HIST 234: Epidemics in Western Society Since 1600

Lecture 4

 - Plague (II): Responses and Measures


Community responses to the bubonic plague ranged from the flight of a privileged few to widespread panic and the persecution of foreigners and other stigmatized social groups. The suspicion of willful human agency in spreading the disease, identified with the work of poisoners, was a major source of anxiety. Mass religious revivals also accompanied the pandemic, with the emergence of new cults of saints and public forms of repentance. Official attempts to contain the second pandemic resulted in the first full-scale public health program, the plague regulations instituted by the Italian city-states, regulations that included military quarantines, compulsory burial, and imprisonment of the infected. It is unclear to what extent these measures, while representative of impressive technical and administrative advances, actually contributed to defeating the epidemic.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Epidemics in Western Society Since 1600

HIST 234 - Lecture 4 - Plague (II): Responses and Measures

Chapter 1. Responses to the Plague and Miasmatism [00:00:00]

Professor Frank Snowden: Last time, as you’ll remember, we talked about a general overview of the three pandemics, as well as the impact of the plague bacterium — which we have here, Yersinia pestis, the star of our show — on the individual human body. This morning I’d like to talk about community responses to bubonic plague, first in terms of unorganized, spontaneous responses. And then I’d like to look at something really decisive, which was organized community responses; that is, the first form of successful public health ever devised, and the first victory over a human disease, over bubonic plague. So, that’s where we’re headed this morning.

And just so you’ll remember, plague is not a disease entirely of the past. The third pandemic reached these shores, and I wanted to remind you that plague is still with us. These are the areas in the United States where plague, at the present day, is endemic among wild rodents, and it causes every year a small trickle of cases of bubonic plague, usually in the southwest of the United States. Well, in terms of community responses, probably the first and most spontaneous of all was flight. Panic and fear of sudden death led people to depart in haste. As Defoe makes clear, those who were the first to flee were people of means, and those often included the authorities, and physicians themselves, and clergymen, thereby increasing disruption and chaos, and magnifying the sense of terror.

I imagine you could — for an equivalent, if you were to wake up tomorrow morning and hear that there was something terrible on the medical front happening in New Haven, and that DeStefano and Rick Levin had taken the last train out, I can imagine some of the responses that you might have. In any case, let’s remember the atmosphere in a city visited by the plague. Last time you heard a description of Florence in 1348, provided by Boccaccio, and you’re now reading about Defoe and London in 1665. So, let me give you a different and also dramatic example. And that was Naples in 1656.

Naples, one of the largest cities in Europe, especially vulnerable because of its urban poverty and overcrowding, and its status as one of Europe’s great port cities. It had, in 1656, the year of this terrible visitation, a population of 500,000 — an enormous city by seventeenth century standards — and 300,000 people died no less in this visitation. Every activity in Naples ceased at the time. There was general unemployment and universal hunger. The living — as in the cliché — weren’t sufficiently numerous to bury the dead, and I mean that literally. Cadavers were left, not only in doors, but in all public places. In the end, some 60,000 bodies were burned in pyres, and 20,000 more were unceremoniously dumped into the sea.

Imagine a great city, then, with the intolerable stench of decomposition, with dogs, vultures and ravens picking at cadavers, and a total breakdown of law and order in every public service. Imagine too the flight of people, the sense that the end of the world was at hand. And indeed one of the popular images of the plague in art was a black figure on horseback, one of the dread horsemen of the Apocalypse who had come on this final day of reckoning. So, it was from places like this that everyone who could took to the roads, often with the fear in their hearts that God and his anger were in hot pursuit.

So, the first spontaneous reaction was to escape. But remember what we said about humoralism, Hippocrates and Galen. And if you’ll remember then, looking back, medical theory at the time sanctioned this particular reaction, or led to it logically. Because epidemics and humoral theory, as you now know, were caused by an imbalance in the humors, triggered by a poisoned air, one of the “six unnaturals,” a miasma. In other words, the disease was tied to the air around a given locality, and so it made perfect good sense, by the medical theory that people had inherited, that they should escape the locale and therefore the poisonous miasma.

