- Plague Hospitals: Public Health for the City in Early Modern Venice by Jane L. Stevens Crawshaw
plague, hospitals, early modern
Although the development of hospitals in late medieval and early modern Europe has hardly been ignored by historians of medicine, Jane L. Stevens Crawshaw argues that hospitals focused on the treatment of plague are different creatures that deserve separate study. In this book, she offers a history of the two plague hospitals, or lazaretti, of Venice, while also taking some stock of developments elsewhere. Stevens Crawshaw sets out to provide more than an isolated institutional history by including broader issues of social, medical, and political context and argues that the Venetian lazaretti were much more than a dreadful purgatory simply meant to warehouse doomed souls until they met their inevitable death.
Stevens Crawshaw organizes her book around what she sees as the “stages in a patient’s experience of the lazaretti” (36). Following a lengthy introduction, her chapters address, in turn, architecture, patients, staff, treatments, and death in the hospitals. A sixth chapter, Returning to the City, covers the release of people and goods from the hospitals. A short conclusion and a further epilogue round out the book with a glance at the institutions’ legacy as the plague epidemics faded.
This book contains much useful descriptive information about the Venetian lazaretti, including the physical fabric of the institutions, their staff, the bureaucracy that oversaw them, and the treatments that were applied to both people and goods as they passed through. Stevens Crawshaw highlights, for instance, the limits to the isolation enforced at the lazaretti. The book also provides an overview of the historiography of plagues, quarantine, and public health in early modern Europe, Italy, and Venice. Unfortunately, [End Page 327] the organization of the book leaves something to be desired. The reader must pick through frequent tangents, inept transitions, repetition of favored quotes and anecdotes, and missing citations to extract the valuable insights.
Methodologically, Stevens Crawshaw seeks to offer an institutional history with strong contextual awareness, citing Nicolai Rubinstein’s study of The Palazzo Vecchio, 1298–1532 (Oxford, 1995) as a model. She particularly wants to locate the lazaretti in the spectrum of Venetian responses to various social problems, which included “charity, poor relief and healthcare” (26), as well as to explore the hospitals’ place in the context of early modern efforts at centralization and institution-building. However, this is no Foucauldian story of the hospital as instrument of growing governmental surveillance and control, especially of the poor. In fact, Stevens Crawshaw argues precisely the opposite: she asserts that historians who cast plague hospitals as fundamentally instruments for social control fundamentally misunderstand the nature and intentions of the institution, at least as it was erected in Venice.
Up to a point, Stevens Crawshaw makes a convincing case. The Venetian lazaretti had their roots in the trading needs of the republic. The “old” lazaretto was established in the early fifteenth century—indeed, before the public health magistracy was permanently established in the city—as a place for quarantining incoming people and goods during healthy times as well as for housing and treating (some of) the sick when epidemics raged. The connection to the republic’s mercantile activities is reflected in the hospitals’ ties with the Provveditori al Sal (Salt Office) and the Cinque Savi alla Mercanzia (Board of Trade). Stevens Crawshaw also makes clear that many of the activities that went on inside the lazaretti were intended to have a real, positive effect on health rather than merely serving to lock up the poor and vulnerable until consigned to the earth.
Other elements of Stevens Crawshaw’s analysis are less compelling. Her claim that many members of the staff of the lazaretti and of the Venetian health office more generally sincerely felt they could prevent and treat the plague does not mean that the institutions were unconnected to efforts to control or isolate poor and marginal elements of the population. She stretches mightily to suggest a fundamentally...