Researching Early Modern History


The Great Plague and diplomatic news networks, part 1, RBE 37 – TD Jacobs

The Great Plague of 1665/66 eventually claimed an estimated 100,000 lives in and around London. The start of the outbreak, caused by Yersinia pestis, can be traced to the spring of 1665 but only became noticeable to the city’s wealthier denizens in June. The famous diarist, Samuel Pepys marked the occasion:

This day [June 7], much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that to my remembrance I ever saw.[1]

On June 10, Pepys noted it had reached London proper, writing that “the plague is come into the City (though it hath these three or four weeks since its beginning been wholly out of the City.)” However, even as Pepys began to put his affairs in order “in case it should please God to call me away,”[2] this momentous event was overshadowed in the capital by other news: a major victory over the Dutch.

War with the United Provinces had begun in March of 1665, following rising tensions and a number of skirmishes over control of maritime commerce and overseas trade. The Second-Anglo Dutch War ended a scant two years later,[3] but while it lasted, it inspired a great deal of propaganda on both sides of the North Sea – some of it pretty ripe. The title of the broadsheet “The Dutch Boare Dissected, or a Description of Hogg-Land” gives some indication as to how the English felt about what they considered Netherlandish greed. The description continues “A Dutch man is a lusty, fat, two legged cheese-worm: A creature, that is so addicted to eating butter, drinking fat drink, and sliding, that all the world knows him for a slippery fellow. An Hollander is not a High-lander, but a Low-lander; for he loves to be down in the dirt, and boar-like, to wallow therein.”[4] One of the pictures has an accompanying verse:

The monstrous pig,
With vipers big,
That seven-headed beast,
Shows how they still,
Pay good with ill
To th’ English and the rest.
The vipers come
Forth of the wombe,
With death of their own mother:
Such are that nation,
A generation,
That rise by fall of other

Dutch MonsterDetail from “The Dutch Boare Dissected, or a Description of Hogg-Land.”

Unsurprisingly, the bitter conflict also affected the diplomatic corps in London, which was already in something of a disordered condition. As the letters of the various Venetian representatives around Europe attest to, the major powers and gossipy players were embroiled in various fights with the English court. When war was officially declared in March of 1665, no ambassador from Venice was present. Spain was in the process of appointing a new resident. The Dutch ambassador was being threatened by mobs. France was planning to send an extraordinary embassy to England, supposedly to mediate. And – as if things were not exciting enough – the Tsar’s envoy had upset Charles II for some obscure reason involving the refusal of a gift, and had “not yet obtained any reception or ceremonial audience, and so far as has been heard as a private individual he is looked on with great disfavour by his Majesty.”[5]

Ambassadors arrived from Spain and France towards the end of April 1665, but the French made little apparent headway. An informant in London wrote the Venetian ambassador in Paris, Alvise Sagredo,

 the ambassadors of the Most Christian have not yet made their public entry, yet they have had many private audiences of King Charles, and it is believed to be with respect to the mediation between England and Holland, but as yet one sees no disposition in his Majesty to consent to an adjustment, as greater preparations for the war are made here daily. Besides this they say that these ambassadors have no instructions to make any considerable proposal to his Majesty with respect to reparation for the injuries done to him and his subjects by the Dutch, without which it seems practically impossible that their mediation can have effect.[6]

Nor did the French mediators have long to work. The aforementioned victory over the Dutch on June 3 (o.s.) at the Battle of Lowestoft only served to convince the English that their triumph was near at hand, despite the escape of most of the Netherlandish fleet. The Venetian correspondence is full of naught but speculation over the further prosecution of the war. Indeed, the first mentions of the outbreak in their letters are sandwiched between passages about Charles II’s younger brother and chief commander, James, Duke of York, and the location of the Dutch fleet. Sagredo’s informant simply wrote on June 19 that “The plague is spreading in several places of this city and its suburbs although there are only forty-three dead of it this week. It is feared that it will increase greatly with the intense heat of the present season.”[7] A week later, Sagredo’s informant penned the news that “The plague continues to spread in this city, 112 having died of it this week according to the bulletins and as the bulletins admit such a number it is feared that the numbers are double, more than fourteen parishes being affected.”[8]

But even as the disease took hold of London over the month of June and the start of July – as attested to by the increased frequency with which Pepys mentions houses being ‘shut up’ and his having sent his wife from the city[9] – the business of diplomacy proceeded with an almost bizarre normalcy against the general backdrop of disease. Sagredo’s informant wrote him that

This week the Count of Molina, ordinary ambassador of his Catholic Majesty made his public entry into London with great splendour and magnificence. He was conducted in his Majesty’s coaches and accompanied by more than sixty others from the Tower of London as far as his house at Chelsea […] The plague is spreading in London, 168 having died this week and nineteen parishes being affected. They say that it is beginning to spread into the country and especially in the neighbourhood of the metropolis.[10]

In fact, it is unclear who would have been present to watch the Spanish ambassador’s big entrance. Pepys’s own entry for the day doesn’t mention it; instead, he wrote “I find all the towne almost going out of towne, the coaches and waggons being all full of people going into the country.”[11] The king and queen had already removed to Hampton Court, only returning to London when necessary.

It is at this point that Sagredo stopped receiving regular letters from England, and appears to have resorted to filling his reports to the Doge and Senate with information gleaned at the French court, where people had begun to speculate as to the impact of the outbreak on the ongoing war. It was believed that the plague might persuade England to finally take advantage of France’s mediation, so as to “avoid the chance of perishing by arms as well.” As such, Louis XIV refused his ambassadors’ requests that the two weakest members of the party should be allowed to return home “in view of the slaughter wrought by the plague.” Even so, the disease finally had an impact on the conduct of business with the dismissal of much of the embassy party, so that the ambassadors could “follow the court with less danger, by limiting communication.”[12]

Unfortunately, the patchiness of Sagredo’s dispatches with regard to English affairs hinders their use as a source of information about the Great Plague. However, the disruption in the flow of information may help to shed some light on an interesting aspect of diplomatic culture: the spread of news between diplomats. Both the extant letters as well as the gaps that appeared as 1665 ran its course reveals that the Venetian’s informant in England was none other than the agent of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Giovanni Salvetti Anterminelli.

