1st Edition

Sudden Death: Medicine and Religion in Eighteenth-Century Rome

By Maria Pia Donato Copyright 2014

    In 1705-1706, during the War of the Spanish Succession and two years after a devastating earthquake, an ’epidemic’ of mysterious sudden deaths terrorized Rome. In early modern society, a sudden death was perceived as a mala mors because it threatened the victim’s salvation by hindering repentance and last confession. Special masses were celebrated to implore God’s clemency and Pope Clement XI ordered his personal physician, Giovanni Maria Lancisi, to perform a series of dissections in the university anatomical theatre in order to discover the 'true causes' of the deadly events. It was the first investigation of this kind ever to take place for a condition which was not contagious. The book that Lancisi published on this topic, De subitaneis mortibus (’On Sudden Deaths’, 1707), is one of the earliest modern scientific investigations of death; it was not only an accomplished example of mechanical philosophy as applied to the life sciences in eighteenth-century Europe, but also heralded a new pathological anatomy (traditionally associated with Giambattista Morgagni). Moreover, Lancisi’s tract and the whole affair of the sudden deaths in Rome marked a significant break in the traditional attitude towards dying, introducing a more active approach that would later develop into the practice of resuscitation medicine. Sudden Death explores how a new scientific interpretation of death and a new attitude towards dying first came into being, breaking free from the Hippocratic tradition, which regarded death as the obvious limit of physician’s capacity, and leading the way to a belief in the 'conquest of death' by medicine which remains in force to this day.

    Introduction. Part I Sudden Death and the Physician’s Role in Society: Fears; The medico-legal enquiry on sudden death, or: the truth of the body and the public role of physicians; From the dead to the living: medicine and public health in the early 18th century. Part II Sudden Death in Medical Theory and Practice: A new stance on death: the mechanical medicine of Lancisi’s De subitaneis mortibus (1707); The pathological gaze: the problematic status of post-mortem evidence in early 18th-century medicine. Part III The Lost and the Saved: Sudden Death as an Ethical and Religious Issue: Death and the doctors: scientific queries and ethical dilemmas; In the hour of death; Looking for a heavenly protector: Saint Andrew Avellino, the ‘apoplectic saint’. Epilogue: was there ever a sudden death ‘epidemic’ in Rome?; Index.


    Maria Pia Donato is an associate professor of Early Modern History at the University of Cagliari, Italy, and chargé de recherche at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Institut d’Histoire moderne et contemporaine of Paris, France. She is the author of Accademie romane. Una storia sociale, 1671-1824 (Naples 2000) and numerous essays on the political, social and cultural life of modern Rome, the history of medicine, and the history of science.

    Praise for the Italian edition: '... beautifully written and impeccably structured, with clearly stated research questions and a helpful bibliography of key works, this in-depth study is an intellectual delight.' Alexandra Bamji, Bulletin of the History of Medicine '...an excellent work that combines medical, social, and political history to examine the meaning of illness in early modern culture.' Anita Guerrini, The American Historical Review