Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Plague upon Your Town

Although the incidence of bubonic plague, the infamous "Black Death" of the fourteenth century, slowly decreased over the course of the Renaissance era, plague was still very much part of sixteenth century life. Outbreaks of plague occurred sporadically throughout Europe, following the movement of goods from port to port and of soldiers returning home from war. Edinburgh suffered a bout of plague in 1529, as did London in 1537-39 and 1547-48; Paris, where outbreaks were frequent, suffered a particularly virulent one around 1564. In 1570, 200,000 people lost their lives to plague in the vicinity of Moscow; Lyon lost 50,000 individuals in 1572; in 1576, 70,000 inhabitants of Venice succumbed. Plague during the sixteenth century was largely confined to cities and towns. Outbreaks usually occurred during the summer months, when rat fleas are most active. Death came quickly to victims: 80% of those infected died within five days.

In the course of my research on plague in the sixteenth century, I came across a small book entitled Deux ans de peste à Chalon-sur-Saone, 1578-79 [Two Years of Plague in Chalon-sur Saone, 1578-79], published in 1879 by Marcel Canat de Chizy, the town archivist. The book provides a fascinating account, culled from the town's historical record, of how the municipality dealt with a particular outbreak of the disease. Interesting to me was how the care of the sick became a community effort, motivated both by Christian charity and the more self-interested desire to limit the extent of the contagion.

In July of 1578, the mayor of Chalon announced to the nervous inhabitants gathered outside the town hall that two cases of plague had surfaced. He exhorted the townspeople to contribute to the effort to provide medical aid, lodging and sustenance to the afflicted.

First, medical assistance was organized. The town benefited from the activity of three types of medical professionals: doctors, apothecaries, and barber-surgeons. The barber-surgeons were under the municipality's direct control and governed by a set of statutes. In order to be licensed as a maistre, or master, a barber-surgeon had to pass an exam in the presence of the magistrates and the doctors. The statutes required surgeons to provide aid to the plague-stricken; since this was a risky endeavor, apprentice surgeons who accepted the task were granted the privileges of a master without having to take the exam. Two apprentice surgeons took the oath to serve the afflicted; they were granted the status of master and a salary of 6 écus per month, plus food for themselves and their families and exemption from militia duty during the term of their service.

The town engaged the services of two lower levels of caretaker during the outbreak: maulgognets and saccards. Maulgognets cared for the living: they were what we might call nurse's aids, men and women who provided basic services for the incapacitated. Saccards took care of the dead: they collected and buried the bodies. In addition to their wages, saccards were granted the clothing of the deceased (cruel recompense, indeed!). If they survived until the end of outbreak, they were housed in seclusion outside the town for two weeks in order to "air out."

The town hospital could only accept non-contagious patients; what to do, then, with the rapidly increasing number of infected, who needed to be separated from the healthy? Flimsy wooden shelters covered with straw, called cadolles, were constructed outside of town to house them. The victims were crowded into these shelters as soon as their infection became evident. Often those only suspected of being infected were forced to move into the cadolles with the ill, a guaranteed death-sentence. The sergents-de-ville escorted the pestiférés to the cadolles at specific times of the day along a prescribed path, so that the healthy might avoid them.

The town provisioned the sick for free. The mayor appointed a directeur de vivres who organized the collection and preparation of food, which was delivered daily to the town hall and transported to the cadolles by the sergents. These exposed and overworked sergents received ten extra sols pay per day and a pair of shoes for their services.

Christian charity, at least in the early stages of the outbreak, proved admirable: donations of food for the sick overwhelmed the town hall and distributions were made without fraud. The mayor and city officials performed their extra duties with zeal. However, as the number of sick rapidly increased and weeks stretched into months, the situation began to deteriorate. The healthy began to desert the town for the countryside, leaving the sick without aid and the city unprotected during a time of war.

[Sources: You can read Canat de Chizy's monograph in French at GoogleBooks. Other sources include Encylopedia Britannica (1911 edition) and Mark Harrison's Disease and the Modern World: 1500 to the Present (2004).]

Next post: Panic sets in.


Angela K. Nickerson said...

Tres, tres interesting! :) And here's the strange thing: I'm blogging about the plague today, too!
Check it out:

Julianne Douglas said...

What a wonderful post, Angela! Such beautiful photos of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. Thanks for sharing!