Opinion Articles


Epidemics and society: plague in early modern Italy


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As the peak of the present epidemic of Covid-19 is passing in many countries, commentators and governments are beginning to reflect on the cost of the impact of the present plague on their citizens. With lockdowns having led to the closure of shops and businesses, the inevitable result has been growth in unemployment, leading those on low incomes to face challenges to survive from day-to-day. Governments at central and local levels have sought to mitigate some of these effects, but what has also been striking have been the spontaneous acts of generosity as communities and neighbours have sought to respond to the very real needs in their areas. In what follows I will explore some of these themes during an even more serious epidemic, plague, in early modern Italy, where in some places 50 per cent of the resident population was wiped out within a year.

Traditionally historians have tended to emphasize the ambivalence of policies towards the poor in renaissance and early modern Italy, typified by the phrase ‘la pietà e la forca’, ‘pity and the gallows’. This ambivalence was exacerbated in periods of crisis caused by epidemic disease, with poorer members of society being increasingly marginalised and even blamed for the spread of disease. On falling sick, they were quarantined, with many being taken to the vast isolation facilities, known as Lazaretti, outside the city walls. While only some states went as far as instituting a total lock-down, or quarantined whole quarters, the vast majority instituted curfews and adopted social distancing to prevent contact between the sick and their family and neighbours. The problems of poverty were made much worse by food shortages and unemployment, as shops and occupations were closed down, with some being banned, such as the important trade in second-hand clothes, which were feared to harbour corrupt air, believed to be the transmitter and cause of plague.

While not denying that the tenor of legislation during epidemics reinforced intolerance towards the poor, recent studies on early modern Italy have begun to mitigate that picture, stressing instead a more compassionate view, whether in the interpretation and enforcement of the law against those breaking plague regulations or in the treatment of the sick in isolation facilities. All this challenged societies to provide support to the most vulnerable to prevent starvation, and in particular for those quarantined at home. When on 20 January 1631 the health board of Florence imposed a forty-day lockdown of the city, over 30,000 people were provided with free food and drink each day, including two loaves of bread and half a litre of wine, and regular portions of meat, rice and cheese, with fresh salad on Fridays. The economic implications of these policies for the state were considerable, as was the financial impact of plague on the wider society, as is becoming clearer every day as the shorter and longer-term economic effects of Covid-19 are assessed.

Historians also now understand more about the reactions of the poor themselves during these crises. Court cases can tell us much about their motivation in breaking plague regulations. Some, it is true, were arrested for stealing from locked up houses, but many were driven to disobey decrees from very understandable reasons. These included fear of sudden death, being carried away to vast isolation hospitals full of the sick and dying, the frustration at being locked up alone, and the desire to escape the confines of crowded housing and return to their everyday lives, a sensation which has been all too familiar to many during the present epidemic. People were also arrested for interpreting the decrees of the health board too loosely. Those who were shut up for forty days during the total lockdown of Florence in early spring 1631 were given permission to stand on their balconies, terraces and even roofs to take the air, and also to participate from a distance in the celebration of Mass at portable altars set up in the streets. However, some took advantage of these regulations and clambered along roofs to visit friends and were discovered having parties and playing music together to while away the time. This may sound innocent enough, except that lockdown, as practised until recently in many countries of the world, was designed to keep people apart.

Regulations imposed during epidemics may sound draconian and raise the whole question of civil liberties, but another important element to take into consideration is how far the law was enforced and with what degree of severity. There is no straightforward answer for early modern Italy, which was made up of a whole series of independent states, with local variations in government and judicial systems. In Milan and Rome, for example, more punitive measures were adopted during the seventeenth-century plague outbreaks, leading to executions, while in Bologna and Florence the law was enforced in a much milder fashion with many being let off with small fines.

While acknowledging the increased discrimination against the poor in early modern Europe, recent studies have also sought to emphasize the other side of the coin. We are now beginning to understand better the motivation of the poor as they sought to survive through personal interactions at the local level and through the informal networks of support among family, friends and neighbours. Greater emphasis has also been placed on the charitable motivation of those who operated during these crises. The bravery and dedication of National Health staff in the UK was mirrored in early modern Italy in the actions of those who coped with those worse afflicted by the epidemic, whether in terms of health or finance. Heart-rending stories are recorded of the medical, nursing and spiritual staff, who laboured tirelessly to look after the sick and dying in the vast over-crowded wards of the Lazaretti in many of the major cities of Italy. Beyond quarantine centres, there was a wide range of officials, who undertook surveys of the poor, recording their compassion for squalid living conditions, as well as members and employees of voluntary brotherhoods, such as the Archconfraternity of the Misericordia in Florence, who transported the sick and dead during the plague, and still run the ambulance service in the city.

‘Pity and the gallows’ may seem an apt epithet to describe the tenor of poor relief and government policies during periods of epidemic crisis in early modern Italy, but more recent studies have modified this stark contrast. Greater agency is now ascribed to the poorer levels of society and greater compassion to those providing help to the disadvantaged, reflecting the strong traditions of voluntary charities. More generally, as we drill down into those historical records, such as trials and petitions, which reflect the words and motivation of those at those arrested, a clearer picture emerges of the importance of informal charity in the past between neighbours. This is also reflected in one of the most remarkable features of the present epidemic, the spontaneous support provided by members of the public to the poor and vulnerable in their local communities.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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