Researching Early Modern History

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Disease and diplomacy, RBE 34 – TD Jacobs

Another day, another delayed blog. Things have been rather busy here of late. I got ill last month – happily just a really ugly cold – and now, my university is closed. We’re doing our best via online classes and long-distance working schemes. I can’t say that I mind that much, but I really feel for my colleagues who had organized major events, like our “Past Week” program, which have been cancelled. Hopefully, we will be able to repurpose some of the planning next year, after all of this has passed. In the meantime, I am pressing forward with my research, as are other members of UGent’s history department.

Professor Isabelle Devos, a colleague and historical demographer, recently published a newspaper article regarding the Belgian cholera epidemic of 1866, which resulted in 43,400 deaths, and the measures enacted at the time. Her field of study is of obvious relevance now. However, one of the advantages of New Diplomatic History is that the expansion of subject matter from the purely political aspects of interactions has opened up entirely new vistas for research, and all aspects of peoples’ social and personal lives become topics for investigation. This includes illness.

Diplomats and monarchs both fell ill during the early modern period, and indeed, one of an ambassador’s primary tasks was to report on the health of the ruler(s) of his receiving country. They may not have always had much of substance to report. According to Dr Klaas van Gelder, the prime minister of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, Kaunitz, was a noted hypochondriac. His correspondence with the Marquis of Prié, Prince Eugene of Savoy’s plenipotentiary governor of the Habsburg Netherlands, often mentions his imagined health problems. Despite his various ailments, the former diplomat lived to the ripe old age of 83.

Balthazar Gerbier, the agent of Charles I in Brussels during the 1630s, also had health complaints, and they appear to have had an actual impact on his work. In November of 1633, Gerbier reported to the secretary of state that “a sciatike had kept me twoe monthes from this Court” but that he had nevertheless had an informal, domestic audience with the Queen Mother of France – then in exile – to congratulate her on the birth of a grandson in England. What precisely he meant by “sciatica” – lower back pain in modern medical terminology – or what caused it, is unclear. But it was apparently not his only ailment. Among the letters in his registers dated to October of 1633, is an entry containing a cure “the effects are most exillent” for a “stone and obstruction of water” – a bladder stone, in other words. It ran as follows:

Receipe to draine of the gravell, and to make
water in time of observation:
Was king Henry ye 4th of France his sole remedy
Take fresh butter, put it in a silver dish on the fire to
make it boil, while it boils take of the feumme wth
A swannes quill feather, till the butter be purified
Take a silver porrenger heated by the fire, putt three spoones
full of the said purified butter in ye porringer, & ad to it
Instantly two spoones full of white wine, & one spoone full
Of white sugar candy beaten into fine powder, mingle
it together, take it in ye morning, fast two howers
after it:
This may be taken weekely

It is doubtful that this actually was an effective remedy, although drinking wine on an empty stomach at the start of every day probably helped to make it seem like it was working. While his early morning tippling may have caused the agent some minor (and possibly amusing) impairment, infectious diseases constituted a much more serious threat to diplomacy. At the same time, however, they also presented opportunities for acting outside the framework of the usual ceremonial and protocol.

John Finet’s entries in his notebooks for 1636 indicate that the newly arrived Spanish ambassador, the Conde de Oñate, took advantage of an outbreak of the plague in order to delay his public entrance. Knowing that the infection was going around, he claimed he had an “indisposition,” “the remaynes of a feaver that had seized him in Spayne.” He used the delay to haggle over his quarters. Finet met the ambassador’s demands for a fancier house by pointing out that it would be difficult to arrange this in “the tyme of contagion.” The lord chamberlin eventually tried to stick Oñate – much to his displeasure – in a house on the other side of the river, “with especiall regard to the ambassadors conveniency, as being remote in this tyme of plague from danger of infection.”

I suspect that the remoteness was intended to discourage the exceedingly punctilious Grandee from afflicting the court with his presence too often. However, a further outbreak in 1640 appeared to have more serious consequences, and not just for the diplomatic corps. People had died near Hampton Court, and Charles removed for safety to Oatlands – a no longer extant palace located in Surrey. Yet another Spanish ambassador found his plans put on hold as a result of illness. He was unable to ride in state to his first audience as the plague had spread to the king’s coachmen and grooms – one of whom had died. They were quarantined, “and theyr coache also sequestered, as not without danger if they should be sodaynly made use of.”

While nowhere near the size of the epidemic of 1665/66 (the subject of my next blog), these relatively small occurrences of infectious disease clearly had an impact on diplomatic business. However, it is worth noting – given our current situation –  that they did not bring it to a complete standstill. Despite fears of contagion, people took what they considered sensible precautions and got on with things as best they could.  In one instance, ‘social distancing’ (as they understood it) may have even been used as a way to avoid company unwanted even under healthier circumstances. 


Isabelle Devos, “Gezondheidszorg in tijden van cholera,” De Standard, 16.3.2020,

John Finet, Ceremonies of Charles I. The note books of John Finet, 1628- 1641, Albert J. Loomie, ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1987), 204-07, 285.

Balthazar Gerbier, The Letterbooks of Balthazar Gerbier, National Archives at Kew, UK, State Papers, SP 105/10, folios 262v-263r and 272r-275r.

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