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Quarantine rule breakers in 17th-century Italy partied all night – and some clergy condemned the feasting
17th-century outbreaks of plague in Italy reveal both tensions between religious and public health authorities.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts between religious freedom and public health regulations have been playing out in courts around the world.
Churches from California to Maine have flouted public health orders by convening in person, indoors, unmasked and accompanied by choirs. When an underground church in South Korea seeded one of the country's largest outbreaks in February, the government responded by arresting its leader for obstructing contact tracers and violating public health regulations.
I am a historian of science and religion in the Renaissance, and what strikes me as remarkable about the current moment is not that some religious communities are defying public health measures, but that so many religious institutions and individuals are piously working to implement them.
Historical accounts from 17th-century outbreaks of plague in Italy reveal both tensions between religious and public health authorities and also examples for collaboration.
Sites of conflict
In the summer of 1630, a plague epidemic packed the plague hospitals known as "lazaretti" with over 15,000 people in Milan. Smaller towns also faced outbreaks that taxed their community resources.
In the Tuscan town of Prato, public health officials were beginning to doubt the wisdom of treating plague patients at the "lazaretto" located within the city walls. They feared a risk of further infection if the healthy were in such close proximity to the sick.
The city officials needed to identify an alternative location that was far enough to keep the city safe, but close enough that they could conveniently move the sick patients. They determined that the Convent of St. Anne, located a couple of kilometers outside town, should serve as the lazaretto and requisitioned it.
The seizure of church property by the nominally secular powers of the Tuscan grand duke infuriated the friars of St. Anne. They petitioned Grand Duke Ferdinando II de' Medici to overturn the act, but he ignored their objections.
This was not because the grand duke was persecuting Catholics – he ruled a Catholic state, and two of his brothers became cardinals. However, during this outbreak of plague, it appeared that the grand duke deemed such emergency measures to be a necessity.
Limits to jurisdiction
However, the grand duke's jurisdiction did have limits. In late-Renaissance cities, civil authorities could punish citizens for public health infractions, but they did not have direct authority over the clergy.
When a priest in Florence broke quarantine by staying out late at night drinking and playing guitar with family members, the health board punished his sisters but not him.
To discipline priests who broke public health laws, civil authorities had to petition local church officials, like bishops, to intervene. For example, as the plague spread in the Tuscan city of Pistoia in September 1630, public health officers resolved to broach with the archbishop the possibility of emptying the fonts of holy water in case they were spreading disease.
Although no records confirm the outcome, throughout this epidemic the archbishop of Florence repeatedly reinforced the importance of the policies of secular health commissioners.
State and religious officials alike were concerned about plague spreading through air, water and wine and curtailed traditional activities to minimize contagion.
Case of Father Dragoni
Much like today, when civil authorities canceled religious services and ceremonies, local protests ensued.
During the plague outbreak of 1631 in the small Tuscan town of Monte Lupo, a fight broke out between the guards tasked with preventing gatherings and a group of armed civilians from the surrounding countryside and their parish priest.
The worshipers insisted on congregating to pray at the crucifix in the local church and threatened to shoot with an arquebus – a long gun used during the Renaissance period – anyone who got in their way.
The health officer tasked with managing the delicate situation at Monte Lupo was a 60-year-old Dominican friar, Father Giovanni Dragoni, who was both a public health officer and a member of the clergy.
Father Dragoni was stated to be furious with the parish priest for his disregard for the public health measures. He promptly dispatched a message to the regional health commissioner: "It is necessary to take measures against these agitators of the people. The evidence is serious, and … the reverend parish priest is largely responsible for these uprisings."
Father Dragoni was unable to prevent the parish priest and congregants from gathering and feasting. He found himself further burdened the next morning with sorting out the events that had followed the procession, when prayer and feasts had turned into late-night drunken parties of revelers who tore down part of the wooden stockade that had been erected to enforce the quarantine.
When the plague outbreak finally ended and the town reopened, Father Dragoni offered the following report on his own actions: "I have not acted unjustly and have accompanied severity with compassion and charity. … In more than a year that I have held this office, no one has died without sacrament or confession."
In a period that has been characterized by faith's opposition to science, Father Dragoni demonstrated through his actions that carrying out public health measures and God's sacraments went hand in hand.
Then and now
Four centuries later, there are similar examples of religious resistance to public health measures and striking examples of religious collaboration with public health regulations.
