Copyright The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica. [Published by the Malta Historical Society]. 9(1985)2(185)

[p.185] Reviews 1985

J. MICALLEF, The Plague of 1676: 11,300 deaths. Malta, 1984, pp.128.

This slim book is more significant than its 128 pages would suggest. It has entailed prolonged research in largely untapped sources. These include dossiers of the Inquisition and of the Bishop's Curia at the Cathedral Museum (Mdina), wills of the Notarial Archives, Parish Registers and Records of the Order of St. John at the National Library - all of which contain valuable though scattered material for our social history.

The author has written straight history in a highly readable form avoiding conjecture and speculation and never going beyond the facts as revealed by first hand documentary evidence. The names of the sick, of the officials and of the medical personnel mentioned in the text become individualised as human characters compelling our attention and winning our sympathy as their story of suffering and dismay unfolds over the period of eight months covered by the duration of the epidemic.

The book opens with the conflicting medical opinions regarding the nature of the disease and describes the precautions taken by the public health authorities when they became convinced that they were dealing with plague; the spread of the disease from Valletta to Attard and other areas; and the people's reactions to the fear of catching the illness and of enforced isolation at the Lazzaretto. Other sections deal with the impotence of physicians and surgeons in controlling the onslaught of the plague in their ignorance of its cause and of the means of its transmission; the vows made by religious individuals and organised bodies of divine deliverance from the malady; the wills of the dying; and the disruption of the economic life of the island following the cessation of the epidemic.

The book should be read in conjunction with the account of the same epidemic given in Chapter 18 of the reviewer's Medical History of Malta to obtain a holistic picture of the epidemic in all its facets; in fact the narrative in the reviewer's book exposes the medical facts of the disease while Micallef's monograph describes the individual and collective behaviour of the people under the duress of illness on a massive scale.

One notices two omissions in this otherwise scholarly and competent work. First, the absence of a final chapter to present a synthesis of the various features of the epidemic. Fortunately this gap is bridged over, to a certain extent, by the masterly Foreword from the pens of Mario Buhagiar and Joseph F. Grima who touch on the principal facts of the pestilence and who, very aptly, point out that the author views his subject mainly as a social historian. In fact, in the reviewer's opinion, it would be more in keeping with the contents of the book if in the event of a second edition or reprint the title is changed to Social Aspects of the Plague of 1676. The other omission is the lack of indices of the subjects and of the names of persons and places mentioned in the text. Apart from these last remarks the book is a welcome addition to plague literature and is warmly recommended to all those who are interested in the impact of disease on human behaviour.

Paul Cassar