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The Plague Files

Crisis Management in Sixteenth-Century Seville

Alexandra Parma Cook

Publication Year: 2009

In the first half of the 1580s, Seville, Spain, confronted a series of potentially devastating crises. In three years, the city faced a brush with deadly contagion, including the plague; the billeting of troops in preparation for Philip II’s invasion of Portugal; crop failure and famine following drought and locust infestation; an aborted uprising of the Moriscos (Christian converts from Islam); bankruptcy of the municipal government; the threat of pollution and contaminated water; and the disruption of commerce with the Indies. While each of these problems would be formidable on its own, when taken together, the crises threatened Seville’s social and economic order. In The Plague Files, Alexandra Parma Cook and Noble David Cook reconstruct daily life during this period in sixteenth-century Seville, exposing the difficult lives of ordinary men, women, and children and shedding light on the challenges municipal officials faced as they attempted to find solutions to the public health emergencies that threatened the city’s residents. Filling several gaps in the historiography of early modern Spain, this volume offers a history of not only Seville’s city government but also the medical profession in Andalusia, from practitioner nurses and barber surgeons (who were often the first to encounter symptoms of plague) to well-trained university physicians. All levels of society enter the picture—from slaves to the local aristocracy. Drawing on detailed records of city council deliberations, private and public correspondence, reports from physicians and apothecaries, and other primary sources, Cook and Cook recount Seville’s story in the words of the people who lived it—the city’s governor, the female innkeepers charged with reporting who recently died in their establishments, the physicians who describe the plague victims’ symptoms. As Cook and Cook’s detailed history makes clear, in spite of numerous emergencies, Seville’s bureaucracy functioned with relative normality, providing basic services necessary for the survival of its citizens. Their account of the travails of 1580s Seville provides an indispensable resource for those studying early modern Spain.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

This project began, as often others do, by a chance “discovery” in 1990 of a cache of documents while we were engaged in another investigation, in this case a preliminary study of the social and economic history of Triana, the maritime district of Seville. We were working in Seville’s Municipal Archive, looking...


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pp. xi


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pp. xiii-xvi

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pp. 1-13

Seville was one of Europe’s largest Atlantic port cities in the late sixteenth century, comparable in size to Lisbon, London, and Antwerp. Only Paris and Venice had more inhabitants than Seville. The urban complex was a vibrant, cosmopolitan place that attracted migrants from nearby towns and other areas of...

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1. Plague in Lisbon

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pp. 14-21

Seville’s massive stone city hall, completed in 1564, shared the principal public plaza with a large Franciscan monastery as well as the Audiencia and the Royal Jail. The Plaza of San Francisco itself was the favorite site for both religious and secular spectacles...

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2. Caring for Sick Soldiers

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pp. 22-29

In national emergencies, the Crown secured the funds necessary to carry forward the effort by a series of measures: forced loans, new or sharply increased taxes, conscription of men to serve in the armies, obligatory quartering of soldiers, and requests for special donations...

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3. Averting a Morisco Crisis

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pp. 30-37

During the month of June, another matter occupied the Count of Villar and the cabildo. Seville was home to about six thousand Moriscos, Muslim converts to Christianity. After the fall of Granada in 1492, Muslims were allowed to continue to practice...

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4. Sickness in the Jail

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pp. 38-44

The governor and the seville council relied on the services of numerous physicians, particularly in times of crisis. The city had no shortage of medical professionals, though their training and level of expertise varied widely. At the highest level were...

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5. This Sickness of Catarrh

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pp. 45-50

The guard against the plague had continued during the Morisco crisis and seemed effective, though disgruntled city residents complained about the restrictions. During the cabildo meeting of Friday, 5 August, chief constable Lope Zapata Ponce de León stated...

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6. Sanitation in the City

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pp. 51-55

The meeting of Wednesday, 28 September 1580, once again presided over by the Count of Villar, began on a positive note. The cabildo rejoiced at the good news from Badajoz that “His Majesty is well and without fever.” The council members decided to show...

