Early Modern Times – plague removal

Early Modern Times - plague removal

Dear readers,

This 99th issue of Early Modern Times seeks to contextualise the current global pandemic: how did Europeans respond to the multiple plagues besetting them from the 14th-century Black Death (which killed some hundred million people across Eurasia) to the frequent outbreaks of bubonic plague all the way to the 18th century? Paul Slack’s 1988 article ‘Responses to Plague in Early Modern Europe: The Implications of Public Health‘ provides some fascinating points of comparison and contrast to the current responses to the coronavirus outbreak. Slack (who’s no slacker) argues that early modern towns’ measures to deal with plague shaped these later responses in many ways.

Bubonic plague caused deaths of 30 to 60% of the population in towns and cities such as Venice, Genoa, Milan, Padua, London, Marseilles, and Moscow throughout the 14th to 18th centuries. Urban centres could be plagued with the plague over and over: London, for example, suffered seventeen outbreaks between 1500 and the ‘Great Plague’ of 1665. Shakespeare’s ‘sceptered isle’ (Richard II 2.1) must have felt more like a ‘sceptered ill’. Given the lack of knowledge at the time about transmission and the unpredictability of some (though not all) of the timing and direction of outbreaks, early modern Europeans bemoaned that they could not be victors over the vectors of disease.

In Christian Europe, the appearance of plague was attributed to heresy, atheism, swearing, drunkenness, and even such heinous phenomena as ‘new-fangled women’s fashions’. The latter caused a great deal of diss-dress. But early modern Europeans recognised that divine wrath worked through natural causes: the most popular of these was bad air, or ‘miasma’, which was thought to descend upon infected towns and persons who could carry it from place to place. Researchers at Early Modern Times’s Department of Philosophical Plague Removal have uncovered an unpublished manuscript by G.W. Leibniz which unsuccessfully attempted to calculate (using binary numbers) the movement of diseased air, which he called ‘Miasmathematics’. But while the idea of miasma had the virtue of naturalistic explanation, as did attribution of disease to the imbalance of Galenic humours, vulnerability to plague was also thought to arise from sinful excess. To misquote the Gospel of Matthew, he who is lust shall be first–to succumb to illness.

Individuals responded to plague by flight from infected towns, though it’s hard to flee fleas. They would strive to protect themselves and their families, unresponsive to the needs of neighbours and servants, though there are cases of those who risked their lives to care for others outside their immediate circles. Public authorities, particularly town and city administrators, adopted wider measures. Infected and thus isolated towns could be supplied with food, while also being cordoned off, as in the case of plague-stricken Marseilles in 1720. In France, rich gourmet food could be combined with access prevention, with lines constituted of cheese-stuffed baked chicken: cordon bleu. Furthermore, ships from infected areas were often prohibited altogether. Finally, as with the current pandemic, mass gatherings were forbidden and infected persons were removed or sealed off in houses or hospitals, often for forty days (the original meaning of ‘quarantine’, based on the period of Jesus’s fast in the wilderness). Scepticism of quarantining could receive the response, ‘better Lent than never’.

Such public health measures were met with resistance, however. Quarantining was sometimes defied, with the infected wandering through the streets, much to the shock of a famous London diarist living through the Great Plague who could not believe the behaviour of his Pepys. Townspeople would also occasionally defy the prohibitions on public gatherings, especially where drinking was involved, perhaps in the mistaken belief that immunity could be acquired through booze-ter shots. Priests and ministers could be especially rebellious, proclaiming that infection was God’s punishment and could not be prevented: a dangerous, even fatal ‘clergic reaction’. Defiance might also arise from charitable motives, and respect for the dignity of the dead, despite the danger of handling infected corpses: these were ‘touching’ examples. Relatedly, others would protest that these measures ended up stigmatising the poor as vulnerable to infection. In other words, public health responses were a form of social control which reflected the upper classes’ dis-ease with their social inferiors.

Please take care and stay safe.

’til next time,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Pox Populi Studies Program

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