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Trauma and Transmutation in Spain: A Study of Municipal Reactions to Outbreaks of Plague in Sixteenth Century Avila


This dissertation examines municipal responses to a sequence of outbreaks of plague in sixteenth century Avila. News of the coming of an epidemic triggered a series of emergency public health measures, disrupted the normal patterns of daily life, and prompted residents to seek metaphysical forms of protection. Such preparations for and reactions to natural disasters were never uniform; rather, local authorities and residents handled and coped with the catastrophe in different ways from one epidemic to the next. The evidence in this dissertation demonstrates that the strategies used to limit mortality rates transmuted based upon evolving renaissance medical theories, restructuring of professional medical licensing program in the 1580s, and abnormal weather patterns. Similarly, contemporaneous European-wide Catholic religious reform efforts influenced the rearticulation of the signs and symbols of autochthonous spiritual traditions used to cope with the looming threat of death in Avila. While broader early modern medical and religious changes swayed local responses to disasters, it was plague, as an external agent of historical change, that set these transformations in motion.

To date, no major study has examined the municipal and cultural reactions to a sequence of small-scale disasters in central Spain. This dearth in the literature can partially be attributed to the fact that for decades historians have gravitated towards analyzing the causes and consequences of larger catastrophic disasters such as the Black Death of the fourteenth century, which wiped out around half of Europe’s population. This study differs from such works because it pays careful attention to the smaller recurrent episodes of plague that continued to reappear throughout Europe in a series of unpredictable waves throughout the early modern period. Rather than focusing the analysis on one large, cataclysmic event to understand cultural and social change, this dissertation analyzes a sequence of epidemics, and through such an analysis, a new type of local history, one which focuses on the transformative power of epidemics, can be written.

Using minutes from the council of Avila, records from the cathedral chapter, early modern medical treatises, and chronicles from sixteenth century Avila, this dissertation uncovers how and in what ways political, public health, and local spiritual traditions discourses transmuted with each epidemic.

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