Although there are instances of church leaders rallying congregants against public health measures, there are far more examples of people and institutions who, like Father Dragoni, bring together religious devotion and disease control.
When the coronavirus swept into Italy in February, the patriarch of Venice – the bishop – promptly complied with the government's edict to cancel Masses, eagerly doing his part to stem the epidemic. And in the Italian churches around Turin that remained open for private prayer, the cisterns of holy water were promptly emptied.
To be clear, there is a long history of religious resistance to public health measures during disease outbreaks. But cooperation between church and state in attempting to stem the spread of disease has its precedents too.
- Mass hysteria and COVID-19: when pandemics cause hysteria - Big ... ›
- Why did the bubonic plague spare Milan and Poland - Big Think ›
Welcome to the world's newest motorsport: manned multicopter races that exceed speeds of 100 mph.
- Airspeeder is a company that aims to put on high-speed races featuring electric flying vehicles.
- The so-called Speeders are able to fly at speeds of up to 120 mph.
- The motorsport aims to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector, which could usher in the age of air taxis.
Airspeeder, the world's newest motorsport, is set to debut its first race in 2021.
What can you expect to see? Something like a mix between Red Bull's air racing and the pod-racing scenes from "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" — manned electric cars flying close together in the desert at 120 mph, nose-diving off cliffs, and racing over lakes, all while hopefully avoiding collisions.
Airspeeder calls its vehicles flying electric cars, but it's probably easier to think of the wheelless multicopters as car-sized drones. Powered by electric batteries, the carbon-fiber craft use eight propellers to fly, and the tiltable motors are designed to allow pilots to navigate through the course's pylons at high speeds.
To prevent crashes, Airspeeder is working with the companies Acronis and Teknov8 to develop "high-speed collision avoidance" systems for its Speeders.
"As they compete, Speeders will utilise cutting-edge LiDAR and Machine Vision technology to ensure close but safe racing, with defined and digitally governed no-fly areas surrounding spectators and officials," Airspeeder wrote in a blog post.
Beyond motorsports, Airspeeder hopes to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector. This sector is where companies like Uber, Hyundai, and Airbus are working to develop air taxis, which could someday take the ridesharing industry into the skies. By 2040, the autonomous urban aircraft industry could be worth $1.5 trillion, according to a 2019 report from Morgan Stanley.
Still, many technical and regulatory hurdles remain. Matt Pearson, Airspeeder's founder and CEO, thinks the futuristic motorsport will help to not only speed up that process, but also pave the way for self-driving cars.
"Even with autonomous vehicles on the ground, it's a difficult thing to get right because computers have to make decisions very fast," Airspeeder's founder and CEO, Matt Pearson, told GQ." But in a racing environment, you have a pretty controlled course and you have the ability to make all the vehicles cooperate with each other. You have a whole load of vehicles talking to each other, so if there's an incident or a pilot slows down or there's a traffic jam on the course they're all aware of each other. This is something we think will revolutionise autonomous vehicles on the ground. It's technology that will make flying cars a reality in our cities in the future."
Airspeeder has yet to announce a date for the first race, but Pearson said he hopes to put on three races over the first season. The company is developing two courses: one in California's Mojave Desert, and one near Coober Pedy in South Australia.
The way you speak might reveal a lot about you, such as your willingness to engage in casual sex.
- A new study finds a deeper voice is associated with self-reported extraversion, dominance, and casual sex.
- It was the first study on the topic to objectively measure voice pitch.
- The authors suggest that hormones like testosterone might explain their findings.
We make snap decisions about other people based on information that we can gather quickly. One of the many ways that we do this is by making bold conclusions about other people's personalities based on their voices alone. Various studies demonstrate that people associate a deep voice with dominance, but those with higher pitched voices are perceived as nervous or neurotic. Popular culture seems to agree with and reinforce these stereotypes.
Are these perceptions accurate? Maybe. A new study by an international team of researchers with the goal of more accurately determining what our voices reveal about us has demonstrated that there is some connection between how we sound and who we think we are.
The voice-personality connection
Lead author Dr. Julia Stern of the University of Göttingen explained:
"Even if we just hear someone's voice without any visual clues — for instance on the phone — we know pretty soon whether we're talking to a man, a woman, a child, or an older person. We can pick up on whether the person sounds interested, friendly, sad, nervous, or whether they have an attractive voice. We also start to make assumptions about trust and dominance. The first step was to investigate whether voices are, indeed, related to people's personality."