The response of populations was mediated by the ideas that people had in their heads, by the ways an epidemic was understood, or — in a fashionable modern phrase — how it was socially constructed. Now, orthodoxy was spawned in particular with an idea of what’s called miasmatism; that is to say there was a miasma, which is derived from the Greek word for corrupted or defiled. A miasma was a corruption, a defilement or poisoning of the air. Poisonous atoms, emitted by rotting organic matter of infected people and the objects they had touched, were released, became an effluvia in the air, which was poisoned thereby. And once the air had been made poisonous, it could be absorbed by anyone in a locality — through the pores in the skin, perhaps, or by being inhaled. So, the body would then be poisoned like the air.

And, so, the search in the city was for a corrupting agent. What did people who had this idea, this medical philosophy of bubonic plague — where would their suspicious alight? Well, first they would fall on foul odors; and these were plentiful in an early modern city. There was the night soil that people hurled from their windows and doors, the offal that butchers swept into the streets. There were the products, the noxious products, of stinking trades, like metal or leatherworking, or the retting of hemp and so on. This meant that the logical consequence would be urban cleanups. And, so, authorities ordered cleanups. They collected refuse, closed down certain workshops and trades, cleansed the streets, halted work in abattoirs, and ordered the prompt burial of cadavers.

Furthermore, in Christian Europe water had a symbolic, if we like, ritual cleansing attached to it. It was a purifying quality because of its role in baptism, where it cleansed the soul. So, throughout Europe, cities ordered their streets cleansed with water in times of plague. They did more though than just cleanse the streets. They tried also to cleanse the air directly. There were bonfires that were set, especially with aromatic wood like pine, or with sulfur. And there was the firing of cannon, with the idea that this too would purify the air. Those were authorities who took those measures.

Chapter 2. Individual Measures of Self-Protection and Scape-Goating [00:09:05]

There were also ideas of individual self-protection. And since the cause of the plague was this horrible poisoned air around you, it was a good idea to have a little vial of aromatic spices around your neck, or it might be vinegar; and tobacco had a certain popularity, as people smoked their way to health in the seventeenth century. It was also wise to shut up windows and doors, if you were indoors, to prevent the poison from entering your home. The garments of people who were infected also fell under suspicion, because the miasmatic poison was held to cling to them, just as you know in your own experience that the scent of tobacco or perfume can cling to a dress, a sweater, a shirt.

Well, for this reason, people also tried to protect themselves with special plague costumes. You can see you’d be very handsome dressed like that. And the idea was that the costume would be waxed, because that would prevent anything from adhering to it. In this case they weren’t thinking about fleas, they were thinking about the atoms of the corrupted, defiled atmosphere. And you’ll note that there’s a prominent feature; is the beak here. And it’s not because it’s a bird. The idea was that in the beak you would fill it with herbs that were spicy and would protect you that way.

And you’ll notice that the person is carrying a rod. That’s not for instructive purposes. That’s to keep people away, at a safe distance from you. So, what better way than to be a bit like a verger? Or let me show you another example. And here you might have your own brazier of coal that’s burning, and you might have sulfur or something else that would scent the atmosphere around you. And always, of course, you would have your stick to keep people at a good safe distance to you.

You also took other precautions. You would approach a plague victim, if you suspected that you were encountering one, upwind, and it was said that plague victims could be approached if you stayed upwind and kept your distance. But for those who approached downwind, illness was likely, and the outcome would depend on a body’s susceptibility, on its organic disposition, that would determine the balance of the four bodily humors. If the balance was precarious, any small influence that disturbed the equilibrium could be fatal, such as fear, a dissolute lifestyle, a sudden chill.

But this idea of cleansing, in early modern Europe, could also have more sinister and ritualistic possibilities. And these were derived from ancient popular ideas of magic, of God’s anger and punishment for sin. In other words, the contamination, it was thought by many people, could have moral causes, which had stirred the divine wrath. So, a vigilant community might well try to identify and cast out those who were morally responsible for the calamity. Sin could be the abuse of food and drink; excessive sleep and idleness; immoderate, unnatural or sinful sex; or blasphemous religious practices and beliefs.

