What They Did

What did they do in times of plague: the Cities, the Clergy, the People, the Doctors?

1. What the Cities did

Close the city

Plague in Rome 1656
Guarded city gate to Rome, detail from ‘Mario Chigi’s arrival in Rome’ by Giovanni Giacomo de’Rossi, 1657. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Build Plague Hospitals

Lazzaretto of Milano, built to house plague patients.
The Milanese lazzaretto housed 16,000 patients during the plague of 1630. Detail from a map by Joan Blaeu, published by Pieter Mortier in 1704.

Isolate suspected and confirmed patients

Peasant at the window, etching by Cornelis Bega, mid 1650s. The Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Hospitalize the sick

Plague Hospital interior by Francisco de Goya.
Francisco de Goya: Hospital de Apestados, 1808-1810. Oil on canvas, 32,5 x 57,3 cm. Colección Marqués de la Romana, Madrid.

Hire people

Plague scene - transport of a patient to a hospital
A patient is being transported to a hospital, 1562. Manuscript in the Stadtarchiv Nürnberg.

Have the dead buried

Burying plague victims
‘View of the manner of burying the dead bodies at Holy-well Mount during the dreadful plague in 1665’. Samuel Wale en Charles Grignion, 1769-70. Wellcome Collection, London.

Burn their stuff

Hippocrates ordering plague clothes burnt
Hippocrates (460-377 BC) is known as the ‘Father of Medicine’. When the plague broke out he advised to burn the clothes of the victims to prevent the spread of the disease. National Academy of Medicine, Paris.

Make a lot of smoke

An effort to drive off the plague by producing smoke during the Great Plague of London in 1665.
A street during the Great Plague in London, 1665. Contaminated houses are locked and marked with a red cross, a basket with fire is placed in the street in an attempt to drive off miasmas. In the background a carriage for transporting the dead is waiting. Engraving after Edmund Evans, 1864. Wellcome Collection, London.

Issue regulations

From a Plague-order issued by the king of England, 1666. The National Archives, Kew.

Punish the violators

Death penalties during the Plague of Rome 1656.
Death penalties to offenders of the plague regulations. Detail from Print Series ‘The Plague of Rome’ by Giovanni Giacomo de’Rossi, 1657. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Kill the animals

Killing of cats and dogs during the Plague.
Jan de Ridder: killing of cats and dogs during the plague, c. 1720.

Hire more people

Plague in Gdansk
Transport of victims and patients during the Great Plague in Danzig (Poland) 1709, detail from engraving by Samuel Donnet. New York Academy of Medicine library.

Remove the bodies

Removal of Plague Victims in France.
Anonymous Plague scene, French School, 1748. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Build a church

Venice Santa Maria della Salute
The votive plague church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, 1631-1687. Pixabay / Pexels.

2. What the Clergy did


Bishops, cardinals, priests and brothers praying
Detail from Madonna della Misericordia by Pietro Allemanno, 1494. Mongolo1984, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Organize a procession

Plague Procession
Plague procession in Bologna, 17th century. Location unknown.

Perform the last rites

Borromeo performing last rites during the plague
St. Charles Borromeo administers the sacrament to a plague-infected in Milan 1576-1578. Caspar Franz Sambach after Pierre Mignard, 1754-1756. Christian Museum, Esztergom, Hungary.

Attend to the sick

Woodcut showing interior of the Hotel-Dieu in Paris, with nuns and monks attending to the sick and dead.
Nuns and monks at work in the Hotel-Dieu de Paris, woodcut from the 15th century.

Bury the dead

Giambattista Negroboni and others burying the dead during the plague in Verona, from I.L. Bianchi: Le Immagini di Alcuni Uomini per Pietà Illustri Della Congregazione de’Cherici Regolari, 1758.


Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Monks are among the dying. Detail of ‘The Triumph of Death’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1562. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

3. What the People did


Plague of Naples by Mattia Preti.
Mattia Preti: Plague scene, c. 1640. Private collection.

Flee the city

Boccaccio Decameron manuscript miniature
In Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous ‘Decameron’ (1349), ten young people flee the city of Florence and entertain themselves by telling stories. Miniature from a Flemish manuscript edition, c. 1485, National Library of The Netherlands, The Hague.

Find a scapegoat

Burning of Jews
Jews burned to death in Strasbourg in 1349, Manuscript from c. 1350 by Gilles li Muisis, Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique.

Live on

17th century village with square and people
Jacobus Vrel: Street scene in Holland, c. 1654-62. Wadsworth Atheneum, The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund.

4. What the Doctors did

When they were physicians: feel the pulse and inspect urine

Two doctors and a nurse at deathbed of a patient, death holds a deadly arrow and is waiting
Physicians feeling the pulse and inspecting urine of a dying patient. Miniature from The Treasure of Wisdom by Jean Charlier de Gerson, 15th c. Musée Condé, Chantilly.

Prescribe medicines

17th century doctor looking at urine, woman waiting - piskijker
David Teniers the Younger: the Consult, c. 1660. Brukenthal Museum, Sibiu, Romania.

When they were surgeons: lance buboes

Treatment of plague patients, Sebastian's chapel Lanslevillard.
Surgeon lancing a buboe, detail from mural in the Saint Sebastian’s chapel in Lanslevillard, France, 15th century.

Let blood

Manuscript miniature with a doctor letting blood. Aldobrandino of Siena: Le régime du corps. France, c. 1285. British Library, London.


Doctors dissecting plague victim
Frontispiece of G. Thomson (1666): Loimotomia or the Pest Anatomized. Wellcome Collection, London.

Flee the city

Runaways fleeing from the Plague, 1630.
Those who could afford it, among them many doctors, fled the city in times of plague. The skeletons in this print symbolize death of course, proving that you can run but you can’t hide. Still, the rich had a better chance to survive an epidemic than those who were forced to stay. Woodcut from ‘A Looking-glasse for City and Countrey’ (1630). Wellcome Library, London.

When they were charlatans: sell potions

A charlatan by Jean Tassel, 17th century.
Jean Tassel: ‘The Charlatan’, 17th c. Dorotheum Old Master Painting sale 2016, present location unknown.

What did the doctors wear? Find out in our Costume Department.

HJMattie, March 02, 2022

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