Apocalypse Then and Now

Pandemic Politics During the Renaissance

This piece is part of HWO’s feature on ‘Apocalypse Then and Now’. The feature brings together radical reflections and historic perspectives on catastrophe and calamity. How have crises (both real and imagined), and responses to them, shaped our world?

As coronavirus deaths accumulate, reports of the economic and other non-biological costs of the pandemic (domestic abuse, addiction, suicide, etc.) are coming to light.  In the United States, 40 million workers (12% of the country’s total population) lost their jobs in ten weeks between March and May.  While states and localities debate when and how to “reopen the economy,” citizens are sharply at odds over how to balance public health risks and economic ones, and how to reconcile public safety concerns with the defense of personal liberties.  Although it is well-known that early modern Europeans had to contend for centuries with threats of plague and famine, the specific similarities between today’s challenges and those endured by our forebears are perhaps less obvious.  For a glimpse of this, consider the situation in fall 1596 when the regional government in the duchy of Aosta, a Francophone territory in the northwesternmost part of the Italian peninsula, snug up against the Mont Blanc, had closed the borders for reasons of public health.

One Sunday in September, Jean Etienne Coltella was guarding the town gate in St Rhemy, at the foot of the Grand St Bernard pass.  The road tumbling down the mountain from the Swiss-allied territory of Valais passed through the walled town, which had a reinforced turnstile.  That Sunday evening Coltella saw “a foreigner” slide into a house belonging to the Bigayon brothers.  The guard approached the house, pounded the door, and called out for the brothers to open it for inspection.  He demanded to see if any “foreigners from infected areas” were there.  The brothers refused.  As Coltella began to beat the door open with a large piece of wood, Vionyn and Rémy Bigayon appeared with swords and daggers in hand.  Vionyn’s weapon belonged to a merchant from a nearby Valaisan town.  Shouting “Let’s kill him!” and “Let’s put the wood down, because it’s time you learn who Rémy Bigayon is!” the brothers chased Coltella down the street, brandishing their swords.  Coltella, unarmed, fled to his house, grabbed a pistol and a musket, and then conscripted three people from the church square to help him search the Bigayon house for the suspected quarantine-breaker.  As they drew near, the brothers began pelting them with rocks.  Coltella returned fire with his pistol, not knowing if he hit anyone.  One of Coltella’s conscripts heard the gunfire and saw Rémy retreat into the house with a wounded right leg, ending the skirmish.  Coltella dispatched a messenger to the authorities in Aosta.  Two days later a member of the duchy’s executive council (the Conseil des Commis) arrived in St Rhemy to interview witnesses, several of whom (a notary, some card-players, other guards, and a preacher) confirmed Coltella’s account.

Map of the region. Image by the author

Sixteenth-century epidemics, like those today, disrupted communities biologically, commercially and economically.  This episode also suggests that these disruptions intersected with pre-existing conflicts – there seems to have been a back story between Coltella and the Bigayon.  Some people were willing to put their lives at risk to circumvent travel restrictions imposed by local authorities.  The resistance of the Bigayon brothers and Piece offers a glimpse of the rudimentary infrastructure created by regional authorities like the Conseil des commis to keep the valley free of the plague, thereby ensuring its continued ability to trade with other areas.  Merchants or travelers who presented papers from public health officials in a plague-free area would be admitted to neighboring places.  If the Valle d’Aosta became diseased its hope of exporting wine over the Théodule pass to Zermatt or purchasing grain from Lombardy or Piedmont was lost.  The St Rhemy case highlights the variety of actors involved in early public health efforts, pointing to their political, diplomatic, and fiscal implications.

The most basic element of late Renaissance public health infrastructures were systems of border guards and health certificates.  In the Valle d’Aosta these were instituted during plague outbreaks as early as 1544 if not before.  Guards kept watch at eight or ten passes in the mountains ringing the Alpine duchy.  This kind of social control was not something that the dukes of Savoy, suzerains of the valley, had devised and imposed upon them; it was a home-grown technique.  Guards like Coltella prohibited entry to anyone without a valid billet de santé, according to agreements between the Conseil des commis and, for example, authorities in the Valais.  When the situation deteriorated, his orders were to “not let anyone enter into the valley, of whatever estate and condition, with or without” papers.

An ongoing point of contention between local communities and lords and the Conseil in Aosta was who would be responsible for the guards’ salaries.  The system that was worked out distinguished between passes on the borders of the duchy (“general passes” whose guards were paid by the Conseil) and those connecting districts within the valley (“particular passes” where salaries were the responsibility of nearby communities or lords).  Public health emergencies thus reconfigured spatial categories and contributed to a linear conception of boundaries – though not from the perspective of the sovereign (the duke), but from that of regional government.  Guards might have permission to green light certain travelers, such as princely couriers or “those traveling with cases, whether on foot or by horse, such as bankers and the like,” with proper papers.  The guards at the passes were not closely supervised.  They subcontracted work to other guards and occasionally patrolled the wrong passes – perhaps knowingly.  Guards funneled information to the Conseil about the presence or absence of the plague in nearby areas and were reimbursed for having printers from Ivrea print and “manufacture the certificates … for distribution to those passing through.”