Let me show you this rather terrifying slide by Jules Elie Delauney, of 1869, which is called “The Plague of Rome.” And it refers to the Rome plague in the seventeenth century, a major epidemic. And what we see here is the Angel of God pointing out to the avenging angel the home of a sinner, and the plague is about to destroy the sinners inside. This is the idea that people had in their heads. So, with that idea, who might be inside? Well, suspicion fell on prostitutes, for example, and they were rounded up in many places and expelled from towns, and brothels were closed. It might fall also on infidels, religious dissenters, Jews and gypsies. There might be attacks on foreigners and outsiders, witches and lepers who were already suspected of being grievous sinners. Or for people who had the view that predestination could be seen by your outward success in life, whether you were the elect or not, was visible by your worldly wealth, then beggars, by their poverty and misfortunes, were seen as having already received a first installment of the punishment they deserved for their secret sins.

So, towns throughout Europe closed themselves to outsiders, and inside the towns undesirables might be rounded up and expelled. Or worse still, in some places there were stonings, lynchings, burnings at the stake; full-scale pogroms, or what we might today call ethnic cleansing. The poisoning hysteria reinforced this idea, and there was often an hysteria that the poisoning and the atmosphere was not a natural event but a crime. And there were anointers called “untori,” or poisoners, who were out to destroy people. This was a diabolical plot, and so a hunt was often on to find the culprits.

Let me give two famous and notorious examples, a first and early one at Strasbourg in the fourteenth century, where rumor had it — you’ll remember in the fourteenth century, the Jews were cast out of the Iberian Peninsula, and the panicked fear was that they were carrying out a plot as vengeance to destroy Christian Europe by poisoning the wells of Christendom. So, crowds at Strasbourg rounded up 8,000 Jews, took them to the Jewish cemetery and burned them alive. Or let me tell you another example from Milan in 1630, and not really a more cheerful one at all, although on a smaller scale. And it’s told in one of the — two actually — of the great works by the inventor of the Italian novel, and one of the great European novelists of the nineteenth century, Alexander Manzoni. The novel is called The Betrothed. And he also wrote a historical work called The Column of Infamy — that is to say, Milan.

Here’s a picture of the event I want to tell you about, as described by Manzoni, acting as a historian. The city of Milan in 1630 was at war with Spain, and to their misfortune, four hapless Spaniards were found in the city, just as plague was breaking out, and they were accused of starting it by spreading poisonous ointment on the doors of the houses of the city. Under torture, they confessed to the crime and were convicted of high treason, and then sentenced to have their hands cut off, to be broken on the wheel, and then burned at the stake. So, at the site of their execution — and hence the term — we have this, which is the Column of Infamy.

You can see the prisoners being brought, and you can see they’re being broken on the wheel, and all the rest of it in the picture. And you can also see that there was erected — here’s the chief criminal, Jacob Mora. And on the site in Milan, after the plague, a plaque was posted — the column was meant to deter anyone else from ever doing something so diabolical — and this plaque was placed in Latin saying what had happened and what the punishment had been, and warning people to commemorate this event; that no house should ever be built on this site. And this is the inscription on the plaque. So, those were reactions.

Chapter 3. Religiosity [00:18:52]

Another reaction was one of mass repentance to propitiate an angry divinity. And to do that, how did you go about it? One way was by outdoor processions, confessing your sins, repenting, and urging your neighbors and everyone else you encountered to do the same. There were religious revivals. The plague years were marked in particular by a new cult of saints, the ones held to be most willing to intercede on behalf of humanity and to divert the divine anger. There was a great cult of the Virgin Mary. There was a cult of Saint Christopher. But in particular, of two new saints who had an extraordinary vogue during the plague year. The first was Saint Sebastian, and the other was Saint Rocco or Saint Roch.

Here is Saint Sebastian. And if you think of the iconography, you’ll remember that when we talked in the first lecture about Homer, we saw that Apollo took arrows to shoot the plague, to destroy the Greeks. And so there has been a constant idea symbolically of arrows as symbols of the plague, and Saint Sebastian is someone who was willing to give his life to save his fellows, by absorbing the arrows into his own flesh. He was martyred by the arrows, and this was said to be his way of defending humanity. So, there was a great vogue in this era of Saint Sebastian, who was invoked to help human beings to avoid the plague.

