John Henderson. Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019.
By Bob Carey
If it seems strange for Americans to find themselves sitting indoors waiting for COVID-19 to pass so they can return to the bargaining and trucking of everyday life, then for Italians it would seem rather, from the perspective of John Henderson’s richly detailed study of Florence in the plague of 1630, more a matter of “Oh God, not again.”
Florence Under Siege begins with an extended and helpful discussion of the history of the bubonic plague, one of the most written-about and devastating pandemics ever. Do we need another book? Yes, especially as Henderson identifies and then takes up issues that are in need of further study.
This histoire totale is an account both of how the affliction spread and the institutions in Florence responsible for combating the plague. It was Florence’s Board of Health, the Sanita, managed by the city’s elite and supported by the Medicis that was responsible for the day-to-day monitoring of the spread of the plague, the cleanliness of dwellings and neighborhoods, and the condition of the poor. Henderson considers the role of religion and the religious orders while vividly depicting those who carried the sick to the lazaretti (isolation hospitals outside the city) and the those who dug the graves.
In considering how the church waged its own “war” on the plague and how the major parishes in the city dealt with the outbreak, Henderson wants the reader to see the poor not only as the principal victims of the plague, but also, as viewed by better off Florentines, the likely cause of the epidemic. Where earlier discussions tended to show Florentines, if not as caricatures, then as static characters, Henderson depicts rich and poor alike as lively actors, “agents, not simply as victims.”
When the plague first appeared outside Florence the Sanita imposed a cordon sanitaire around the city, but when the infection broke through the Sanita imposed a quarantine to limit the epidemic’s spread and intensity.
Since the theory of disease at the time held that dirt and associated odors were the chief cause of the plague, the Sanita’s primary goal beyond quarantining the sick and poor was to clean up the filth and stench of the city. The filthy dwellings of the poor were of particular concern along with slaughterhouse waste and the stink from cloth making and human waste removal. Treating the disease based on the humoral theory of disease called for bloodletting, cupping, and other painful approaches intended to rid the body of what “plagued” it. Medicines constituted a variety of concoctions purportedly providing the patient with the means to fight the ravages of disease. While those who survived did so in spite of medical help, trained physicians sat at the head of the table with other health workers—barber surgeons and traditional healers.
Along with enforcing the quarantine, Florence created lazarettos, the sick houses for the stricken who had no one to care for them. Many died there. The city assumed responsibility for feeding sick house inmates along with widows and the poor who were confined to their houses. Brotherhoods and fraternal orders provided other services. Religious associations buried the dead. The churches thrived as people prayed to particular saints, took part in processions, supplicating the Lord for mercy and healing. Santissima Annunziata was among the most prominent of Florence’s churches and routinely processed its parish in the hopes of stemming the number of deaths. It also housed the relics of local saints and received votive offerings during the course of the plague brought by both the poor and the nobility in hopes of persuading St. Anthony or God to turn the plague aside. As Henderson observes:
The gifts by the Grand-Ducal family quite literally outweighed those of other donors, but the presence of the large number of ex-voti of varying size and value from silver to wax, is significant of the continued importance of and widespread belief in the cult of the Virgin to cure a wide range of diseases, including plague.
While the offices of the Sanita canvassed the city to determine which households needed help and what kind of help they should receive, the poor were not passive recipients of the Sanita’s work of controlling the plague. Henderson’s reading of the life in poor neighborhoods details the ways in which people tried to profit from the plague, often in a very organized fashion by stealing clothes, bed sheets and hangings even though this activity may have helped spread the disease.
The push/pull quality of the Sanita’s interaction with poor communities and the work and staffs of the lazaretto are instances, for Henderson, of the emergence of the administrative structures of an urban state and the infrastructure of governance that would come to characterize urban life. However remote the medicine of the day or the theory of the disease may seem today, a look out your window right now may take you back in time. The logic of the Florentine response to the bubonic plague may seem all too familiar. Wash your hands and keep your distance.
Bob Carey did his undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut (’61); read for degrees in theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (’66, ’68), and did his doctoral work in American history at Columbia University in New York City (’84). He served as an Assistant Pastor at Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in the 1960’s and has been a faculty member of Empire State College since 1973, retiring in 2018. He has served as an Associate and Graduate Dean in the course of his career with the College. His areas of interests in historical studies are America’s racial and religious history, the history of food and disease, and critical reading.
Featured image (at top): The plague of Florence in 1348, as described in Boccaccio’s Decameron.