Salvetti, who had obtained his father’s diplomatic post upon the latter’s death in 1657, also allotted scant space in his correspondence to the start of the outbreak. His letter home of June 5 was almost entirely devoted to news of the war and the Battle of Lowestoft. A small insertion noted that “La peste [continua] d’aumentusti in queste cittá” – the plague continues to increase in this city – and that people were in doubt about the number of deaths being reported.[13] His letter of July 9, 1665, described the entrance of the Spanish ambassador, before ominously noting that that “il consuggio cresce” – the consumption grows – and that 168 people had died of the disease that week.[14]

The contents of this missive obviously mirror those of July 9 letter sent to Sagredo in Paris. Allen B Hinds, an editor of the Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Vencie,  remarked upon the similarity in the records, writing that “for the whole of the period from November 1664 the advices from England are practically identical with those forwarded by the Tuscan agent, Giovanni Salvetti Anterminelli, to his government” but that the missives Sagredo sent onwards were either in French, “or have been translated from the French.”[15] That may explain why Hinds did not go so far as to definitively state that the agent and informant were one in the same. But a closer look at the July 9 document both supports this identification of the mysterious agent, as well as why Sagredo may have received letters in French despite being a fellow Italian. The copy in Salvetti’s records lacks an addressee. It was not sent to a member of his own government, something he would have had no reason to hide considering that the missive contains no information not contained in the letters that bracket it.

However, the Tuscan agent may very well have wished to obscure his contact with Sagredo in his record keeping, or – even more intriguingly – Salvetti was sending the same letter to more than one individual, and he drafted it in Italian before translating it to French and dispatching it. A more thorough comparison of letters in the Venetian correspondence and addressees (or lack thereof) in Salvetti’s copies is required, as is a search of other collections of correspondence from the period for enclosures with news from London sent on the same days.

Lastly, another aspect of the letters that Hinds overlooked establishes Salvetti as Sagredo’s informant: the locations at which they were written. Just as the Venetian ambassador’s anonymous correspondent moves to Tonbridge in Kent to escape the plague, so does Salvetti. Indeed, this is the first time in his letters that the agent demonstrates some degree of alarm over the unfolding disaster, writing to the grand duke that “Only by the grace of God have I arrived in perfect health at Tonbridge.”[16] But while the Tuscan agent survived to continue reporting from England, it would be some time before the Venetian ambassador received any further news. As Sagredo informed his superiors in Venice on July 31, “Parlement here has forbidden communication with England.”[17]

[1] Samuel Pepys, 7.6.1665. All quotations from the diary come from Samuel Pepys, “The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Daily entries from the 17th century London Diary.”

[2] Pepys, 10.6.1665.

[3] For the most recent treatise on the topic, see Gijs Rommelse, The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667): raison d’état, mercantilism and maritime strife (Hilversum: Verloren, 2006).

[4] Anon., “The Dutch Boare Dissected, or a Description of Hogg-Land” (London: s.n., 1665).

[5] See Marin Zorzi, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, to the Doge and Senate, 4.3.1665; Alvise Sagredo, Venetian Ambassador in France, to the Doge and Senate, 6.3.1665; Sagredo to the same, 20.3.1665, and enclosure. All Venetian correspondence taken from Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 34, 1664-1666, ed. Allen B Hinds (London: 1933).

[6] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 1.5.1665 and 8.5.1665 and enclosures.

[7] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 23.6.1665, enclosure.

[8] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 3.7.1665, enclosure.

[9] Pepys, 5.7.1665: “I left them going to supper, grieved in my heart to part with my wife, being worse by much without her, though some trouble there is in having the care of a family at home in this plague time, and so took leave […] Late home and to bed, very lonely.”

[10] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 17.7.1665, enclosure. The entry took place on June 21 (o.s.)/July 1 (n.s.). The enclosure itself is dated July 9.

[11] Pepys, 21.6.1665.

[12] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 24.7.1665.

[13] Giovanni Salvetti Anterminelli to Perseo Falconcini, 5.6.1665, 208v-210v, Additional MS 27962 R(1), British Library, London, UK.

[14] Salvetti to anonymous, 9.7.1665, 225v-228v.

[15] Allen B. Hinds, “Preface” in Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 34, 1664-1666, ed. Allen B Hinds (London, 1933).

[16] Salvetti to Ferdinando II de’Medici, 17.7.1665, 228v-233r, Add. MS 27962 R(1).

[17] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 31.7.1665.

Early modern “anti-vaxxers” and public health debates: reflections on the 1721 Boston smallpox epidemic, RBE 36 – TD Jacobs

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired numerous conspiracy theories, which have appeared in various forms on different social media platforms. From pathetically anti-Semitic memes on Facebook, to the equally predictable and utterly unsubstantiated claims in Reddit forums that the virus was lab grown, to sadly amusing Twitter threads about Bill Gates’s burning desire to track our trips to the Piggly Wiggly via injectable microchips.  However, one conspiracy theory found instant success: the YouTube video, “Plandemic,” which claims ‘Big Pharma’ is in cahoots with doctors to keep people sick. In part, the popularity of the fake documentary derived from how it plays off the views held by established conspiracy groups concerning the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. The danger to public health represented by the misinformation campaign caused Facebook and Twitter to remove the video from their respective platforms in May, but not before it had been viewed an estimated 1.8 million times. And fears are growing among scientists and public health experts that anti-vaxxers will prolong the pandemic. Indeed, governments such as Germany’s are already having to make assurances that any future vaccine to combat COVID-19 will only be administered voluntarily.

