell, English Historical Review

    'MacKay's beautifully written account of the Castilian pestilence shows us the utual business of plague. Stories of individual lives, often cut short, make the plague a very human experience here. MacKay's admirable work in many Spanish archives gives us a thick view of the continuation of life, as the bodies piled up at the turn of the seventeenth century.' Colin Rose, Renaissance Quarterly

    'If I had to put a label on this book, which I imagine the author would not want, I would say this is a magnificent study of social and cultural history, and at the same time of microhistory … Or, for a more neutral term, it is a magnificant study of early modern history.' Mauro Hernández, Historia Moderna (UNED)

    'This book is a fundamental contribution to our knowledge of one of the most important epidemics in early modern Spain and Europe. It is a fascinating and brilliantly written book that hews closely to the documents the author consulted in many archives, and relies upon an exhaustive number of secondary sources concerning the Castilian, or Atlantic plague at the end of the 16th century. It is a necessary, original, and unique book in terms of its structure. There are many local and regional monographs about the Second Pandemic, but few, if any, that embrace so deeply an entire country or territory as vast as the Crown of Castile.' Vicente Pérez Moreda, Economic History Research

    'In her eloquent and deeply researched study of the plague that ravaged Castile for five years at the end of the sixteenth century, which may have killed half a million people, MacKay provides a fine-grained detailed depiction of how Castile's inhabitants responded to the plague through a close reading and analysis of dozens of archival collections and the rich contextual knowledge that she has acquired through her previous work on early modern Spain.' Justin Stearns, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

    '… this is a well-researched, engaging, and enlightening book.' Kathryn Wolford, H-Environment

    'MacKay's book will be of interest for the windows it opens into the texture of everyday life and the mechanisms of power relations that underpinned the world of Golden Age Theater.' Claire Gilbert, Bulletin of the Comediantes

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    Product details

    • Date Published: August 2019
    • format: Hardback
    • isbn: 9781108498203
    • length: 288 pages
    • dimensions: 235 x 159 x 19 mm
    • weight: 0.6kg
    • contains: 5 b/w illus. 3 maps
    • availability: In stock
  • Table of Contents

    Introduction, 1. Site 1: palace
    2. Site 2: road
    3. Site 3: wall
    4. Site 4: market
    5. Site 5: street
    6. Site 6: town hall
    7. Site 7: sickbed

  • Author

    Ruth MacKay
    Ruth MacKay has worked as a university lecturer, newspaper editor, writer, translator, and interpreter, having been awarded fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Fulbright Commission, amongst others. She is the author of The Limits of Royal Authority: Resistance and Obedience in Seventeenth-Century Castile (Cambridge, 1999), 'Lazy Improvident People': Myth and Reality in the Writing of Spanish History (2006) and The Baker Who Pretended to be King of Portugal (2012).

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