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7. Tussle with the Inquisition

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pp. 56-61

Since the middle of august, the city had been battling the influenza epidemic, taking various measures to accommodate the sick poor, ensuring an adequate food supply as well as addressing numerous sanitation problems. But on Monday 10 October a letter...

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8. Signs of Contagious Disease

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pp. 62-65

The year 1580 became known as the “year of the moquillo [mucus],” a graphic reminder of the highly contagious disease that swept through Spain, affecting and killing rich and poor alike. The influenza epidemic lasted only three months, but if we are to...

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9. Caring for the Poor and Needy

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pp. 66-73

In the meeting of 2 March, Don Diego de Portugal, one of the plague deputies, denounced the council’s failure in “preserving this city from the sickness of the plague.” He complained that the plague was spreading and that many people had died “without any attempts...

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10. Flee Fast, Far, and for a Long Time

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pp. 74-88

During the month of April 1581 the crisis heightened, as the city battled sickness and death, food shortage, and financial difficulties. The president and judges of the Royal Audiencia, fearing for their lives, petitioned the king to allow them to leave Seville...

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11. Much Money Being Spent

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pp. 89-96

The governor’s threat of a heavy fine for any council member who failed to attend meetings bore little result. The honorable councilors, following the age-old advice, fled fast and far. When the Count of Villar convened an extraordinary meeting of the...

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12. Almost a Miracle

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pp. 97-104

The month of June brought some relief in the severity of the epidemic, but the food shortage and economic difficulties showed no sign of improving. The cabildo continued to receive petitions begging for the easing of taxes. On 2 June a tax farmer, Gonzalo...

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13. Accusations of Mismanagement

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pp. 105-108

The cabildo and the Count of Villar were dealt an unpleasant surprise at the beginning of July. The king advised the officials that he had received a complaint about their handling of the plague crisis. The accuser was anonymous, but the charges were...

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14. Settling Accounts

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pp. 109-114

The plague may have been easing, but the city’s financial difficulties were growing. On 19 July the city’s steward, Diego del Postigo, duly reported that the amount “that he has disbursed from the plague account until 15 July of this year [1581] totaled...

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15. A Gift to the City

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pp. 115-119

Improving conditions in Seville did not necessarily mean that the plague had ended in other parts of Andalusia. During the 4 August meeting, the Count of Villar informed the council that in Sanlúcar de Barrameda “there is more sickness of the plague and many...

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16. Bulls and Jousting

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pp. 120-124

News of Seville’s good fortune and improving health reached the Court, and King Philip conveyed to the city his satisfaction upon learning of “the relief from the sickness of the plague for which he gives thanks.” The royal missive arrived at city hall on...

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17. Damages and Losses

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pp. 125-132

The last four months of the year 1581 transpired without any new reports of the plague. Nevertheless, the cabildo continued to wrestle with the high costs of the past outbreak and with demands for payment from numerous creditors. The grain shortage...

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18. A Particular Commission

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pp. 133-140

Faced with reports indicating that the plague was rampant in the district, the councilors discussed the ramifications of the threat posed by the infected places and ways to protect the city from a recurrence of the plague. The officials made two decisions early in...

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19. Some Recover, the Rest Die

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pp. 141-148

Diego de Toledo and Juan de Perea Durán wrote regular reports to Seville’s cabildo informing the governor and the municipal government of their progress. The councilors showed great interest in their envoys’ missives, which often generated debates...

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20. Enter and Trade

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pp. 149-156

Near the end of the day of 5 February the Count of Villar announced that he had learned that “in the corral called de la Pastrana in the parish of San Marcos, there are two women who came from the town of Constantina where there is plague.” The...

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21. Looking Death in the Eye

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pp. 157-167

Despite the optimistic reports from Constantina, Cazalla, and Puebla, disquieting news reached Seville at almost the same time. The Count of Villar announced in the cabildo on 21 February that Castilblanco de los Arroyos “has been again struck,” and many...