While the impact of the anti-vaxxer movement on the current pandemic remains to be seen, it has had a demonstrable effect on public health with regard to other illnesses. Studies have linked anti-vaxxers to a rise in outbreaks of other preventable, infectious diseases. Remarkably, impetus for the movement can largely be traced back to a single scam artist: Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, he published a study claiming a causal relationship between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism. Wakefield’s paper was retracted by The Lancet after his results were unable to be substantiated. Moreover, it was revealed that he had mistreated patients and that he stood to gain financially from his fraudulent research. As a result, Wakefield was barred from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom. And even though studies have since disproven any causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism – including a notable Danish study of over half a million children – Wakefield’s claims continue to find adherents. Measles, which had been declared eradicated in the United States in 2000, began to reappear as parents refused to vaccinate their children.  In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control reported that there had been over 1,200 measles cases across 31 states, leading to at least sixty cases that resulted in serious complications.

And while they banned ‘Plandemic’, social media platforms have done little to combat anti-vaccination groups in general. For example, anti-vaxxers have been permitted to run rampant on Facebook, harassing vaccine advocates and even threatening them with death – actions the platform recognizes as violations of its community guidelines, but says it can do nothing about. Moreover, a recent study tracking discussions on vaccines on Facebook found that anti-vaxxer views are growing unchecked, and will dominate the platform within a decade. Results from the investigation found that anti-vaxxers discuss their views more frequently, and actively target groups and individuals, so despite being smaller in number than those that support vaccines, they are more effective in spreading their beliefs. But was this the case with a similar controversy in the eighteenth-century?

In 1721, Boston was rocked by an outbreak of smallpox, and the debate over how best to stop the spread of the disease played out in the press. At the time, severe epidemics were simply a part of life. During a measles epidemic in 1713-15 that swept the North American coast line, a Boston minister, Cotton Mather chronicled the outbreak in his diary. It reached the city in mid-October, and five individuals in his own household began showing symptoms on the same day, November 4. His wife died just five days later, then his maidservant, and three of his children. On November 23, Mather wrote: “My poor family is now left without any infant in it, or any under seven years of age.” In his own house, measles had killed 5 of the 11 people infected, a fatality rate of 45%. While the lack of uniform colonial records regarding populations at the time makes it difficult to say how many people died in total during the outbreak, a recent study using data from New France estimated a fatality rate of between 20 and 30% among infants and young children – those considered most susceptible to the disease. And indeed, Mather’s own observations regarding what part of his household was most affected by the measles would appear to confirm those findings.

It seems only natural that anyone who had experienced at first hand the deadly toll  extracted by infectious diseases would seize upon any and all means to combat them. Nevertheless, when smallpox arrived in Boston in April of 1721, community leaders were strongly divided over whether to adopt inoculation. Looking back from our current climate, with all the reports of conservative Christian pastors unwittingly spreading COVID among their flocks, it may be tempting to ascribe their eighteenth-century predecessors’ reluctance to some kind of religious superstition. However, that is not at all an accurate reflection of the divisions at the time. For one thing, clergymen were among the most outspoken participants on both sides of the debate, and one group of Puritan ministers formed the core of the pro-inoculation party. Their intense involvement is understandable considering that there were few actual physicians in the English colonies, and ministers regularly dispensed medical advice and served on the frontlines in any epidemic. Moreover, professional doctors were also divided on the issue. Indeed, William Douglass, who actually held a medical degree, was the loudest opponent of inoculation. His position may strike us incongruous now, but two factors must be taken into consideration: first, inoculation was a relatively unknown practice in Europe and in the American colonies. Second, inoculation – unlike vaccination – could result in death from the very disease it was meant to combat.

Modern vaccination typically uses a dead or inactivated form of a microbe, and cannot cause the disease in question. Rather, it primes the immune system to recognize the live microbe if and when it appears. But vaccines as we now understand them did not begin to develop until the end of the eighteenth century through the innovations of Edward Jenner. Inoculation, on the other hand, involves taking live, infected material from a patient and introducing it by various means into a healthy person. In this way, a milder, survivable form of the disease would be induced. Sometimes, however, the inoculated subject developed severe symptoms and died. Moreover, the inoculated subject was contagious and could spread the illness unless placed in strict quarantine. The practice had been employed in China since the fifteenth century but it was not promoted in Western Europe until the early eighteenth century via the work of Emmanuel Timonius, Mary Wortley Montague, and a somewhat more unlikely figure: the aforementioned Cotton Mather, now better known for his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials.

By the time of the smallpox epidemic, Mather had learned of inoculation from one of his own slaves and by questioning others, and he had read Timonius’s accounts in the Philosophical Transactions. Convinced that inoculation was effective, he laid plans to implement the practice in case of an outbreak. When the disease appeared in 1721, he immediately began to marshal his forces and lobby the Boston medical community. However, inoculation was met with fierce resistance – primarily in the form of James Franklin’s New-England Courant.

In fact, it has been argued that the Courant‘s entire raison d’être was to capitalize on the inoculation controversy. It is certainly no coincidence that the paper was founded in August of 1721, months after the outbreak of both the disease and the debate, and its first issue focused on smallpox. But those involved in the venture had varying reasons for taking part. As David Copeland has argued, the printer and his backers were not just motived by concerns over public health. Rather, the paper – and the debate on inoculation – was used to try and discredit the Puritan community to the advantage of Massachusetts’s Anglican contingent, which wanted to see the Church of England established as the colony’s official state church. And Douglass, as James Schmotter has pointed out, had a further motivation: establishing medicine as an actual profession in the colonies. This entailed challenging theories and practices that originated outside of the medical community.  

The anti-inoculation pieces in the Courant made use of a wide variety of arguments and discursive strategies, some of which probably sound familiar to us now. For example, references were made to a conspiracy to take down the local government and strengthen the authority of the English crown in the colony. Then too there were the exhortations that inoculation thwarted the will of god. The medical arguments were numerous, and essentially summed up by Douglass’s editorial in the first edition of the Courant titled “At the request of several gentlemen in town: a continuation of the history of inoculation in Boston.The doctor, identified as “a Society of the Practitioners in Physick,” wrote that inoculation was:

“entirely new, not in the least vouched or recommended (being merely published, in the philosophick transactions by way of amusement) from Britain, tho’ it came to us via London from the Turk, and by a strong viva voce evidence, was proved to be of fatal & dangerous consequence.”