Closing passes blocked grain and wine transport, livestock being driven to markets, or other commodities being delivered to regional trade fairs.  Thence a ripple effect:  freezing agricultural exchange compromised communities’ abilities to pay taxes.  In 1566 the town of Montjovet endured nine months of plague, and the survivors also lost their harvests “since they had been quarantined from their fields and … unable to gather in crops, beginning with their pastures, wine, chestnuts, and other foodstuffs.”  Plague in one area thus portended local famine, causing neighboring areas to protect their own scarce supplies by prohibiting grain exports.  Public health concerns trumped the claims not only of merchants but also tax farmers who had invested in the right to collect transit tolls or to sell monopoly goods – like salt.  Local guides led trains of salt carts along secret mountain paths within the duchy, avoiding “dangerous areas suspected of plague, during daytime and nighttime.”  Solutions were sought by transferring commodities without leaving one’s territory; in 1572 the governor of Aosta authorized transit of “two dozen pack animals” loaded with wine “to the summit of the mountain [above Zermatt] where it can be transferred” to the Valaisans “without them entering into this pays.”  The plague having run its course in a town, authorities contracted with “cleaners and disinfecters both to burn the rectory … and to clean the church, hospital, and neighboring houses.”

Church of San Rocco, Montjovet, Valle ‘Aosta, Italy. Via WikiCommons.

As the Conseil blamed the valley’s lieutenant governor for having failed to protect “the health of all” in 1564, locals took matters into their own hands.  The Martinod brothers from the village of Ciseran mortgaged a meadow and hemp field for 40 florins paid to plague cleaners to “have the said village cleaned … and the houses disinfected, which could not be done without great expense.”  Meanwhile, the Conseil negotiated with Valaisan officials (the governor of St Maurice, the bailiff of Valais, and the castellan and council members in Visp) about reopening traffic.  Sticking points were who had the authority to issue health certificates and what to do when the house of the relevant official was itself infected.  The governor of St Maurice denied the appearance of the plague in one of his communities but ordered its inhabitants to “come back home as before” to avoid any suspicion.  When Valaisans with valid health certificates were kept out of the valley, the governor threatened to reciprocate and eventually got his way.  The regulation of mobility and exchange thus was negotiated by local bishops, governors, town councils, and regional executive committees, although this did not stop merchants or producers from taking their own initiatives.

Renaissance pandemics were managed by a host of regional actors who formulated ad hoc policies, aware of the broad impact of their decisions.  Pragmatism drove the decision-making of these local elites, whose actions were largely supported by the population, and not imposed by the sovereign.  Plague restrictions created economic hardships and conflicts – with deadly consequences – affecting individuals and groups at all levels of society, from nobles to villagers.  Public health diplomacy was multilateral in nature, since it affected not just two neighboring polities, but other regions, states and authorities that interacted with each neighbor.  Plague-related mobility control contributed to the historical constitution of regional spaces, especially in the Alps, where agro-pastoral economies depended on the movement of shepherds and cultivators through pass zones to high pastures distant from their residences.  Conceptualizing areas as ‘plague-ridden’ or ‘plague-free’ was a mental practice that reinforced a notion of polities as realities with territorial extension within which populations could be controlled and information collected.  This operated on transregional, sub-regional and topographic levels.  The broad acceptance of mobility restrictions was due both to public benefit from such regulation, and to the dispersal of controlling authority among a spectrum of political actors.

Responses to plague conditioned inhabitants to accept extraordinary interference in their daily lives.  Health commissioners imposed remarkable disruption but encountered limited public outcry, as a plague-imposed law of necessity generated widespread acknowledgment of public authority within given territories.  As if it were an occupying army extracting provisions, the plague demanded that populations become “administratively disciplined” in order to survive.  But the case of the Bigayon brothers reminds us that not everyone accepted this discipline.


  • Archives Historiques Régionales d’Aoste, Fonds du Conseil des Commis, vols. 1-3
  • Ibid., Fonds Challant, vol. 260
  • Archivio Notarile di Aosta, Tappa di Châtillon, vol. 131
  • Archivio Parrocchiale di St Vincent, cart. 9
  • Archivio di Stato di Torino, prima sezione, Cité et Duché d’Aoste, mz. 1 d’addizione, no. 8
  • Ibid., sezioni riunite, articoli 138, 154

Further reading:

Bernard Janin, Une région alpine originale:  le Val d’Aoste:  tradition et renouveau (Aosta:  Musumeci, 1976)

Jon Mathieu, History of the Alps, 1500-1900:  Environment, Development and Society (Morgantown:  West Virginia University Press, 2009 [1998])

William Naphy, Plagues, Poisons and Potions: Plague-Spreading Conspiracies in the Western Alps ca. 1530-1640 (Manchester University Press, 2002)

Voisins?  Vallée d’Aoste et Valais, ed. Thomas Busset, Pierre Dubuis and Jon Mathieu, Histoire des Alpes 4 (1999)

Caroline Schnyder, Reformation und Demokratie im Wallis, 1524-1613 (Mainz:  Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2002)

One Comment

  1. I really enjoyed this article and wish I had read it in 2006 before visiting Aosta, and then Cervinia. My own father’s family, Longino, left Aosta in the early 17th century, persecuted for religious reasons. Most of them didn’t survive but one ancestor made it to Genoa and from there to London, and thence to New Berne, North Carolina; his branch of a by-now numerous family of Longinos settled across the south from Texas to Louisiana, to Mississippi, to Alabama to Georgia, and settled in Fairburn, Georgia. They became Methodists, but their original religion was some sect of catholicism that was judged heretical and persecuted. I hadn’t factored in the plague as another reason to flee this beautiful area. Very interesting.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *