Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City – Florence Under Siege by John Henderson

Florence Under Siege cover (002)Professor John Henderson, a founding member of the International History of Hospitals Network, has  a new book published by Yale on the 9th July 2019. (Get a discount by downloading this form (PDF).

In Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City, John Henderson examines how a major European city suffered, resisted and survived plague. This book provides a nuanced and compassionate interpretation of government policies in practice, going beyond traditional oppositions between rich and poor, by recreating the personal reactions and survival strategies of people and families at all levels of society.

Wider significance

Each age faces the challenge of new diseases from cholera to AIDS and Ebola, but plague remains the paradigm against which reactions to epidemics are often judged. This book, while focussing on seventeenth-century Florence, examines the Tuscan capital within a wider Italian and European context to assess the real impact of policies on the city, the neighbourhood, street and family. Writing in a vivid and approachable way, Surviving Plague in the Early Modern City unearths the forgotten stories of doctors and administrators struggling to cope with the sick and dying, and the reality of living in a time of plague through the personal diaries of the literate, and the personal testimony of the poor, in court cases.

Official Reactions

Many histories of public health concentrate on chronicling government policies, whereas here equal emphasis is placed on the lived experience. Underpinning this narrative is a vivid recreation of the stories and experiences of individuals who endured and survived the epidemic. Contemporary political and medical rhetoric often blamed disproportionately the lower levels of society as the spreaders and even cause of plague, but official measures are examined to establish their real impact on the whole population. These included the cordon sanitaire along the frontiers of the Tuscan state; sanitary surveys of the living conditions of the poor; inspection and locking up of infected houses. A range of treatments are examined from the plague doctor’s prescribing of the ‘miraculous’ drug of Theriac to the surgeons’ lancing of buboes to the complex recipes devised by empirics.

Plate 7.4 S. Miniato al Monte (002).jpg

Façade of the Church of S. Miniato al Monte, the Benedictine abbey, which became the main Lazaretto in Florence. (Photo by John Henderson)

Lazaretti or Isolation Hospitals

Lazaretti, vast crowded isolation hospitals, served to distinguish many Italian cities from their northern European counterparts. Some cities built new structures, but many took over existing buildings, as in the case of Florence, where the beautiful Romanesque convent and church of San Miniato al Monte on the hill overlooking Florence to the south of the river Arno became the city’s major Lazaretto. Together with the other Lazaretti around the city, San Miniato housed and treated over 10,000 people during the epidemic of 1630 to 1631, but did, as was claimed at the time, they lead to a reduction in mortality? or simply provide a convenient way for the poor to be enclosed?

plague at ashdod (002)

Pieter van Halen, ‘The Plague of the Philistines at Ashdod’ (1661), (Wellcome Collection. CC BY)


Religious strategies also form an important theme of this book, reflecting contemporary belief in the necessity to placate divine ire at the sins of Mankind, through prayers and public masses. But elaborate processions with holy relics were an integral part of the ceremonial response. How far did this lead to conflict with the health board officers given the perceived threat of the spread of disease when large numbers collected together?  The plague in Florence also led to the commissioning of major works of art and architecture from the Medici Grand-ducal family to the more and less affluent, as they paid for chapels, altarpieces, and silver and wax votive offerings. This truly inter-disciplinary study examines the representation of local saints, such as Saint Antoninus, as well as popular votive saints, such as St. Sebastian and San Rocco, in relation to their depiction in other parts of Italy.

Individual Experience and Survival Strategies

Florence Under Siege seeks above all to look behind the optimistic gloss of official printed accounts to examine individual experiences. It recreates the often moving and tragic narratives of the individuals who ran isolation hospitals, the doctors who treated plague victims, and the ordinary men and women left bereft and confused by the sickness and death of family members.

Plate 8.1 Milan punishment of Untori or plague-spreaders (002)

Anon (Orazio Colombo), ‘Punishment and Execution of Untori or Plague-spreaders in Milan’ (1630), after the engraving by ‘Bassano’ or ‘Francesco Vallato’ (Wellcome Collection. CCBY)

Plague on Trial

Analysis of the large corpus of contemporary court records provides fascinating evidence of the numerous survival strategies through which individuals coped with the very real fear generated by a city under siege from an invisible enemy and how they attempted to side-step regulations in order to preserve their possessions and their normal way of life. Examination of detailed trials reveals not just the extraordinary variety of ‘crimes’, but also reveals greater compassion than suggested by the draconian punishments prescribed in law and thus helps to break down the traditional picture of the opposition of rich and poor, the governors and governed.