Douglass went on to deride Mather and his associates as “six gentlemen of piety and learning, profoundly ignorant of the matter” who were making the case for inoculation on the basis of naught but their character for they certainly had no credentials. Lastly, he reported on one case in which a person who had been inoculated nearly died.

When it came to swaying the Boston public to his point of view, Douglass employed a shotgun approach. He made active use of xenophobia and racism by summoning the boogeyman of “the Turk.” He argued from authority and went after the credentials of those promoting inoculation. He misrepresented Timonius’s publications concerning inoculation. He tried arguing from anecdote rather than data. In fact, Douglass’s only scientifically sound arguments – that inoculation indisputably caused illness, and could possibly help spread it – were rapidly passed over with the briefest of references to “strong” yet unspecified evidence obtained by word of mouth.

For their part, the pro-inoculation camp tended to focus on direct observations and the data, such as it was. By the time the Courant was established, Mather had convinced a locally trained physician, Zabdiel Boylston, to begin inoculation. Boylston initially inoculated ten people over several weeks and his results were reported in another local paper, the Boston Gazette, that July. According to John Blake, during the course of the city’s epidemic, Boylston and other physicians inoculated a total of 287 persons (not all voluntarily) six of whom died – 2.1%. Meanwhile, 5,889 people had caught the disease naturally from a total population of 10,567, 842 of whom died – 14.6%. These fatalities made up more than three quarters of the total deaths in Boston that year. I have found no information concerning the relative rates of smallpox’s long-term effects (severe scarring and blindness) among the survivors in either population, but inoculation was undoubtedly better when it came to survivability.

To return to the question asked at the start of this essay, it is difficult to say what effect the arguments of either camp had upon the attitudes and actions of Bostonians in general. As is typical for early modern publications, we have little insight into audience reception. However, the vitriolic coverage in the Courant led – at least according to Franklin – to his being accosted in the street. And whoever threw a bomb into Mather’s house in November of 1721, attached a note referencing the inoculation controversy. Mather had no doubt who was to blame for his troubles, writing in December that:

“Warnings are to be given unto the wicked printer, and his accomplices, who every week publish a vile paper to less and blacken the ministers of the town & render their ministry ineffectual. A wickedness never parallel’d anywhere upon the face of the earth.”

On the other side of the debate, it is harder to tell what impact pro-inoculation reports in the Gazette had. Boylston later published an account of his activities and patients, and while it isn’t immediately clear how he and his colleagues found the vast majority of their test subjects, one passage indicates that it was largely via personal testimonies, as opposed to the presentation of carefully framed scientific arguments in the press:    

“These gentlemen came from Roxbury into Boston to be inoculated […] and their recommendation of this practice, at their return prov’d to be of great service to that town, in carrying the inhabitants soon thro’ that distemper, and in saving many lives”

At the same time, however, Boylston indicated that the “idle, unjust, and ridiculous stories and misrepresentations” published by anti-inoculators had been effective in influencing people against the practice.

Naturally, the public discourses surrounding the smallpox outbreak of 1721 and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 are not entirely comparable. Apart from the differences in scale and the kind of media in which debates have taken place, there are massive societal changes that need to be taken into account. Not least of which is that the residents of the industrialised West generally have less direct experience of virulent, infectious diseases. As has been pointed out elsewhere, modern medicine has become the victim of its own success. The necessity of vaccination becomes less apparent when the communicable illnesses that drove the science to produce solutions are no longer as familiar. Smallpox was officially eradicated in 1977, and the last outbreak of polio in the United States occurred in 1979. Then too, COVID-19 – often conflated with the seasonal flu – does not inspire the same visceral response in comparison to smallpox, or two diseases still extant: measles and the bubonic plague. All of which graphically advertise their presence upon their victims’ bodies. The odd case of “COVID toes,” on the other foot, are easily hidden from sight. These basic differences may help to explain why people question the existence of COVID-19, while the historical record doesn’t seem to contain references to Bostonians denying that there was a smallpox epidemic.

Nevertheless, there do seem to be some common features: conspiracy theories; effective, multi-faceted discursive strategies used by ‘science deniers;’ and ineffectual scientific communication. To this must be added the issue of impartiality in the framing of the debate by the platform on which it was held. James Franklin asserted that his paper was neutral. For example, in the eighteenth issue, he wrote:

“The Courant was never design’d for a party paper. I have once and again given out, that both inoculators and anti-inoculators are welcome to speak their minds in it.”

However, upon closer examination this appears to be the wordier, eighteenth-century equivalent of Fox News’s ‘fair and balanced’ slogan. Yes, the pro-inoculation party was given some space in the paper, but from my own observations it was nowhere near the amount provided anti-inoculators. Moreover, the pro-inoculator viewpoints were rarely presented in their entirety. Rather, they often took the form of snippet references to articles published in other papers and advertisements for pamphlets like this one:

“Just publish’d the Second Edition of Several arguments, proving that inoculation of the small pox is not contained in the Law of Physick, either Natural or Divine, and therefore unlawful. Together with a reply to two short pieces, one by the Rev. Dr. Increase Mather, and another by an anonymous author, intituled, Sentiments on the small pox inoculated. And also, A short answer to a late letter in the New- England Courant. By John Williams”

What the advertisement fails to mention is that Franklin was both printer and seller of this booklet – and several others. He had a clear financial stake in the continuation of the controversy, not its resolution. Just like Facebook, the money the platform has made on ads that specifically target anti-vaxxers possibly explains why the company is unable to do anything about them.

Closer examination of such debates in the past, their framing, their outcomes, and what discursive strategies worked, could aid us in finding a way to combat modern misinformation campaigns. At least one aspect of the 1721 case seems to reflect the findings of the aforementioned study regarding the on-line competition between anti-vaxxer and pro-vaccination narratives, namely the effectiveness of multiple narratives vs. a largely monothematic, data driven argument that can seem too theoretical. Researchers are currently discussing ways scientists and doctors can improve this aspect of their communication to combat anti-vax misinformation over the long haul, such as taking the time to address the concerns of individual patients. But the height of a global pandemic possibly requires an approach that is both more concrete and more diffuse – such as the dissemination of testimonials by those directly impacted by both disease and treatment across the same social media networks anti-vaxxers make active use of. Such a personal, anecdotal form of science communication seems counter-intuitive, but the above – admittedly preliminary investigation – suggests that it was somewhat effective in the inoculation fight during the midst of the 1721 smallpox epidemic.