Another was Saint Rocco. Now, who was he? He was an aristocrat from Montpellier, and according to legend he gave his riches away to the poor, and set off on a pilgrimage to Italy, where he had the great misfortune of arriving — and you know it was a misfortune — in 1348, at the onset of the Black Death. He, however, fell ill, but survived. And then he stayed to tend to the ill, only eventually to return to France where he faced arrest and finally died in prison. Like Saint Sebastian, he was a man who was held to be willing to sacrifice his body, his wealth and his life, to save the people of God.

So, images of these saints — and we’ll look at this next time when we look at the artistic representations, the legacy of bubonic plague on the arts — images of these saints, in particular, proliferated in this period — at the entrances to houses, in people’s bedrooms, in public squares — as a protection against the plague. And there was a vogue in these saints’ names that parents gave their children. Another way to propitiate — I said professions. Well, one of the mysterious movements of the plague years, in the early time of the third pandemic, was a mass movement known as the flagellants. Here the adherents vowed to devote themselves for a month to mass pilgrimage and repentance. They carried the cross. They prayed. They listened to preachers, and they underwent public whipping and indeed self-flagellation, in order to satisfy God’s anger. And when you come to look at the film by Ingmar Bergman, The Seventh Seal, one of the depictions in that, one of the scenes that will be most interesting to you, is the capturing on film of this procession of the flagellants. You see them praying and beating themselves, and each other, with whips.

We will see next time too that this affected the iconography of European Art, from the fourteenth century through the seventeenth. There is a theme we’ll see next time of the dance of death, the so-called danse macabre, of people being rounded up by the grim reaper. There are also what are called vanitas symbols, which are symbols in art of how life is very insecure; that it’s brief and can end very unpredictably. Now, these weren’t a school of painting, or an artistic style, they were the iconography. They were themes that painters depicted. And it may also be that portraying the disease in this way was a kind of exorcism of the mysterious scourge, and this was a powerful reminder of the transience of all things.

There were also popular superstitions in these days. From astrology, there was the belief that certain metals or precious stones — rubies and diamonds — had protective properties against the plague, as did certain magical numbers. And it won’t surprise you that one of the great numbers that you could conjure with was the number four. You know the drill: four elements, four temperaments, four evangelists, four humors, four winds, four seasons, and so on. So, the number four was very powerful and protective. Another aspect of plague, of course, was that there were people who profited from it, profiteering.

The great cities in grip of plague were lands of opportunity, for rogues of every sort. The epidemics of disease brought, in their train, outbreaks of crime and swindling. Thieves plundered the homes of those who had fled — remember, those who had fled were usually the wealthy — and charlatans peddled every variety of magical remedies, while astrologers sold comfort and advice. Healers charged astounding sums for practicing their dangerous arts. Those were forms of spontaneous reaction to plague.

Chapter 4. Organized Public Health Measures [00:25:51]

What I’d like to do next is to talk instead about something very different, that I promised, which is organized response by authorities. And this is the first form of organized public health, that eventually leads, by the late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries, to the first victory of human beings over a major infectious disease. So, let’s look at what those public health measures were. Well, empirical observation in time of plague gave rise not only to spontaneous reactions that we’ve described but also to a new idea that began to spread alongside medical orthodoxy — a new idea, the idea of contagion. That somehow the plague spread in an unspecified manner from person to person. This idea was largely rejected for centuries by learned official medicine, which clung to the older idea of miasmatism of Galen and his system. But it became an important idea in popular culture, and in the thinking of certain medical heretics. It was fully developed by Fracastoro — whom we’ve mentioned before — of Padua in Italy, in the sixteenth century; but also by the German Jesuit Kircher in the seventeenth century.

The theory was that of a so-called contagium vivum, which consisted of animalcules of some sort. Public policy was — to deal with plague — was first devised in the northern Italian city-states, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries — places like Florence, Venice, Milan and Genoa — and then were adapted elsewhere, in France and Spain and Northern Europe. What was involved, as I say, was momentous; the world’s first system of public health. And it turned out to be an organizational idea of genius. The embryo of the system was established during the Black Death, and then became increasingly sophisticated and comprehensive through the middle of the sixteenth and seventeenth and then the eighteenth centuries. But the Achilles heel, early on, was that the system was narrowly municipal or local in scope. A quantum leap was made that turned to make it more effective in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the idea was taken up by early modern states that devoted the military power of the state to the effort.