The study included data from 2,000 people from four countries involved in eleven previous independent studies focused on other questions. Each of these studies involved some kind of self-reporting of personality traits and vocal recordings. The recordings were analyzed with Praat, software that determined the frequencies of the participants' speaking voices.
The study is the largest ever conducted on the topic and the first to use an objective measure of pitch rather than subjective rankings such as "high pitched" or "deep." Each participant's vocal pitch was then compared to the self-reported personality data they provided.
The findings associated self-reported levels of dominant tendencies, extroversion, and increased interest in and acceptance of sociosexuality (casual sex or sex outside of a relationship) with a lower pitched voice. This was true for men and women of any age. The findings were in line with the previous, less robust studies on the subject.
Other stereotypes, like if a higher pitched voice hints at neuroticism, openness to new experiences, or agreeableness, were impossible to determine with the data at hand.
Voice isn't everything
It should be remembered that the personality traits that this study associates with vocal pitch are self-reported, so there are some serious limitations. For instance, it is entirely possible that vocal pitch is associated with thinking you're extroverted when you actually aren't. Furthermore, all four countries in the study are WEIRD, so the findings probably cannot be universalized.
Additionally, there are plenty of examples of people for whom the voice-personality link doesn't apply. For example, Teddy Roosevelt, an extremely extroverted, dominating man, had a fairly high pitched voice.
The authors do speculate that there could be a connection between testosterone levels in men, their vocal pitch, and their perceived level of dominance that would be supported by previous studies. However, they have no hypothesis explaining why that same relationship exists for women.
The authors suggest that further studies in this area could focus on finding a possible physical connection between these traits and vocal pitch and to determine if they hold for traits which are not self-reported.
Who needs steroids when you have the placebo effect?
- A study suggests that the effectiveness of sports drinks may depend in part on their color.
- Runners who rinsed with a pink liquid ran better than those who consumed the same but colorless drink.
- Improvement in their performance is likely due to a placebo effect.
The "placebo effect" is real. It's the name for a strange phenomenon that most notably occurs during clinical trials. People who are given an inactive substance, like a sugar pill, often experience the same therapeutic benefit as those who are given actual medicine. It's not their imagination — it really happens. (Even better, recent research suggests that therapeutic benefits occur even when the person knows that they were given a placebo.)
Now, a new study from the University of Westminster (UOW) Centre for Nutraceuticals in London and published in Frontiers in Nutrition suggests that the placebo effect may explain yet another phenomenon: Athletic performance.
The research showed that treadmill runners who rinsed their mouths with a pink liquid increased their performance over runners who swished with exactly the same liquid but without the coloring. Why pink? The color is generally linked to sweetness, and the researchers wondered if that association would subconsciously trick the runners into an expectation of more carbohydrates and thus energy.
Author Sanjoy Deb explains:
"The influence of color on athletic performance has received interest previously, from its effect on a sportsperson's kit to its impact on testosterone and muscular power. Similarly, the role of color in gastronomy has received widespread interest, with research published on how visual cues or color can affect subsequent flavor perception when eating and drinking."
Running for science
Credit: Ryan De Hamer / Unsplash
For the study, the researchers recruited ten healthy adults — six men, four women. All were regular exercisers, with an average age of 30. The participants were told that they would be testing the relative benefits of two commercial sports drinks after watching a brief video explaining the value of such beverages. Previous research found that mid-exercise rinsing with such drinks can reduce the perceived intensity of exercise.
The drinks consisted of 0.12 grams of sucralose dissolved in 500 mL of plain water — an artificially sweetened rinse low in calories. The liquids contained no other additives common to sports drinks such as caffeine. The pink version had non-caloric coloring added but was otherwise identical.
After a 12-minute warmup phase of jogging followed by running, the athletes ran at a difficult pace for 30 minutes, rinsing with their drinks as they ran. Following a brief cool-down, they were interviewed to capture their impressions of the exercise session. (Each runner tested both drinks.)
The researchers found that when the volunteers used the pink rinse, they ran an average of 212 meters farther and 4.4 percent faster. They also enjoyed the exercise more.
Deb said, "The findings from our study combine the art of gastronomy with performance nutrition, as adding a pink colorant to an artificially sweetened solution not only enhanced the perception of sweetness, but also enhanced feelings of pleasure, self-selected running speed, and distance covered during a run."
The researchers also plan to dig deeper into the phenomenon by investigating the possibility that the pinkness of the beverage is somehow directly activating the brain's reward areas.