New-England Courant, nos. 1 and 18, 7.8.1721 and 27.11.1721. 

CDC, “Measles Cases and Outbreaks,” consulted 1.7.2020.

Travis M. Andrews, “Facebook and other companies are removing viral ‘Plandemic’ conspiracy video,” The Washington Post, 8.5.2020.

Philip Ball, “Anti-vaccine movement could undermine efforts to end coronavirus pandemic, researchers warn,” Nature, 13.5.2020.

John. B. Blake, “The inoculation controversy in Boston: 1721-1722,” The New England Quarterly 25, no. 4 (1952): 489-506.

John B. Blake, Public health in the town of Boston, 1630-1822 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1858).

Zabdiel Boylston, An historical account of the small-pox inoculated in New-England (London: Printed for S. Chandler, 1726).

Shawn Buhr, “To inoculate or note to inoculate?: The debate and the smallpox epidemic of Boston in 1721,” Constructing the Past 1, no. 1 (2000). ttps://

Elizabeth Cohen, “Facebook vowed to investigate horrific abuse by anti-vaxxers. Nine months later, no one was penalized,” CNN, 21.6.2020.

David A. Copeland, Debating the issues in colonial newspapers: primary documents on events of the period (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000).

David A. Copeland, The media’s role in defining the nation: the active voice (New York: Peter Lang, 2010).

Stephen Coss, The fever of 1721: the epidemic that revolutionized medicine and American politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016).

Joan Donovan, “Vaccines stop diseases safely – why all the suspicion?” Nature, 22.7.2020.

Neil F. Johnson, et al., “The online competition between pro- and anti-vaccination views,” Nature, 13.5.2020.

Ryan Mazan, et al., “The measles epidemic of 1714-1715 in New-France,” PSC Discussion Papers Series 21, no. 4 (2007).

Kreesten Meldgaard Madsen, et al., “A population-based study of measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination and autism,” New England Journal of Medicine 347, no. 19 (2002): 1477-482.

David M. Morens, “The past is never dead – measles epidemic, Boston, Massachusetts, 1713,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 21, no. 7 (2015): 1257-260.

Loveday Morris and William Glucroft, “Prospect of a coronavirus vaccine unites anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and hippie moms in Germany.” The Washington Post, 3.7.2020.

James W. Schmotter, “William Douglass and the beginnings of medical professionalism: a reinterpretation of the 1721 Boston inoculation controversy,” Historical Journal of Western Massachusetts 6, no. 1 (1977).

Julia Carrie Wong, “Revealed: Facebook enables ads to target users interested in ‘vaccine controversies,” The Guardian, 15.2.2019.

“Free debate” has hidden costs – TD Jacobs

When I was a bachelor student, there was a conspiracy theorist who regularly appeared outside our university buildings to harangue students. His interests ranged from the relatively mainstream moon landing and 9-11 conspiracies, to an extremely offensive fringe belief that birth control pills turned women into hairy lesbians. Nor did he settle for handing out fliers – he demanded, in the name of freedom of speech and academic debate, admittance to lecture halls during classes to present his evidence. Once, a professor gave him ten minutes to mathematically prove that humans have not achieved space travel. When this entertaining interlude in our otherwise dull day ended, the conspiracy theorist was shown the door and I don’t recall any professor providing him with a platform ever again.

Rather more recently (and somewhat less amusingly) a university funded student group at my own institution invited a well-known misogynist to give a lecture on university grounds. Among other things, the speaker expressed the quaint Victorian notion that women are simply biologically not suited to academic pursuits. Understandably, this event was roundly denounced by many – including myself, many of my colleagues, the ACCOD union, and other student groups – and demands made that neither the university buildings nor its funds be used for such purposes.[1] Not only have his opinions long been consigned to the scientific dustbin, but his airing of them at our institution was seen as contributing to the creation of a hostile work environment. Moreover, many have rightfully pointed out that this is particularly damaging in consideration of the systematic and structural inequalities women are already confronted with in academia.

The denial of an academic platform in either instance is not an attack on free speech. Our resident conspiracy theorist was free to say what he wanted out on the sidewalk. The misogynist is free to seek gullible audiences and speaker’s fees elsewhere. Moreover, academics routinely place limits on speech in academic settings. Scientists recognize that there are points at which unstructured, unlimited debate is not productive, and is even disruptive to the advancing of a discussion. For example, you will not find a creationist ‘teaching the controversy’ alongside evolutionary biologists at very many accredited institutions.[2] Nowhere, I dare say, will you find an expert in phrenology plying their trade in a medical school. No astrologers on staff in astronomy departments, or practitioners of alchemy in chemistry or physics. The debates between these competing views on the world are regarded as settled, and to continuously rehash them would waste time, money, and material resources.

Historians also place limits on debate. Just as with the ‘hard sciences,’ claimants must establish their knowledge of the subject with regard to what has been argued, dismissed, and demonstrated. Students and professionals alike must identify new questions that critique and build on older analyses and – above all – provide evidence, with receipts. Pupils who fail to meet these criteria are not given passing grades. Under ideal circumstances, colleagues who don’t meet these criteriawill not pass peer review processes. And historians who stray entirely outside their field of expertise to make pronouncements in another area of scholarship are often met with derision.

This is why I find it incredible that colleagues both at my own university and elsewhere are struggling to critically engage with the open letter published in Harper’s Magazine recently, decrying the “restriction of debate” in society and academia.[3] Perhaps this is because Noam Chomsky was, unsurprisingly, among its signatories. For decades, Chomsky has led the fight for free and open discussion in academia and elsewhere.[4] And I have generally been behind him in his crusade, which has helped draw attention to the problems of conservative reactionary movements against developments in the field of history such as the increased critique of a-historical nationalist narratives that have helped to justify and perpetuate state violence.[5] Not this time, however.