You’ll note the operation of magistrates, and their power in London, as you’re reading Defoe, in the seventeenth century. So, the early vision combined, by this time, with the necessary power over a sufficiently large area to make success possible. Now, an interesting aspect of the situation is this: the authorities took action, although there was no medical understanding of — or at least nothing that we would regard retrospectively as an efficacious understanding of the disease they were facing. They acted more or less in the dark, and in the process took measures that were sometimes extreme and heavy-handed; that often wasted resources and were sometimes actually counterproductive. But in the end, the path they pioneered led to the first victory over a major human disease.

So, let’s look at the policies. What were they? First of all was a new institution. Originally, that is, they were called health magistrates. We now know them as boards of health. And these magistrates, or boards of health as they came to be known later and are still known, were endowed with extraordinary powers during emergencies that gave them — they combined in their hands a plentitude of legislative, judicial and executive authority in matters that related to public health. By the late sixteenth century, cities in the vanguard of the movement even had permanent health magistrates, and their example was followed across Europe. That was one thing, a new authority then.

A second plague measure was compulsory burial. And there were so many dead in a major epidemic that you wanted to dispose of them quickly before they poisoned the atmosphere, and you couldn’t bury them individually, and so they were cast into common pits, plague pits. And this was followed by the destruction by fire of their personal effects, and the banning of funerals and funeral processions, a banning of the laying out and the wake. And this problem of burial was an important issue in every outbreak of plague. Priests and gravediggers were decimated, and there weren’t enough people left then to dispose of the dead in normal ways. And it must be remembered that this generated terror in itself; the presence of large numbers of unburied cadavers, in a city where the indignity of disposal of hurling newly dead people into improvised pits heightened the horror of the disease.

Another feature of the plague measures was the control of movement — the control of the movement of people from plague-infested regions by quarantine, and squads of soldiers turning people away from city gates and opening fire on those who tried to cross the line. Another feature of these times was the isolation of the infected, in pest houses, known across Europe as lazarettos. Or alternatively, as you know from Defoe, people were simply shut up, together with their families in their own homes, and forbidden to open the door, while guards enforced the rule and were stationed outside. Most fearful of all was a measure called “general quarantine”, in which everyone in an infected neighborhood was sealed inside his or her home for forty days, with watchmen outside to arrest or even kill those who tried to escape.

Let me show you a slide — well, this is actually not the one I had in mind — this is Marseilles in 1720 to 1722, during the time of the plague. And if you looked carefully, you could see many of the events that we’ve been describing taking place in the foreground. But instead of that, I’d rather concentrate on this, because this has to do with your reading in Daniel Defoe. This is London in 1656, that you now know and love. And you can see here the bonfires, an attempt to purify the air. You can see these are watchmen stationed outside to prevent people leaving their houses. And you can see the homes that are shut up and sealed, with people inside, are marked, that these are the homes of plague victims.

So, those were important, those regulations. Then there were lazarettos, the pest houses. And these shouldn’t be confused with modern hospitals. They weren’t places of cure but rather barrack-like places of horror and death, where inmates died en masse; where people were locked up, not so much to be cured, but to spare the city of the danger of inhaling deadly vapors from their contaminated bodies. The pest house was really the antechamber to eternity. And the word lazaretto comes from a biblical reference to Lazarus, who was raised from the dead.

In any case, let me show you a slide of a lazaretto. This is a picture from the nineteenth century by Gros of “Napoleon in the Pest House of Jaffa.” And this is a picture by Tintoretto, of whom we’ll see much more next time. This is Saint Rocco — remember I promised you Saint Rocco, who stayed behind, who visited Italy in time of plague, and fell ill himself, revived and stayed behind to tend the dead or dying. And here we see him in the lazaretto, which is pretty much a place of dread and horror. And people were conveyed there — and this was important too — by carters.

