Plague – Recent Lectures and Podcasts


Plague Lectures

The Invisible Enemy’: Fighting Plague in Renaissance Italy

Humanities Society, Wolfson College, Cambridge
2020
Professor John Henderson, Professor of Italian Renaissance History, Birkbeck College, University of London
Watch The Invisible Enemy’: Fighting Plague in Renaissance Italy

The study of plague remains as relevant today as in pre-industrial Europe, especially as we struggle to combat the threat of Covid 19. In this lecture, John Henderson will provide a timely reminder that present-day policies of ‘containment, mitigation and quarantine’ have long historical precedents, just as human reactions of fear and panic are shared across the centuries. He will show how early modern Italy, though well-known as the birthplace of the Renaissance, was also renowned for the precocious development of its public health policies. These have provided the model not just for nineteenth-century policies in combatting plague, but also more recent epidemics from SARS to Ebola and the Corona virus.

This lecture focusses on the development of public health policies in seventeenth-century Tuscany within a wider Italian and European context. The aim is to go beyond traditional oppositions between rich and poor by examining the impact of regulations at the level of the neighbourhood, street and family. Looking behind the optimistic gloss of official printed accounts, John Henderson will examine the often moving and tragic stories of the individuals who ran hospitals, the doctors who treated plague victims, and, above all, of the ordinary men and women left bereft and confused by the sickness and death of family members as they sought to adopt strategies to survive during quarantine and lockdown.

Coping with Plague: Public Health and Epidemics

Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
2nd June 2019
Professor John Henderson, Professor of Italian Renaissance History, Birkbeck College, University of London
Watch Coping with Plague: Public Health and Epidemics

Italy, though best known for the birth of the Renaissance, is also renowned for the precocious development of its public health policies in the 16th century. In this talk, Professor John Henderson argues that it is time to re-examine and reassess early modern Italian policies dealing with plague. Henderson’s approach is to examine the often moving and tragic stories of the individuals touched by plague from either side of the doctor-patient boundary. The way in which governments and individuals dealt with plague are as relevant today as they were 500 years ago.

Death in Florence: Plague, Prosecution, and the Poor in early Modern Florence

NYU Florence Acton Lecture
18th December 2017
Professor John Henderson, Professor of Italian Renaissance History, Birkbeck College, University of London
Watch Death in Florence: Plague, Prosecution, and the Poor in early Modern Florence

Professor John Henderson

Plague remains a popular topic, as reflected in the continued popularity of the narrative accounts from Defoe to Manzoni to Camus which present vivid fictional recreations of what it was like to live through an epidemic. While it is the liveliness of this type of description which continues to fascinate, many histories of public health have traditionally tended to concentrate on chronicling government policies rather than the lived experience. The top-down approach also reflects the theme of contemporary political and medical rhetoric in surviving records, in which the lower levels of society were often blamed disproportionately as the spreaders and even cause of plague. In contrast, this lecture, which explores the last epidemic of plague to affect Florence in 1630-31, places less emphasis on official views. Instead it will seek to recreate the variety of experience and lively voices of the inhabitants in the city’s streets and neighbourhoods, as reflected in the wide range of trials against those who broke sanitary legislation. While analysing the extraordinary variety of ‘crimes’, from simply adopting survive strategies to robbing empty plague house, we shall also ask whether the draconian punishments prescribed in law were enforced as rigorously as in other Italian cities at the time.

Religion, Medicine and Art in the Time of Plague: Florence 1630-33

Bill Kent Memorial Lecture, Monash Centre, Prato
13th December 2017
Professor John Henderson, Professor of Italian Renaissance History, Birkbeck College, University of London and Monash University
Watch Religion, Medicine and Art in the Time of Plague: Florence 1630-33

The subject of religion and medicine, and indeed religion as medicine, has recently become an important topic of research, particularly within the context of the history of late medieval and early medicine. The relationship between these fields has emerged as a fundamental aspect in understanding the nature of the contemporary holistic vision of how the human body worked and was treated through the complementary role of the doctor of the body and the doctor of the soul. This lecture will analyse the role of religion as medicine in the treatment of the sick body of both the city and the individual during the last major epidemic of plague to affect the city of Florence, 1630-1. It will examine the main religious strategies adopted by Church and State first to prevent and then to mitigate the impact of plague and finally to give thanks for the cessation of the epidemic. The strategies centred around three main holy sites: the Cathedral, the miraculous shrine at the Servite church of SS. Annunziata, and the Observant Dominican church of S. Marco, which housed the body of the 15th -century Florentine archbishop, St. Antoninus. The increased devotion at these important ecclesiastical centres led, furthermore, to a wide range of artistic commissions, including chapels, altarpieces, frescoes, costly silver candlesticks, and more humble ex-voti. Given this artistic outpouring during and following the epidemic, this lecture will explore the themes of commissions and how they placed emphasis on the representation of saintly figures and patrons and how far on showing the ravages of disease on the body of the sick. Furthermore, how far did the religious reactions and subjects of the artistic commissions associated with plague in 17th -century Florence conform or differ from those adopted by other cities in early modern Italy.

Plague Podcasts 

Where does quarantine come from?

Professor John Henderson, Birkbeck College, University of London
Octavian Report
13th July 2020

The new episode of our podcast features John Henderson, Professor of Italian Renaissance History at Birkbeck University of London, and author of Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City and numerous other works of Italian history. We spoke with Professor Henderson about the history of quarantine itself and other aspects of how epidemic disease changed Italian society.

Listen to the Podcast ‘Where does quarantine come from?

‘The History of Now: Plague in Early Modern Italy’, in conversation with Chris Clark, John Henderson and Jane Stevens-Crawshaw

History Faculty, University of Cambridge
20th April 2020

Listen to the Podcast – The History of Now: Plague in Early Modern Italy

The Terrors of the Time: Lessons from Historic Plagues

Professor John Henderson, Birkbeck College, University of London
Professor Vanessa Harding, Birkbeck College, University of London
Aaron Columbus is a doctoral student examining how the London plague affected the poor in society at Birkbeck College, University of London
CBC/Radio-Canada
17th April 2020

As this latest battle rages on, historians are looking at similarities in individual and collective response. Regardless of our modern understanding of disease and its spread, historians point to the need to find blame.

Listen to the Podcast The Terrors of the Time: Lessons from Historic Plagues

Surviving Plague

Professor John Henderson, Birkbeck College, University of London
Birkbeck Arts Week: podcast

Listen to John Henderson on what an extraordinary image evoking what it was like to live through plague in Renaissance Florence, the subject of his new book Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City (Yale, 2019), and Yale have made a chapter available to read.

Listen to the Surviving Plague Podcast

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