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Epidemics and ‘essential work’ in early modern Europe


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The Covid-19 pandemic may force upon us all some fresh thinking on just what constitutes ‘essential work.’ To the traditional list of essential public services workers, we must now consider adding food retail and pharmacy staff, and workers involved in delivery. For those fortunate enough to have jobs – but not fortunate enough to be able to perform them from home – leaving the home to work presents a difficult decision, balancing economic worry against personal and family safety. The history of labour during previous epidemics can provide useful insights here. For example, Giulia Calvi (Histories of a Plague Year) has shown how during seventeenth-century plague outbreaks the need to keep working drove Florentines to evade quarantine or conceal infection.

And there was lots to do during epidemics. When plague struck early modern cities it provoked an administrative scramble. English plague orders contained a wide range of provisions: establishing pesthouses, policies for quarantine, controlling the movement of goods, providing food and support for families shut in. They also had to hire lots of people: gravediggers to bury the dead, guards to enforce quarantine, nurses to serve at the pesthouse. These were dangerous jobs. Remember that London lost 100,000 souls in the great epidemic of 1665-6. Who, we might ask, would be compelled to take these jobs during such a raging epidemic? The answer is, perhaps predictably, the poor. Indeed, choice often had little to do with it.

A job called 'Searcher of the Dead' can provide a case in point. If there was an 'essential worker' during a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century epidemic, surely this was it. Authorities needed to know whether a death was caused by plague or something more mundane. It was the single most important piece of information for managing the crisis. We are seeing now just how vital case-recognition is in our current crisis, with some Asian countries seeming to have had considerable success managing the outbreak because of advanced disease-surveillance techniques.  If an early modern death was identified as plague then the entire apparatus of quarantine kicked into action. Someone thus had to inspect corpses to report the cause of death. It stood to reason that such an important job should fall to physicians. After all, as they forever boasted, only they possessed the requisite training and intellectual acumen to decipher the bewildering array of symptoms the body produced. Tellingly, this did not happen. Instead of physicians, authorities gave this most crucial of jobs to impoverished elderly women.  

As Richelle Munkhoff has shown ('Searchers of the Dead'), they were often parish pensioners impressed into this dangerous work under threat of losing their pensions. Corpses were potentially still contagious, as were the rooms they lay in, so men of authority like physicians – who often fled the city altogether – wanted no part in examining them. On the rarest of occasions when a physician like Nathaniel Hodges ventured to dissect one he was condemned by medical colleagues as a madman. And so traditional customs were bent. Women were barred from university, but during epidemics authorities like political economist John Graunt suddenly defended their ability to read the body. They might not be physicians, but they were good enough. And so the searchers’ reports provided the information on which the entire apparatus of plague control hinged, codified and tabulated in the weekly Bills of Mortality. The job did confer upon these marginalized women authority uncommon for the period, but many only took the work under economic duress. Starker examples can be found when authorities impressed those with even less choice to perform key but treacherous public health tasks. When plague ravaged Marseilles in the early 1720s city health officials took advantage of a slave ship sitting quarantined in the bay to purchase 500 Africans to cart and bury plague-ridden bodies.

These jobs had to be done. Today we would call them essential. They were arduous, dangerous, low-paid, occasionally even unpaid. They were often performed by men and women facing economic precarity: domestic servants left behind when their employers fled, or workers in industries that abruptly shuttered. Not unlike their plague-era predecessors, delivery workers are today reporting that fears of unemployment drive them to continue working, even when they feel unwell. The world, it seems, is suddenly recognizing the essential value of workers who stock shelves and deliver food and goods. Yet, in my home country of Canada a five-year campaign to raise the minimum wage of such workers to $15/hour has met with stiff and thus far successful opposition. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau closed the borders to all but Canadian citizens last week but quickly made an exception for migrant agricultural workers, without whom, Canadian farmers pleaded, there would be no crops. Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau put it succinctly: “Our very food security depends on them.” Similar debates – and realisations – are taking place in the UK. Now that the importance of these jobs are on full display, let us hope that policies recognizing their true value will be one of the many lasting legacies that the current crisis is sure to produce.

Calvi, Giulia (1989). Histories of a plague year. The social and the imaginary in Baroque Florence, translated by Dario Biocca and Bryant T. Ragan Jr.. Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford: University of California Press. 

Munkhoff, Richelle (1999). 'Searchers of the Dead: Authority, Marginality, and the Interpretation of Plague in England, 1574-1665'. Gender & History. 11 (1): 1–29.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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