Golden rats and sick empires
Portraying medicine, poverty, and the bubonic plague in La Peste
in Diagnosing history
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With a ten-million-euro budget and 400 extras on set, La Peste (The Plague) – a ten-episode TV show produced by Spanish communication conglomerate Movistar and aired in January 2018 – became not only the most ambitious production in Spanish television history but also an overnight sensation among viewers and critics. This chapter examines how La Peste combines historical accuracy and fiction to portray the role of medicine, health agents, and population around a late sixteenth-century epidemic outbreak. Its release coincided with the centennial of the Spanish flu that killed twenty to fifty million people around the globe. In placing the epidemic at the core of the narrative, the show unveils the multiple yet contradictory ways people from various social groups and backgrounds reacted to the pandemic: either to save their own lives, procure a cure for others, or to take advantage of the crisis.

The chapter highlights what makes La Peste a relevant case to study. As part of its marketing campaign, the production team deliberately sought to trespass the screen and insert the narrative into people’s daily lives. This team designed in advance of the TV series an interactive website with digital resources on the history of medicine and historical sites. Furthermore, in the days prior to the launch, several golden rats appeared in the streets of Seville to announce the show. While some viewers expressed their discomfort with the crude scenes depicting poor living conditions, others engaged with the campaign. As a result of this, La Peste constitutes a fascinating example of the possibilities offered by TV shows as vehicles for disseminating historical medical knowledge to a vast audience.

Diagnosing history

Medicine in television period drama

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