And the carters also inspired fear. People were forcibly gathered up and hurled into their mournful heaving conveyances. And these were dreaded almost as much as the disease itself. This fear often was due to the fact that these petty officials risked their lives as an investment through extortion. Healthy men and women could be threatened. The ill could be blackmailed, so they could be left to die at peace in their homes. Burglars could be sold information on empty houses. And often they were drunk, as they consumed spirits to fortify their courage.

Another part of the plague regulations was the control of markets and provisions, to guarantee the supply of food to an afflicted locality, so that people wouldn’t die of famine, as well as disease. The health magistrates, or boards of health, had also the power to close brothels and arrest prostitutes. As I’ve said, they often attempted to purify the corrupted atmosphere with bonfires and with sulfur and gunpowder. Well, taken together, all of these plague measures were draconian, and when first applied they probably increased fear and chaos, promoted flight by people desperate not to be locked in a dying city or carted away to a pest house. And this may have assisted the spread of plague itself.

Chapter 5. Did the Public Health Measures Succeed? [00:37:25]

Anti-plague regulations were causes of suffering, and they often met in various parts of Europe with fierce opposition and caused civil disturbance and social tensions. They involved the infinite horror of the pest house; the separation of family members; the burning of precious possessions; the prohibition of processions and gatherings; the prohibition of movement; the closing of markets; the denial of funeral observances. So, from Moscow to London, all across Europe, the passage of plague was marked by demographic disaster, by social tensions and economic disruption. Great cities took on the appearance of ghost towns. And these scenes were repeated for centuries after 1347, with outbreaks here and there every generation, and great European-wide pandemics several times a century.

As you know, the normal pattern was that the plague laid waste to a locality for months, and then the disease ebbed and faded away, as mysteriously as it began. And this too left a legacy. For the faithful, the final departure of the plague was a sign that God had been appeased, and was a testimony to the wisdom of their repentance, and perhaps to their decision to hunt out the guilty in their midst. And let me remind you that this still is marked in the landscape of urban Europe. And I’d like to show you an example. And this will be the Castel Sant’Angelo, right here, one of the most common tourist sites of memory in modern Rome today. That’s a general view.

Let’s close in a little more closely. And here we can see as we’re approaching the Castel Sant’Angelo — I want you to see — I’ll have a next picture where we’ll look at the top. And this then is one of the major landmarks in a major European city today. And what is it? It’s due to plague. At the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo is the archangel Gabriel, and what he’s doing is sheathing his sword, as a sign the divine wrath had been appeased, that God had relented and that the scourge of the population of Rome was no more. For a modern epidemiologist, the thinking might be quite different; that a vital link in the great chain of infection had been broken, in the chain of transmission; perhaps that the infected population of black rats had been destroyed; that all of the susceptible members of the human population had already perished; that the onset of winter and cold weather had reduced the activity of fleas.

In any case, the point I want to make was that eventually the plague measures and regulations were, or at least seemed to be, effective, especially after the seventeenth century with the increased military power of an early modern state that deployed standing armies and naval forces to apply the policy rigorously and over a substantial territory. Venice provided perhaps the first important example; that was soon imitated in country after country, until Western Europe was medically isolated by quarantines, lazarettos and sanitary cordons.

Let me talk a little more in detail about the Venetian idea of public health. It was that — and Venice was a great port, as you know — that the ports of Europe could be protected by isolation from an invasion by sea. To achieve this objective, the authorities constructed a great fortress on the outlying islands, to which all arriving ships from the Eastern Mediterranean were directed. There they were impounded for six weeks, while they were scrubbed and fumigated. Crews and passengers were disembarked at these fortresses and quarantined for forty days. And the cargo and passengers’ effects were unloaded, turned in the sun, fumigated and aired. And only at the end of forty days were goods shipped and passengers released to enter the city at will. The theory was that by strict quarantine any pestilential vapors would be given time to disperse. And so the city might be spared.

Well, let’s look at a couple of lazarettos. This is at a port called La Spezia. And the point I’m trying to make is that these were very complicated and authoritarian institutions. They’re fortresses no less. This is at Naples, the island of Nisida. Or at Marseilles, this is the great lazaretto on Pharo Island. This was simple in principle. It was a maritime quarantine. But to be effective, it presupposed state power. A lazaretto was a fortress for thousands of passengers and crew; had to be policed, provisioned and isolated from all contacts with the city. It required a strong naval presence too, to compel unwilling and possibly terrified sea captains to anchor within these waters, and to prevent attempts at evasion or escape.

