Plague Prevention, Social Isolation and Social Control.
Policing and Breach.
Professor Richard Oram.
As we are seeing in the midst of the current Covid-19 pandemic, the extraordinary conditions created during such times of societal crisis brought out the best and worst in people, as lawmakers and communities struggled to keep people safe and disease-free or to hasten the passing of the pestilence.
In a previous post, I explored how Scotland had been one of the most advanced northern European states in passing basic legislation in 1456 – sixty-two years before Henry VIII’s government did the same for England – that empowered local authorities to take all necessary steps to ‘staunch’ epidemics. I outlined what that meant in practical terms, but some readers have been asking for more details.
Across Scotland, the volume of records for how towns especially used the powers given to them by the 1456 act increases rapidly from the 1490s onwards. Surviving burgh council records for communities as dispersed as Elgin, Banff and Aberdeen in the north-east to Irvine and Ayr in the south-west or Peebles and Selkirk in the south-east, provide remarkable local testimony of the responses of communities to the challenges of epidemic and the reactions of those whom the measures were intended to keep safe. Some of the most detailed information comes from the burgh records of Elgin, Stirling, Glasgow and Edinburgh, spanning epidemics from the 1490s down to the last great plague episode in Scotland in 1648, but almost every burgh which has surviving records provides stories that can be both harrowing and uplifting of the costs in human lives lost, ruined or saved.
Amongst the earliest detailed record of a burgh’s response to the plague threat is the 1499 series of acts passed in Edinburgh. These followed the Italian measures that had developed by the middle of the fifteenth century, which concentrated on limiting spread through strict controls on movement of people and goods; these effectively quarantined entire communities, much like our current lock-down. Edinburgh’s local laws were a remarkable indication of how seriously the risks of inaction were considered, for it was a community dependent on trade. The measures imposed by its councillors – all of them leading merchants themselves – stopped all communication and traffic of goods to and from towns and districts where infection was even just suspected and not necessarily already visible. In a step of which our own current restrictions on both national and local commerce is an echo, they suspended Edinburgh’s own markets and, in the process, effectively stopped all trade within the burgh. Again, when we think of the identified risks of transmission of Covid-19 from one infected person within a larger group, in crowded or confined spaces like markets, these steps look remarkably modern.
Contagion – where disease spreads through contact or touch – was regarded as the main way in which plague could be transmitted. Modern virological and epidemiological understanding of how viruses and bacillae can live on our skin or on hard surfaces onto which we have sneezed or transmitted them has confirmed the risks in touch-contact, even although our medieval ancestors lack any awareness of micro-organisms. Places where contagion was believed to be rife were closed, starting with all the schools, although it must be remembered that there was no universal education system and the number of children – all boys – being educated was just a tiny percentage of the total population of children. Children were regarded as possibly dangerous sources of contagion, uncontrollable and potentially dirty, likely to come into contact with sources of plague – through their habit of playing in the filth of middens, for the foul odours and putrefaction were believed to generate disease – and so transmit it to other family members. Along with school-closures came the instruction that all children under the age of fifteen were to remain indoors, along with dogs and pigs, revealing the three main groups believed to be the most likely vectors of plague transmission through their common attraction to filth!
Just as today we are seeing the imposition of strict controls over the movement of materials, all merchants – but especially those trading in wool, hides or textiles, which were believed to be especially risky repositories of plague – required a written and legally approved licence to conduct trade. An even more stringent requirement was that they needed to be able to provide testimonials from a reputable body – another burgh’s council, church authorities or trustworthy legal officer – that both they and their goods came from plague-free areas. Without such licenses, the traders would have their goods burned without compensation, while they faced possible forfeiture and banishment from the burgh for life for placing their fellow townsmen at risk.
Covid-19 ‘shaming’ and reporting of breaches of regulations is just a modern manifestation of how communities protected themselves through self-policing, although then as now some used report and rumour as a way to settle personal scores. Even the whispered rumour that someone was breaching the regulations could result in the full weight of the burgh’s wrath falling on the accused, innocent or not. The biggest breach of protocols was knowingly concealing possible evidence of infection. For people who took in refugees from plague-hit areas even within their own burgh, deliberately concealed infection within their household, or took in visitors who somehow managed to enter the burgh without proof of ‘cleanness’ (as plague-free conditions were described), the punishments were extreme. The first two of those breaches were punishable by death and for the latter, while a death penalty was still available to the authorities, the breach merited a minimum of branding on the face, confiscation of all property and possessions and expulsion from the burgh.
