4. Plague (II): Responses and Measures

4. Plague (II): Responses and Measures


Prof: 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
clich�–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. 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.
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. 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. 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.

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