Histories of a Plague Year

Regular readers of this blog know I’m not given to picking my reading based on bestsellers, hype, popularity or any contemporary trend.

However, I did engage in a bit of “COVID reading” back in April. Actually, I just wanted toread another Black Plague book, one of the few unread in my library.

So let’s look at the Sanitary Dictatorship circa 1630-31. Readers may recognize it from our current versions: shut businesses, informers, and house arrest.

Review: Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and Imaginary in Baroque Florence, Giulia Calvi, trans. Dario Biocca and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., 1989.

While the bubonic plague that came to Florence in 1630-31 wasn’t quite as deadly as the second European pandemic of the plague in 1347, it still killed between 20 and 60 percent of those infected.

Florence was prepared for the return of the plague. It never really left Europe since 1347.

They formed the Florentine Public Health. When plague hit the city, Public Health initiated a series of laws regarding entry to the city, identification of infected people, isolating them, treating them, and, all too often, burying them.

What could be the problem? It seems so sensible – apart from the fact that doctors, barber-surgeons, and herbalists had no clue what caused the disease.

The problem, as with all government policies, was those pesky details.

Being identified as infected meant being taken away to the lazaret – even if you were a pregnant woman – or locked in your house with Public Health Officials blocking the entrances up and dropping off food.

People didn’t live alone much, of course, so there were effects on families. Sometimes infections were hid or diagnosing doctors bribed or the neighborhood guards evaded.

And, since many people had businesses in their home, this meant incomes were deprived.

The materials used in the business – goods and equipment – were suddenly inaccessible.

Numerous schemes, crimes under Florentine law, were used to get around this. Infections were concealed or only reported only after uninfected family members and apprentices could be relocated. Sometimes uninfected family members or masters broke into houses locked by Public Health authority to tend to their sick members of their family or apprentices.

A lot of times infected houses were broken into to steal property. Of the over three hundred Florentine trials Calvi read, most are for theft. There was a big incentive for theft. The possessions of the infected officially became Public Health property. Unless it was of high value – precious metals or expensive textiles – it was to be burned.

So citizens broke into steal property they held was their family’s. Not just personal items but business equipment. Sometimes the thefts would be done by a member of a guild who wanted to preserve a fellow guild member’s property from being seized.

And a lot of thefts were by men who didn’t want their brother-in-laws to get property, property their wife brought to a marriage and her family wanted back after her infection or death.

And the death of a plague victim didn’t end problems. Plague deaths got buried without the usual rituals in common ground. What if you wanted something more dignified for your deceased family mother? Bribe a doctor for the right death certificate.

And the gravediggers were affected. The usual custom was to pay gravediggers out of the possessions of the deceased, typically clothes. If the deceased died of plague, that sort of payment wasn’t forthcoming.

Unfortunately, while this is interesting, the book is rather dull. You have to extract what I summarized (assuming I didn’t miss something skimming it again). There is, unhappily, much talk of the symbolic and theatrical aspect of all this rather than Calvi just dedicating herself to a more transparent narrative. You have to really be interested in Florence or the plague to read this book. And the latter part of the book is how this all played into canonization proceedings for Florentine Domenica da Paradiso.

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