Fear of ‘the poor and their filth’ ran deep in pre-Modern societies and remained a deep-seated fear in the hearts of the well-off in communities down to more recent times. That fear was displayed in 1499 in Edinburgh through the council’s imposition of controls on society’s under-classes, especially beggars and vagrants. Those groups were already governed by very strict laws on their activities, which regulated when, where and how they could beg, for example. In the midst of crisis, when their means of survival were already severely curtailed by the closing down of the markets in which they often begged for alms, they faced even harsher treatment. All who could not prove that they were natives of Edinburgh faced branding and expulsion from the town. Repeat offenders and those who attempted to gain unlawful entry to a town faced execution for the crime of trying to survive. One crumb of compassion can be seen in the issuing to ‘our own’ or Edinburgh-born beggars of a token that they were required to display clearly on their clothing, but formal identification as a beggar was stigmatised in this way.
Edinburgh was not alone in issuing local legislation of this kind. Glasgow’s 1574 enactments are a chilling record of a very local response to epidemic in a community that felt beleaguered and fearful of what was happening ‘out there’. Glasgow’s councillors first identified ‘suspect places’ where they knew plague was already raging and barred entry to Glasgow for all folk from Leith, Kirkcaldy, Dysart and Burntisland, and prohibited Glaswegians to travel to those places, under pain of death. They believed that Edinburgh itself was largely plague free, so Glaswegians could travel there but only with a testimonial from the council that they were ‘clean’ of disease before they went. On their return, they were required to present another statement from the bailies of Edinburgh to the council in Glasgow to prove that they were still ‘clean’. Reciprocally, no-one from Edinburgh was to be received into Glasgow without a testimonial; those who tried faced a hefty £10 fine. Anyone from Glasgow who brought home merchandise of types believed to be potential carriers of the plague, without having a testimonial, faced possible execution and definite seizure and destruction of their goods.
A separate clause detailed the nature of testimonials – health passports, in effect – that were required. The certificates of health or post-Covid-19 recovery being suggested now have their origins in these documents. Travellers from plague-free areas were to be admitted only with testimonials, either from their burgh council or, if they were country-dwellers, from their parish minister. The testimonials had to record the names of all of the travellers and their number; where they came from; when; why; what they brought with them; and how many horses they had. Burgesses travelling on a Glasgow testimonial had to present another testimonial from their destination, recorded on the back of the Glasgow one, on their return. It had to show when and where they had sold their goods, otherwise they were not be readmitted to the burgh.
In an act that displayed how little trust the burgh authorities placed in their fellow townsmen’s honesty and willingness to adhere to measures designed for their community’s safety, they set in place strict measures to control communication. First, they ordained that no ‘strangers’ should be admitted to Glasgow without first presenting their testimonials to the provost, bailies or their deputies. Revealing what they feared, they next prohibited townsfolk from receiving anyone into town through back yards, where they could enter the town through private gates or by clambering over the back walls of the long block of land that extended from the street-facing houses (there was no continuous defensive wall, just these ‘back-dykes’). Even Glasgow residents had to enter only at the official gates, every breach of that requirement punishable by a £10 fine. To ensure that there was no illicit movement in or out of town through the back properties, every resident was made responsible for ‘closing up’ his own yard end. Those who failed to do so faced the threat of execution. Anyone apprehended by the watchmen who were appointed to police the control measures coming around the ‘edge of the town’, i.e. not using one of the official gates, was to be imprisoned and regarded as suspected of infection.
The burgh’s unofficial suburbs were also subjected to council regulation. No-one living in any of the settlements outside Glasgow’s gates or south of the Clyde across the bridge was to receive travellers as lodgers without licence from the council. To ensure that the suburbs did not become reservoirs of plague, no goods that had been barred from entry to the town were to be stored there. Fear of infection through unregulated trade lay behind a clause that required Glasgow’s provost, bailies and council to visit the Clyde bridge and waterside twice daily, to ensure that no out-of-town men were receiving herring (brought from communities around the Firth of Clyde where plague was rife) or trading there without the council’s permission. Good birth was believed to make someone more trustworthy, hence ‘gentlemen dwelling to landward’, that is in the rural districts around Glasgow, who wanted to buy fresh fish were to come in person, ‘bot in cais of gentill men of hiar degre, sick as erle, lord, barrown’, (translation – except in the cases of gentlemen of higher rank, such as earl, lord, baron) they could send one of their recognised servants instead.
The distrust of people with no obvious means of support that was present in Edinburgh’s 1499 act was equally clear – indeed, went far further – in Glasgow’s 1574 legislation. It identified all travelling pipers, fiddlers, minstrels and ‘ony wther vagabundis’ as a risk and ordered them simply to leave the town unless specially licenced to remain. Those who failed to comply were flogged and then thrown out permanently. Like Edinburgh, no poor common beggars were permitted to remain in the town, except those born there or long-dwelling there. Those who did not leave were branded on the cheek and expelled. Those who were permitted to remain had to come to the tollbooth to receive tokens each morning – the design was changed daily to ensure there was no counterfeiting – and to have their names registered. If any beggar who received a token chose to go out of the burgh and later return, they had their tokens seized and were banished for life from Glasgow.