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22. Jumping over the Wall

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pp. 168-175

Attempts to protect the city and establish quarantine had immediate repercussions in Seville, a major commercial magnet with an unceasing flow of goods and people on both land and the river. Muleteers, or carters with their oxen, were bringing in...

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23. Evil Men

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pp. 176-182

At about the time that the suspicious deaths were being investigated in Seville, the licentiate Juan de Perea Durán sat down in Puebla de los Infantes and penned a report to the Count of Villar. He was frustrated not only by the course of events in...

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24. Denying the Plague

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pp. 183-189

At the same time as new areas became afflicted, some of the earliest towns to have dealt with the plague were reporting recovery. Officials in Cazalla de la Sierra had been attempting for some time to convince the Sevillian authorities that their...

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25. Circumventing the Cordon Sanitaire

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pp. 190-199

While the Jurado Martín Riquelme was making inquiries in Cazalla de la Sierra, the town remained under orders of isolation, and travelers continued to be intercepted. On Tuesday, 13 March, another jurado, Bernaldino Ramírez, and...

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26. Death of Dr. Centurio

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pp. 200-203

The royal governor of Seville’s responsibilities were many and diverse, and in times of crisis not only was he called upon to direct the city government, administer justice, and make decisions affecting the entire province, but he or his deputies were expected...

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27. Swelling in the Right Thigh

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pp. 204-210

The Count of Villar and the plague commission continued to receive notices of suspicious sickness throughout Seville. On 22 March they learned that there was a sick girl on Sol Street, in the parish of San Román. They ordered the surgeon Bachiller Jorge...

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28. Fleeing Disease

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pp. 211-218

The town of Castilblanco de los Arroyos once again demanded attention from Sevillian authorities. On Saturday, the last day of March, Pedro Suárez de Venegas received orders to travel to Castilblanco and check on the number and status of the sick. The Count...

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29. Posting Guard

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pp. 219-223

When the Count of Villar met with the plague commission on 2 April, he pointed out that now that Seville was surrounded by plague-stricken communities, greater care needed to be taken to protect it. He ordered jurados and constables to...

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30. Covered with Blackish Spots

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pp. 224-237

As Seville found itself ever more tightly surrounded by infected communities, the situation in the city seemed to be deteriorating as well. On 5 April the plague commission learned that a candle maker who lived on Mar Street had died that day, and...

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31. Grave Consequences

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pp. 238-245

Given the conflicting reports regarding the sickness appearing among Seville’s populace, the plague commission decided to turn to the city’s physicians for advice on what steps to take. On 21 April the deputies asked the medical professionals to assess the...

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32. Trade Is Impeded

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pp. 246-251

The Count of Villar’s caution before declaring Cazalla de la Sierra plague free proved to be warranted. On 25 April the governor received “very certain news” that Cazalla had “fallen back into sickness”; there were many sick and dead of the plague...

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33. A Pesthouse for the Poor

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pp. 252-256

Uncertainty about the presence of plague within Seville’s walls soon resurfaced. Prodded by Dr. Rodrigo de León, the administrator of the Amor de Dios Hospital, the Count of Villar found it necessary once again to ask the city’s physicians and...

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34. Conflict with Town Officials

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pp. 257-262

At about the same time that Licentiate Ramírez de Sierra was conducting his inspection in Cazalla de la Sierra, there was trouble in nearby Constantina. When the Count of Villar sent Bachiller Miguel Díaz there, on 20 March, to replace the...

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Epilogue: Gentleman of Prudence

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pp. 263-272

Seville’s physicians had declared the city plague free, and on 22 June 1582 a solemn procession wound its way through the streets, bearing the images of Santa Justa and Santa Rufina as well as San Roque and San Sebastián, “through whose sovereign assistance the...

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pp. 273-276


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pp. 277-283


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pp. 285-296

E-ISBN-13: 9780807134986
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807143605

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2009