Writing the Black Death: Jewish Responses to Italy’s Plague Years

Joshua Teplitsky on Susan Einbinder’s Writing Plague

As the COVID-19 pandemic seems both behind us and still present as a threat and a collective trauma, Susan Einbinder’s Writing Plague: Jewish Responses to the Great Italian Plague could not have come at a better time. Exploring the acts of writing as response to epidemic catastrophe, the book offers a valuable lens onto cultural, religious, and liturgical encounters with epidemic catastrophe by the people who survived and sought to reckon with plagues past. This is the second of Einbinder’s contributions to studies of premodern plague, following upon her 2018 After the Black Death (University of Pennsylvania Press). Whereas that study explored the impact of the initial, catastrophic, and surprising outbreak of bubonic plague in the fourteenth century, this study breaks new ground, moving into the Italian peninsula in the seventeenth century, an age in which plague, however horrific, was no longer an agent of shock or utter confusion. In moving from the medieval to the early modern, Einbinder grapples with new questions shaped not only by different environmental understandings but by different sensibilities of selfhood and suffering in the Jewish cultures of Renaissance Italy.

Einbinder brings the force of her sensitive reading as a scholar of literature to bear on a variety of different writings from the Great Italian Plague of 1630-31. “Genre—whether Jewish or Christian—matters,” Einbinder tells us on the very first page of her study (and again as she wraps up her discussion of the accounts at the end of chapter three (p. 102)), and the result is a book that aims to plumb the ways in which the choices of genres convey different messages, meanings, and modes of response. Investigating genre is the organizing principle of the book, with each chapter addressing a different kind of plague writing, exploring acts of composition and the implications of these different forms. 

Through such emphasis on genre, Einbinder sets for herself the task of exploring how writers taking up the pen during and after epidemics did so as an act of self-depiction and self-fashioning. This intervention is particularly pronounced in the book’s first three chapters, where the author explores different genres produced by a circle of men of a relatively similar profile of education, class, and communal standing. All of the authors she treats are at once the narrators of historical episodes and the subjects of the events the texts recount, and Einbinder attends both to the acts and their narrative representation to explore early modern personas in the making. She frames her analysis around explorations of how the individual authors understood themselves in the midst of this crisis, and how they wished others to see them at that.

Susan Einbinder. Writing Plague: Jewish Responses to the Great Italian Plague. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023. pp. 272, $54.95 (hardcover).

Einbinder identifies a tension between the personal and the collective, the public and private, as a core constitutive element of the plague texts before her, and as a phenomenon that call for careful historicization and interpretation. For each act of writing, genre at once shaped the ways in which such actors and authors represented themselves, in turn providing a vehicle for revealing their own self-understandings, which emerge from the choices they make of which values they emphasize in telling their tales. The dichotomy between the personal and the collective appears even more starkly in the foundational acknowledgement about texts that purports to represent an act of collective suffering; the events affect the collective, but are experienced by each individual in their own subjectivity. 

The book’s first chapter treats the medium of poetry, focusing on the writing of Joseph Concio, the son of a rabbinic scholar and banker, and the owner of a small printing press who made a living composing epitaphs. Opening the study with poetry rather than chronicles is a structural choice designed by Einbinder to unsettle modern readers’ privileging of historical narrative as the primary means of experiencing a crisis like an epidemic. The genre of narrative is the focal point of the second chapter, which focuses on the plague chronicles of Abraham Catalano (the author’s self-described “favorite”) and Abraham Massarini. Both men who helmed their local communities of Padua and Mantua, respectively, and left behind impressively detailed, and deeply heart-wrenching, Hebrew and Italian accounts of their communities in crisis and the roles they played to attempt to salve the collective catastrophe. A third chapter explores a hybrid mode of interpolated poetry—an irruption of the poetic genre into the course a narrative—interpreting its function in the structure and meaning of these texts. 

In the latter half of the book, Einbinder pivots away from texts written by individuals in their historical moments of action and into liturgical and ritual aspects of plague response, an essential but much understudied set of writings about and for coping with plague. In chapter four, rather than a deep reading into the literary dimensions of the texts, Einbinder lays out multiple contexts for understanding how and why a particular theme served the collective needs of Italy’s Jews in the seventeenth century. The theme in question is a selection of biblical rabbinic texts outlining the recipes and rituals of the incense offering in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Einbinder unpacks the range of associations with this prayer that was at once ubiquitous in plague times, but not expressly plague related in its direct content. Prayer books, pamphlets, even owner’s inscriptions in rare books from the period betray a consensus around the prophylactic power of this prayer during moments of plague. Einbinder traces the development of these motifs from the biblical narratives that offered early modern readers an association between incense and plague protection and into the particularities of Renaissance Italian Jewish scientific writing, mystical contemplation, and inter-religious competition. There she tantalizingly suggests that incense texts served a role for Jews as surrogates and symbiotes for the herbs of apothecaries and the incense burning in churches, a ritual space Jews were aware of but, naturally, not participants within.

Chapter five (“Plague from the Pulpit”) is perhaps the most ingenious of them all. In this chapter Einbinder uses laconic outlines of sermons delivered during and after the plague (now held in the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America), and reconstructs entire sermons out of the mere fragments the texts preserve. Using half-sentences and unattributed quotations in the original sources, Einbinder proposes imaginative and compelling reconstructions of the meaning and messages of the sermons when pictured in their performative entirety. She achieves this by identifying intertexts and suggesting thematic linkages through plausible reconstructions of their authors’ reading diets, offering bold but ultimately convincing theories about the issues, anxieties, and criticisms the sermons were designed to address and deliver to the preacher’s audiences. This chapter rewards close reading, both to appreciate the range of historical issues on the minds of preachers (and their intended audiences), but also for the technique of the scholar at work. A final chapter explores the reception of the images of the public figures treated in the earlier narratives, studying the postmortem eulogies that lamented their eventual passing, using the same method of remarkable reconstruction employed in the case of plague sermons.

With its close readings and reconstructions that are at once imaginative and provocatively tempting, the book operates as a master class in literary sensitivity and literary interpretation in historical context (a master class this reader is appreciative of). The final product is a book is written with a sensibility that is informed by sophisticated self-consciousness, drawn from insights from the social sciences but in a manner of the author’s own originality. Einbinder muses on the very mechanisms and media through which we come to grips with epidemic events, pushing back against the absolute claims of narrative in favor of a panoply of ways of writing, thinking, and experiencing plague. In Einbinder’s hands and through her eyes, the texts come to life with empathy and in their fullness, opening up windows into the collective and personal experiences of plague, and onto plague as an occasion to understand the very values that made up a selection of early modern selves.  

Joshua Teplitsky is the Joseph Meyerhoff Associate Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies the history of Jewish life in early modern Central Europe, with an eye both to the particularities of Jewish experience and the wider contexts of Jewish-Christian interaction, minority experience, and what the history of minorities reveals about majority culture. His first book, Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History’s Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library (Yale, 2019), explored the history of an early eighteenth-century Jewish book collector, with an eye to the history of material texts, the history of collecting, and the cultures of learning and power in which his library was formed. The book was awarded the Salo Baron Prize of the American Academy for Jewish Research for best first book in Jewish Studies in 2019, the 2020 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award of the Association for Jewish Studies, and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.