If anyone fell sick of whatever illness, the head-of-household of where they were living was required to come immediately to those men who were appointed as ‘visitors and searchers’ of their street to notify them and the sick person was to be inspected in person. There are accounts of sick or recovering people being required to stand naked in front of the ‘searchers’ who would inspect their skin for any traces of plague buboes or sores. If signs of active infection were seen, the individual and all with whom they had been in contact were forced into quarantine; the parallel with contact-tracing today is striking. If anyone died, the searchers were to be notified and likewise inspect the corpse. Householders who failed in either of those requirements were banished. These acts were enforced through community self-policing, the council appointing the ‘searchers’ responsible for enforcement from the inhabitants of the same streets in which they lived. They had to go twice daily and ask for reports at every house. For decency’s sake, two visitors – one male, one female – were to inspect the sick and the corpses of the dead. People were ordered to obey the searchers without question, failure to do so being punishable by fines. In addition to these visitors and searchers, watches were placed at the four main entrances to the burgh and, for greater security the gatekeepers had to surrender their keys to one of the senior council officers every night to ensure that nobody was allowed to leave or enter illicitly. Three lesser gates were locked for the duration of the epidemic. Certain areas of the town, mainly poorer, vermin-infested lanes and alleys, such as Schoolhouse Wynd, and all vennels, were to be ‘simpliciter condampnit and stekit vp.’ (translation – condemned and staked up (fenced off)). Anyone living there had to fend for themselves.
How rigorously were such measures policed? There is actually limited evidence of punishments being applied but sufficient numbers are recorded to show that anti-plague regulations were enforced. The best-known case occurred in Edinburgh, where in August 1530 a tailor concealed his wife’s death from plague and went to mass in St Giles Kirk while her corpse lay unattended at home. On the discovery of what had passed, it was judged that he had wantonly and recklessly endangered his fellow burgesses through coming to church and mingling with them. For that crime, he was sentenced to be hanged outside his house door. Fortuitously, the rope used was rotten and broke twice, which was interpreted as a sign of God’s will on the matter: he was instead deprived of his property and banished for life with his children, turning a once prosperous townsman into a wandering, penniless beggar with his innocent children suffering with him for his stupidity. In a second instance in Edinburgh, two women were convicted of likewise endangering their fellows through publicly airing quilts and blankets they had taken from the house of a plague victim. They were less fortunate, for they were executed by drowning in the burgh’s flooded quarry-pits. At Elgin, a father had watch helplessly as his daughter was driven permanently from the burgh for the crime of having crept out surreptitiously to visit her boyfriend, who lived in a village where plague was rife just outside the town. She had defied the law and endangered not just her family but the whole community; she was lucky to escape with her life.
Such ruthless and high-profile acts of enforcement probably increased the effectiveness of quarantine and reporting mechanisms. Just as nowadays, however, there were those who saw measures designed to protect them and their fellows from risk of disease as oppressive and intrusive impositions by faceless authority. There are multiple records of men who considered themselves to be above the reach of these acts or who consciously tried to escape from their controls. At Stirling, there are records of burgesses simply sneaking away under cover of night by breaking through the back dykes of their property, while at Edinburgh, in a wonderful echo of recent events, prominent members of the political community flouted their own regulations by deserting the plague-hit burgh to escape to their country residences, despite the restrictions on travel. Merchants also saw the controls as unacceptable hindrances on their private business. At Irvine, the merchant Adam Multrar publicly denounced the council in June 1500. He declared that he would quit Irvine permanently – a threat which he believed would scare the council into exempting him for fear of the loss of his local wealth – because of what he considered unacceptable restrictions on his movements. These, he claimed, were crippling his ability to carry on his business. The mirror with today is striking. Multrar was neither the first nor the last to complain, but most were less public and more devious in their actions. People and goods continued to move surreptitiously with false paperwork in case of apprehension, usually concealing their origins in places where plague was rampant. As the steadily expanding volume of legislation in the 1500s and down to the 1640s demonstrates, human ingenuity in inventing ways to get around restrictions knew no bounds. Perhaps worse, as individual cases make clear, many of those who deliberately flouted the laws were prominent figure of the same classes who clamoured for their imposition, devised and implemented them, or were active in their enforcement. As the spread of epidemics and the increasingly frantic efforts of responsible authorities to halt their spread demonstrates, the human cost of every breach of the anti-plague acts was truly horrifying.