The letter was endorsed by a number of other individuals, including JK Rowling, who recently published her own essay on ‘cancel culture.’[6] And her signature highlights a problem that the letter fails to address: imbalances of power in public and academic spaces that help to perpetuate discrimination against minorities. Rowling, who achieved wealth and renown as a beloved children’s author, has become the avowed champion of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) in academia. TERFs – or ‘gender critical theorists’ as they prefer to be called – have aggressively targeted the transgender community.[7] According to their reductionist and antiquated view of biology,[8] gender identity, expression, or perception are irrelevant. Transgender men (such as myself) are women who have been brainwashed into hating our biological sex, while transgender women are predatory men in dresses. Such claims are, of course, extremely offensive. But more importantly for the purposes of this essay, they are unfounded. Not only do they lack evidence and a cohesive body of nuanced interdisciplinary research to support their views, their opinions are actually contradicted by both researchers and practitioners across various disciplines, including biology, gender studies, psychology, transgender healthcare, [9] and even in history and anthropology.[10] Indeed, the last two fields have contributed enormously to our understanding of how gender has been variously socially constructed through time and space.

TERFs have no convincing response to any of these critiques, and for that reason they are – like the misogynist mentioned above – largely shut out from serious academic discussions on gender. Instead, they have had their greatest successes in the areas of media and politics, where intellectual honesty and scientific standards generally don’t apply but where their academic credentials hold some sway.[11] And the ensnarement of a platform such as Rowling’s has substantially increased their reach. For example, Rowling was recently cited in the US Senate during the debate on the Equality Act, which seeks to amend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in numerous areas, including employment, education, housing, and public accommodations. The vote on the act was blocked by James Lankford, an anti-gay rights Republican from Oklahoma, who quoted a passage from Rowling’s essay on ‘cancel culture’ in which she claimed that women were being threatened and abused while trying to express their concerns regarding the threat posed by transgender people.[12]

The women Rowling referenced complain that they are being victimized by transgender activists pushing a radical agenda that seeks to stifle free speech and intellectual debate. But the reality is quite different from the scenario that Rowling has presented on Twitter and in her essay. For example, one TERF that Rowling has supported, Maya Forstater, was not – as Rowling has insisted – ‘fired’ for saying biological sex is real (something that the vast majority of transgender people do not dispute.) In actuality, Forstater continually Tweeted undeniably bigoted statements directed at specific individuals, and made other more generally discriminatory statements on the platform in an effort to derail changes to the UK’s Gender Recognition Act that would have granted transgender people easier access to necessary paperwork changes. Colleagues at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit think tank, complained of Forstater’s transphobic Tweets. However, she persisted, and her contract as a tax expert was not renewed. Forstater decided that she was being unfairly discriminated against and took her case to an employment tribunal, where she lost. The judge applied a carefully formulated set of criteria and ruled that her intolerant, absolutist views were “not worthy of respect in a democratic society,” and did not warrant the special protection afforded other strongly held, philosophical beliefs.[13]

Rowling has also cited a highly contentious study that led to accusations of academic censorship against its critics. In 2018, Lisa Littman, an assistant professor at Brown University, published a paper in PLOS ONE in which sheinvented the diagnosis ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria.’ The crux of Littman’s argument was that gender dysphoria among transgender youth is not real, but rather is a socially induced phenomenon that may mask other mental health disorders.[14] However, Littman interviewed no transgender youth or transgender healthcare specialists before coming to this conclusion. In fact, her research consisted of a survey for parents that she posted on anti-transgender websites. Following critiques that Littman’s research was ideologically biased, lacked methodological rigor, and fell below scientific standards, the journal opened a post-publication review and her university withdrew a public endorsement in the form of a press release.[15] While Littman agreed to rewrite her paper to clarify her methodology and provide context,[16] her invention is still not recognized as a legitimate diagnosis among medical professionals, including her own colleagues in the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH).[17]

Neither of these cases represent factual attacks on freedom of speech or academic debate. Forstator’s bigoted speech was not limited. It was criticized. Transgender activists and allies have the freedom to respond to attacks on efforts to gain greater equality in society. She sought to perpetuate a gross injustice, but was not the victim of one. Moreover, freedom of speech has never been an absolute guarantee against the consequences of said speech, and not all speech is protected. In many countries, including her own, hate speech such as Forstator’s is not. In Littman’s case, she attempted to engage in academic debate, but her initial argument was deemed scientifically invalid upon closer examination because her methodology was poor and her results improperly founded. That is, as indicated above, how academic debate is supposed to work. A fact based charge of incompetence is not censorship.

Rowling’s defense of Forstator and Littman, among others, as the victims of ‘cancel culture’ is disingenuous, and the Harper’s letter does nothing to address this increasingly common discursive power play.[18] As several critics of the missive have pointed out, Rowling is not the only high placed signatory who cannot be considered to be engaged in “good-faith disagreements.” Quite a handful of them have been called out for misconduct or the promotion of extremist ideologies.[19] Nor do the claims made in the letter regarding discrimination or censorship appear to hold up under closer scrutiny.[20] And now, as Valentini puts it, “they want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence and to paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them.”[21] This is, as Hannah Giorgis has termed it, “a deeply provincial view of free speech.”[22]

Some of my colleagues, I am afraid to say, are overlooking this key point. And Rowling is once again a prime example of this feigned victimhood. She demonstrably does not care about the freedom of speech of others, and is more than willing to use her considerable resources to ‘cancel’ her critics. After all, Rowlingsigned the Harper’s letter but recently threatened one critic of her outspoken transphobia with a lawsuit – and since she has all the lawyers one could buy at her disposal, the threat was effective. Nicola Spurling deleted her Tweet stating that Rowling can’t be trusted around children, but has stood by her point regarding the harmful nature of Rowling’s views.[23] And considering Rowling’s recent remarks equating legitimate medical treatment for transgender youth with the increasingly banned practice of so-called ‘conversion therapy,’[24] the author’s opinions most certainly do pose a danger to transgender children, who are already at a higher risk of suicide.[25] She cannot be trusted around them. Her signature – alongside those of others with platforms that they’ve used to ‘debate’ the validity of transgender people via such ‘concern trolling’[26] – cannot simply be dismissed as an obscuration of a greater point as some of my colleagues have proposed.