Reviews of Florence Under Siege by Professor John Henderson

Henderson offers a holistic account of plague in seventeenth-century Florence and reaches important new conclusions about the impact and effectiveness of public health measures. The fine detail of the story makes for a brilliant realisation of devastation, resistance and survival.
Vanessa Harding author of ‘The Dead and the Living in Paris and London, 1500-1670’.

In this vivid account, Henderson brings to life the fearful experiences of Florentines as they prepared, dealt with, and lived through an early modern public health crisis … Essential reading.
Brian Maxson, author of ‘The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence’.

With a keen attention to gender, power and social networks, Henderson traces a vivid picture of resilience and survival through the complex interplay of plague and piety’.
Giulia Calvi, author of ‘Histories of a Plague Year.

Henderson draws on a striking range of sources to present a human-scale fresco. He shows how townspeople, eager to save their souls as much as their skin, strove to cope and survive each in their own way … Re-sets our understanding of what plague meant at every level of early modern society to those caught up in it.
Colin Jones, co-author of ‘The Medical World of Early Modern France’.

Chapter outline:

1. Plague and Public Health in Italy and Europe Plague and Italy’s Reputation in Europe Historians and Plague in Italy Plague in Florence: Themes and Sources

Part I, Florence Under Siege: Coping with Plague

2. The Invasion of Plague in Early Modern Italy Plague approaches Florence:

  • Border Controls and cordons sanitaires
  • Plague on the Outskirts of Florence, Summer 1630
  • Plague Mortality in the City, 1630–1

3. Medicine, the Environment and the Poor Doctors and Diagnosis: ‘A certain sickness with suspicion of contagion’

  • Preventive Measures and the Environment
  • ‘Filth is the mother of corruption’: The Sanitary Survey, August 1630
  • Marginalisation of the Poor: ‘It was not the time to make the body of the city worse with such malign humours, the most inclined towards putrefaction’
  • Poverty and Charity: The Growth of ‘misery, necessity and sickness’

4.  Plague and Public Health: Treating the Body of the City and the Body of the Poor

  • Official Reactions in August Public Health and Prevention
  • The Control of Plague Doctors and Medicine: Treating the Body of the Poor

5. Fighting the Plague

  • The Spread and Impact of Plague
  • Coping with Death
  • Quarantine and the City
  • Quarantine and the Countryside

Part II, Religion, Isolation and Survival

6. Religion in the Time of Plague

  • The Plague Approaches: The Church and Preventive Measures Plague at its Height and the Practice of Religion
  • Celebrating with Sant’Antonino: The Plague Relents
  • Plague, Religion and the Grand-Ducal Court: The Cult of Domenica da Paradiso
  • Religion and Quarantine: ‘Providing for the health of the soul is more important than [providing for the health] of the body’
  • SS. Annunziata and Plague
  • The Madonna dell’ Impruneta and the Return of Plague, 1633

7. Lazaretti and Isolation: ‘More feared than death itself’?

  • First Experiments and the Hospital of Messer Bonifazio
  • The New Isolation and Quarantine Centres Lazaretti: Form and Function
  • ‘The medicines in this period play an important role’
  • Spiritual Medicine
  • Assessing Patient Mortality: ‘More feared than death itself’?
  • Life, Death and Serving the Poor Sick: ‘I desire that you pray God for me, because I am suffering under the heaviest of crosses’
  • Life in the Lazaretti: The Perspective of the Staff

8. Surviving Plague

  • Plague and the Law
  • Punishment and Enforcement
  • Prosecution: General Categories
  • Prosecuting the Popolo

Epilogue: The Return and End of Plague, 1632–3

Book Discount

You can get a substantial discount (£9.00) on the recommended retail price of £30 by using this form (PDF) to order your copy of Florence Under Siege.

John Henderson is Professor of Italian Renaissance History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck, University of London, and Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. He has published a wide range of books and articles on the social, religious, and medical history of medieval and renaissance Tuscany. Major books include: Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence (Clarendon Press, 1994; Italian trans., 1998); Christianity and the Renaissance. Image and Religious Imagination in the Quattrocento, ed. with T.V. Verdon (Syracuse UP, 1990); Poor Women and Children in the European Past, ed. with R. Wall (Routledge, 1994); The Great Pox. The French Disease in Renaissance Europe, with J. Arrizabalaga and R. French (Yale UP, 1997); The Renaissance Hospital. Healing the Body and Healing the Soul (Yale UP, 2006; German trans., 2007; Italian trans., 2016); Plague and the City, ed. with L. Engelmann and C. Lynteris (Routledge, 2018); and Florence Under Siege. Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City (Yale UP, 2019).

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