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William G. Naphy. Plagues, Poisons and Potions: Plague-Spreading Conspiracies in the Western Alps ca. 1530-1640.

Ed. Paolo L. Rossi. (Social and Cultural Values in Early Modern Europe.) Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press/St. Martin's Press, 2002. xiv + 242 pp. index. append, tbls. map. bibl. $74.95 (cl), $29.95 (pbk). ISBN: 0-7190-4640-8 (cl), 0-7190-4641-6 (pbk).

This thoroughly documented study is a valuable addition to the growing library of works on plague and its effects in the early modern period. It also raises interesting questions about the social history of witchcraft and, incidentally, about the history of criminal judicial processes. It may provide some insight into how urban populations respond when terrorized by the threat of biological contamination and murderous plots. It is an especially useful and detailed look at some of the cases touched on by E. William Monter's Witchcraft in France and Switzerland (1976).

Naphy extensively mined the Registres du Conseil and criminal trial records in the Genevan State Archives for details of episodes and subsequent trials of engraisseurs, most notably in 1530, 1545, and 1570-71. Investigators in the final period at Geneva tended to conflate a charge of witchcraft with that of plague-spreading, but the dual charge is rarer before that time. It is noteworthy that in the earlier periods, investigations and trials were more likely to end in execution while in mid-1571, at the peak of the trials studied here, many accused were banished ("not proven" verdicts) despite the extensive use of torture to elicit evidence.

Despite the more extensive geographical and chronological promise of the book's title, three periods of Genevan history occupy most of the author's attention (although there are suggestive forays to other times and places, along with an extensive bibliography). The rich details are fascinating: who the plague-workers were, what they were hired to do, and how it was that many of them came to be charged with spreading plague by smearing revolting greases or poisonous powders, almost always in hope of material gain, usually in concert with others, and, occasionally, with overtones of supernatural assistance. We are left with the impression that, as Monter also suggested, Geneva was "exceptional," for the wealth of its surviving documentation, for its particular sociological and political features, and, probably, its Calvinism.

Although it is tempting to seek stereotypical patterns, Naphy finds that activities judged "diabolical" may or may not involve excursions to Sabbats, and that "greasing" may or may not involve pacts with the Devil, human conspiracies, or, for that matter, plague. He considers connecting witchcraft and conspiratorial plague-spreading, but ultimately rejects the conflation as too simplistic. We are left wondering why in Geneva in 1571 (as in Lausanne and Neuchatel) investigators were inclined to connect greasing and plague with witchcraft, while "natural" explanations for "grease" and/or plague sufficed in Lyon, Milan (even in 1630), and Geneva itself in the earlier period. It is interesting that some officials disinclined to find witchcraft in the Genevan engraisseur cases from 1545 found it in 1571. Naphy surmises that it took some time for "witchcraft" to be generally accepted as an explanation for such evil acts as plague-spreading but notes that such urban "diabolical" activities did not necessarily involve the stereotypical "paraphernalia" of witchcraft.

What is particularly refreshing and instructive in this fine book is the recurrence of pecuniary motives alleged by the prosecutors, admitted by the accused, and underlined by our author: plague-workers (cleaners, fumigators, removers of corpses, barber-surgeons, grave-diggers, etc.) stood to benefit by plague. Plague-workers tended to be desperately poor, and it is entirely plausible that they acted in concert to spread plague. The Genevan records are replete with details of the recruitment and remuneration of these personnel, who became suspects when plague arrived and spread. Male ringleaders figured prominently in the early cases. In 1571 the crime of greasing was understood as better explained by witchcraft, and most of the accused were women from rural hamlets, not urban plague-workers.

Naphy provides a detailed portrait of protagonists in recurring traumatic episodes of plague and conspiracy, as painted in the records of Genevan councils and tribunals. This study should encourage more research into urban responses to the "witch-craze" and engraisseurs. With more deep reading of trial records in other localities, more answers are certain to emerge.


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Author:McNeil, David O.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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