That brings me to the following: colleagues rushing to jump on Chomsky’s now hijacked bandwagon need to acknowledge that not all proposed academic debates have the same weight in terms of their potential consequences, nor do they burden those most closely concerned with the same amount of mental and emotional labour. For example, if I lost an argument regarding my own research, which centers on early modern diplomacy, the cost is somewhat negligible in that it would mostly affect my own career and not have any broader societal implications. And I engage in those debates because it’s my job.

However, the debate TERFs persist in demanding despite having long ago lost on scientific grounds concerns my validity as a person, my life. And the ultimate price of failure in such a debate is my right to move unmolested through society. It is not an ‘academic’ debate in the colloquial sense because it is not confined to academic spaces, and it can have a real-world impact on a marginalized and vulnerable minority by legitimizing discrimination. Academics have a professional, ethical obligation to ask who is demanding and framing such debates and to what end, and how is general societal capital – as well as academic access and resources – being distributed between the participants and subjects of such debates. And the same holds true for debates regarding the real-time struggles of other minorities, such as the Black Lives Matter movement or the resurgence of Indigenous activism against settler colonialism – the latter being of particular interest to me as a Native American. If the concerns and the costs to these communities are not actively taken on board or are condescendingly dismissed as ‘identity politics’ by those debating with no risk to themselves other than a witty riposte, then that isn’t an honest intellectual pursuit. It’s exploitative mental masturbation.

Lastly, like other transgender scholars who are not actually working in the field of gender studies, I feel press ganged at times to engage in conversations I’m not paid to have, don’t want to have, and in which I simply don’t have the luxury of ‘agreeing to disagree’ as I can with points of contention relating to my dissertation. Apart from having to educate people about being transgender – which I generally don’t mind so long as the subject of what’s in my pants isn’t raised too often – I’ve also had to defend my existence to some colleagues, ward off attacks from conservative students, and at times fight the Byzantine university administration for the most mundane changes to paperwork. Nor have role models or peer support always been readily at hand. Indeed, I have often felt obligated to provide help to students facing similar problems. That is the reality of being a minority in an academic setting. The toll in terms of additional stress and anxiety is significantly higher than what is demanded of me by my actual job, not just because of what is at stake but because there is no apparent end in sight. At least my dissertation has a definitive deadline.

So before colleagues excitedly and enthusiastically endorse calls for more ‘free debate’ from the intellectually dishonest and yet disproportionately powerful, I’d ask them to carefully consider what they are asking for. Because unlike recondite arguments concerning the ceremonial use of hats in diplomatic encounters in the seventeenth century, these debates have actual costs.

[1] Mingtje Wange, “KVHV onder vuur na seksistische uitspraken op lezing,” Schamper, 11.12. 2019. is UGent’s student magazine, and it has done a great deal of reporting on the rise of extreme right student groups. There was a video made of the event, “Video opgedoken van seksistische uitspraken Jeff Hoeyberghs aan UGent,” De Morgen, 9.10.19.  The complaints also led to investigation being opened into the conduct of the misogynist by the Orde der Artsen, the national licensing board. Tuly Salumu, “Massa klachten na seksistsche lezing van Jeff Hoeybergs, Orde der Artsen opent onderzoek,” Het Nieusblad. 10.12.2019.

[2] The assertion that there is a controversy between creationist beliefs and scientific findings that deserves to be debated in classrooms is actually a known tactic that is specifically employed by religious groups in order to gain access to academic and educational platforms. See, among others, Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross, Creationism’s Trojan Horse: the wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, updated edition), and the chapter “The Wedge Document: a design for Design” in particular.

[3] “A letter on justice and open debate,” Harper’s Magazine, 7.7.2020.

[4] This is not the first time that Chomsky’s longstanding work on intellectual freedom has become embroiled in controversy. See Jean Bricmont, “Chomsky, Faurisson, and Vidal-Naquet,” in Julie Franck and Jean Bricmont, eds., Chomsky Notebook (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 292-308.

[5] Among others, see Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing consent: the political economy of the mass media (first published in 1988, revised in 2002); Noam Chomsky, Objectivity and Liberal scholarship (first published in 1997); Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or survival: America’s quest for global dominance (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003).

[6] J.K. Rowling, “J.K. Rowling writes about her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues,” 10.6.2020.

[7] TERFs generally claim that the term is a slur, but in my opinion that is the discursive equivalent of racists complaining about being called racist, and I am not going to participate in their rebranding efforts. However, Sophie Lewis has provided a useful critique of the term, noting that there are anti-trans individuals and groups, particularly in the United States, willing to associate with TERFs but who do not claim – and cannot be considered to have – any kind of connection to feminism, Sophie Lewis “How British feminism became anti-trans,” The New York Times, 7.2.2019. Viv Smythe, thought to have invented the term, has since written about it: “I’m credited with having coined the word ‘Terf.’ Here’s how it happened,” The Guardian, 28.11.2018.

[8] Biological sex, both in terms of genotypes and phenotypes, is more complicated than the binary narrative (i.e. XY equals boy, XX equals girl) taught in primary schools. Nor do genotypes map directly to complex human behaviors. Having XX chromosomes does not mean an individual will prefer the colour pink, any more than it means that they are unsuited to academic pursuits. For a basic,general rebuttal of essentialism, see Gisela Kaplan and Lesley J. Rogers, Gene worship: moving beyond the nature/nuture debate over genes, brain, and gender (New York: Other Press, 2003).  For an advanced review article on the plasticity of the phenotypical expression of sex characteristics, see Malin Ah-King and Sören Nyllin, “Sex in an evolutionary perspective: just another reaction norm,” Evolutionary Biology 37, (2010).

