Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Plague Battle Continues

[This post is a continuation of the documented description of the plague epidemic in Chalons-sur-Saône in 1578-79. The first installment can be read here.]

The town of Chalons-sur-Saône made an admirable civic effort to curb the spread of the plague and to care for the afflicted during the 1578-79 outbreak, but this effort took its toll on the town finances and social fabric. The cost of feeding and housing the ill, paying the wages of doctors, barber-surgeons, maulgognets, and saccards, and disinfecting houses increased to such a degree that the town had to take out two substantial loans. Yet even that was not enough. In October, the council decided to levy a tax of 2000 livres on the privileged and the clergy. The former paid; the latter resisted. The clery did contribute to the program, and generously, but they refused to be forced to do so by the municipality. The city took them to court, although the case was not resolved until after the plague had passed. The verdict found the clergy guilty, and from then on, in times of plague, religious orders were obliged to turn their alms over to the magistrates.

Healthy inhabitants, fearful of succumbing to the illness, fled to their holdings outside of town. Court cases were suspended; the collège closed down. The only people left were the sick and those devoted to helping them. The number of able-bodied inhabitants dwindled to such an extent that it compromised the town's security. With the Wars of Religion in full swing, townspeople were required to participate in the watch and guard. Anyone leaving to attend fairs or to travel had to supply a healthy man to watch in his place. Eventually, even the clergy were forced to take watch duty. The countryside was at the mercy of rampaging Huguenots and Catholics who ignored Burgundy's declared neutrality. Concerned, the Governor of Burgundy ordered the raising of a small army in September, but Chalons was unable to supply troops for the force. Fortunately, the plague proved to be a stronger deterrent than any army could have been, and the threats to the city never materialized.

Meanwhile, as winter approached and it became too cold to continue housing the sick in the poorly constructed cadolles, the municipality took the extreme measure of moving the stricken back into their own homes. Behind padlocked doors and windows, the ill and suspected ill were secluded for six weeks or until death, whichever came first. A precise neighborhood tally of the victims was submitted each day to the mayor.

The epidemic abated near the end of November, only to reappear, stronger than before, in the spring. In February 1579, the mayor again sounded the alarm. Due to the season, no thought was given to constructing new cadolles; instead, the hospital was evacuated of its non-contagious patients so that the plague-stricken could be housed there. The progress of the epidemic was rapid. In March, an entire faubourg outside the town walls was declared infected. Healthy residents moved inside the walls and the gates to the faubourg closed, effectively sequestering it.

Although most medical professionals battled the epidemic with devotion and compassion, on occasion their courage ran out. A barber-surgeon who had served in the earlier outbreak refused to assume his duties in this new one. He was thrown into prison and only agreed to practice when threatened with the loss of his goods and license. However, in May, when the hospital's barber-surgeon lay dying, he refused to go bleed him. The threats of the magistrate did not move the barber; he disappeared from town. The authorities quickly waived the exam and swore in a new barber-surgeon, who demanded that his fees be paid in advance and that he receive a complete new wardrobe when his service had ended.

Things continued to worsen over the summer. Hospital space proved insufficient, so the sick were housed in the barn of the Carmelite monastery. Preventitive measures, such as the burning of upholstered furniture and the closing of inns, were enforced. Though the illness once again abated in the fall, it continued to crop up again and again in Chalons and the surrounding area during the last decade of the sixteenth century. During a particularly bad outbreak in 1596, when the town's misery was compounded by famine, paupers were expelled from the gates with a crust of bread and two pennies. The watch would not allow entry to any travelers who could not produce a certificate from a non-infected area.

Marcel Canat de Chizy's 1879 monograph concludes with two interesting anecdotes. The first recounts the presence of a woman among the barber-surgeons who served in 1578. The widow of the sieur Monnot took part in the municipal deliberations as a chirugien. The historian claims there can be no doubt that Madame Monnot had been received as a master barber-surgeon, for she had two apprentices studying under her, both of whom advanced sans examen in order to battle the plague.

The second anecdote relates how in November 1578, the two daughters of one Joachim Robert were stricken. To avoid the danger of infection inherent in living with the girls, Robert petitioned the mayor to allow him and his wife to move into a room at the hospital. Remember, the hospital was reserved for the non-contagious sick; Robert evidently felt it was the safest place to avoid contagion. The town council did not appreciate his logic -- they told him to go occupy one of the several houses he owned in the countryside. So much for paternal love in time of duress!

[Canat de Chizy's monograph can be read in French at GoogleBooks.]


Sandra Gulland. said...

These details are fascinating, Julianne!



Julianne Douglas said...

Thank you, Sandra! I've summarized the most interesting bits of Chizy's book. He combed the municipal records of Chalons and constructed a narrative of the epidemic. The one piece of information that I would love to know that was not included was the number of inhabitants at the time the plague hit and an estimated number of deaths. The book contained no figures other than dates and the wages paid to the various medical personnel.