Within the lazaretto, there were detailed, complex regulations to ensure that hundreds, sometimes thousands of passengers, in different stages of quarantine, would be isolated not only from the city but also from each other, and that the items of the ship’s crew would all be properly fumigated and exposed to the sun. The idea of quarantine was an empirical result of long experience, and its establishment, to be successful, presupposed the bureaucratic naval and administrative resources of the early modern state. Well looking back with modern understanding, you would probably conclude that the medical theory underlying the Venetian system of quarantine was flawed by modern standards. There were no pestilential miasmas, and many of the rituals of purification were to no effect. But the idea of lengthy and military-enforced isolation was highly effective in practice. Forty days exceeded the incubation period of the disease, and so were sufficient to guarantee that a person then released was medically harmless. At the same time, the period of quarantine was long enough to ensure the death of infected fleas, and of the bacterium itself.

So, an inaccurate theory produced sound administrative procedures. The Venetian lazaretto, backed by the Venetian fleet, demonstrated that it could, in practice, protect the city from disaster. And within a generation, other Mediterranean powers imitated the experiment, building lazarettos: Naples, Genoa, Valencia, Marseilles, Corfu. And all ships from the East were compelled to dock at them. By the end of the seventeenth century, the port cities of Europe were no longer so menaced by sea. The disease continued to be imported, but was contained with just two major failures. In 1720, bubonic plague spread from the lazaretto to the city of Marseilles, killing 60,000 people. And then in 1743, the last burst of epidemic plague in Europe, at Messina in Sicily.

Meanwhile, there was the overland threat, and this was seen to by the Hapsburg Empire which, in the course of the eighteenth century, initiated and perfected a great permanent cordon sanitaire of soldiers, stretching across the length of the Balkan Peninsula. The Austrian cordon was ten to twenty miles wide during threat of plague, and 1,200 miles long. It consisted of a great permanent line of soldiers and sentry posts, stationed to prevent people from passing. So, one of the great armies of Europe assumed the task of isolating Western Europe, from the east, just as the lazarettos and the ports isolated it by sea. Thousands of soldiers, 12,000 during times of epidemics, were stationed to do that.

And it was the case then, by the eighteenth century, bubonic plague, the scourge of five centuries, was entirely eliminated, and didn’t return to Western Europe. Let me look at — this is a slide of a — it could be anywhere, it happens to be the city of Bari. And you can see the cordon of soldiers surrounding the city and protecting it from bubonic plague. And it might be said as well that occasionally the pope reinforced the physical sanitary cordon with a spiritual one; that is, threatening anyone who crossed the line with excommunication.

Well, this was the world’s first victory in the conquest of disease. The greatest epidemic disease in European history had been eliminated, not by the advance of medicine or scientific knowledge, but by the deployment of the military and bureaucratic power of the state. Or certainly so it seemed, though we might wonder if other perhaps imponderable factors were also at work. The replacement of our friend the black rat, who you now know and love, that was very sociable and liked to live close to human beings, by the brown rat, that was shy and retiring and kept its distance. Or there were improved standards of sanitation and hygiene. Or people talked about the impact — perhaps it was climatic change that was decisive. And people point to the Little Ice Age, which began in the sixteenth century and reached minima of temperatures about 1650, and again in the 1770s, and then gave way to warming in the nineteenth century.

And we see this in works of art, in Dutch painting. The seventeenth century gave rise to a great vogue of winter scenes that you don’t really see in the modern Netherlands, when the canals froze in the seventeenth century and people were able to skate on them. And there were many other examples of winter scenes of painting. This was how cold it was in the seventeenth century. Indeed, it swept all of Europe. The River Thames froze in London. The Baltic froze, so that one could travel by sled from Poland to Sweden. And these weren’t good conditions for Yersinia pestis, and the fleas that were its vectors. But we’ve run out of time. But at least we’ve contained the plague. And next time we’ll look at its impact on European culture and thought.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]