Integration, Segregation and the Early Modern Plague Hospital


This is the first of a ‘mini-series’ of papers on integration and segregation, leading up to the next INHH Conference on the same theme in Dubrovnik April 2015.  It is intended that these short papers will help to stimulate debate and discussion before the conference, and to spark a wider interest in hospital history. If you would like to submit your own mini-paper to be published on this site, please get in contact!

 

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Dr Jane Stevens Crawshaw (Oxford Brookes): ‘Integration, Segregation and the Early Modern Plague Hospital’.

 

Of all of the things patients might have expected to receive within an early modern plague hospital, news probably did not come high up the list.  Few institutions have been more strongly associated with segregation; many early modern writers (and modern historians) stress the social breakdown that ensued during plague epidemics in early modern Europe and have characterised plague hospitals as sites within which infection spread quickly and the sick were abandoned to their fate.

Plague Hospital

This account of the death of Doge Nicolò da Ponte in 1585 and subsequent election of Pasquale Cicogna was written on the wall of the large warehouse (the tezon grande) on the island of the lazaretto nuovo.  When the warehouse was built in 1561 it was one of the largest buildings in Venice and its purpose was to accommodate vast quantities of merchandise on the island which housed one of Venice’s two plague hospitals.

The graffiti reminds the historians of the significance of channels of commerce and communication in relation to the history of the plague hospitals.  These hospitals played a vital role in the Republic’s networks of maritime trade, public health and charitable care.  Surviving sources illustrate that Venetian Health Officers attempted to balance both integration and segregation in their administration of these hospitals in order to bring about an improvement in health across a number of different spheres, principally both medical and economic.   As a result, links between patients and their communities were not severed.  Although underplayed in literary sources, this element of the hospitals’ history is visible in archival sources as well as surviving building structures.  This example of early modern graffiti, therefore, has much to say to historians today.

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