[9] A biological basis for transgenderism in at least some portion of the population is still being established, but epigenetics is an increasing area of focus. An overview of various theories, and those relating to epigenetics in particular, can be found in Dana Jennett Bevan, Transgender health and medicine: history, practice, research, and the future (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2019). Bevan’s tome contains such a wealth of references to peer reviewed papers that it is an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to study the subject further.

[10] Anthropological studies on non-Western conceptualizations of gender include Will Roscoe, Changing Ones: third and fourth gender in Native North America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998); Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas and Sabine Lang, eds. Two-spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997). Individuals in pre-modern Europe who appear to have engaged in more than mere situational cross dressing have been subject to investigation, see for example Sherry Velasco, The lieutenant nun: transgenderism, lesbian desire, and Catalina de Erauso (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000). Studies relating to early modern European conceptualizations and performance of gender in literature are particularly numerous, but a good and nuanced oversight is provided by Simone Chess, Male-to-female crossdressing in early modern English literature: gender, performance, and queer relations (New York: Routledge, 2016).  Modern and contemporary’Western’ transgender history has been covered elsewhere; see for example, Susan Stryker, Transgender history (London: Hachette: 2007).

[11] For an excellent essay on the history of UK media representation, see Hannah Ewens, “Inside the great British TERF war,” Vice, 16.6.2020.

[12] Chris Johnson, “User clip: Kames Lankford cites J.K. Rowling in opposition to Equality Act,” C-Span, 18.6.2020.

[13] “Forstater v CGD,” Case Number: 220909/2019.

[14] Lisa Littman, “Parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria,” PLOS ONE 13, no. 8 (2018).

[15] Brown University, “Updated: Brown statements on gender dysphoria study,” 19.3.2019.

[16] Lisa Littman, “Correction: parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria,” PLOS ONE 14, no. 3 (2019).

[17] WPATH, “WPATH position on “rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD),” 4.9.2018. The reasons why Littman’s invention has no credibility in the medical community are pretty much summed up in just one review of her work: Arjee Javellana Restar, “Methodological critique of Littman’s (2018) parental-respondents accounts of “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2019). Somewhat worryingly, Littman is now purportedly researching desistance and de-transitioning.

[18] The Harper’s letter has already inspired an equally ridiculous Belgian equivalent, warning against “radical activists” purportedly seeking to silence debates that according to the text “deserve to be held on every topic.” However, it must be noted that the so-called “radical activists” in this case are further identified as those that “say they want to fight (institutional) racism.” In other words: the Black Lives Matter movement. It is therefore not surprising that the letter was signed by a prominent nationalist who has been criticized for his bigoted positions. Bonne Kerstens, “Theo Francken (N-VA) en tientallen anderen ondertekenen manifest tegen ‘afrekencultuur,” De Morgen, 16.7.2020.

[19] It seems some of the lesser known signatories of the Harper’s letter were unaware of the other signers, and some may not have agreed to sign it at all: Aaron Huertas, “How did the organizers of the Harper’s letter mislead some of the signers? (It’s about ethics in open letters),” Medium, 9.7.2020.

[20] “A more specific letter on justice and open debate,” The Objective, 10.7.2020.

[21] Jessica Valenti, “‘Cancel culture’ is how the powerful play victim,” Gen, 8.7.2020.

[22] Hanna Giorgis, “A deeply provincial view of free speech,” The Atlantic, 13.7.2020.

[23] Megan Lalonde, “J.K. Rowling threatens legal action against Coquitlam transgender activist over tweets,” Tricity News, 29.5.2020. Despite this, and in an example of the kind of solidarity that Rowling purports to believe in but does not practice, a group of transgender and non-binary activists recently criticized a UK tabloid for its lurid reporting regarding Rowling’s personal life: Jim Waterson, “Trans activists write to Sun condemning JK Rowling abuse story,” 15.7.2020, The Guardian,

[24] For just one critique of Rowling’s remarks on conversion therapy see: Garrard Conley, “J.K. Rowling’s bigotry is painful and maddening,” CNN, 8.7.2020.

[25] Two of the most recent studies include Russell B. Toomey, et al. “Transgender adolescent suicide behavior,” Pediatrics, 142, no. 4 (2018); Brian C. Thomas, et al. “Suicidal disparities between transgender and cisgender adolescents,” Pediatrics 144, no. 5 (2019).

[26] Among other critiques see: Zack Ford, “Atlantic cover story is a loud dog whistle for anti-transgender parents,” Think Progress, 20.6.2018,; Karter Booher, “(Trans)itioning from false narratives,” South Seattle Emerald, 7.7.2017.; Noah Berlatsky, “We don’t value trans voices – even on trans issues,” The Establishment, 16.11.2015.

A not so holy household. A tale of drunkenness, debauchery and attempted parricide in eighteenth-century Ghent – K. Dekoster

Joseph Kerrebrouck, a 66-year-old grain measurer of the city of Ghent and a man of “honest and irreproachable behaviour”, did not have an easy life. By 1784, he had been married to Marie Caroline De Rocke for about 32 years. And while their first names might suggest otherwise, their household could hardly be compared to that of the biblical Joseph and Mary. Marie Caroline was generally reputed to be having an affair with a certain Gillis Jacobs. Furthermore, she spent large sums on what was probably the actual love of her life: alcohol. She passed these dissolute habits on to her son Jacobus, who by the age of 16 was known far and wide as a drunkard “who caused many scandals”. To make matters worse, Marie Caroline constantly pit her son against Joseph, who she said was not Jacobus’s real father. In October 1783, the aldermen of Ghent sentenced Jacobus – aged 25 – to an imprisonment of three weeks on bread and water because of his frequent drunkenness and disobedience towards his father. If he were ever to commit similar infractions again, the aldermen warned, they would send him to the house of correction. When Jacobus was finally released, his father took him back into the home.

Despite the punishment, however, on March 15 1784, the family conflict reached a dramatic climax. When he came home from work around noon, Joseph found Jacobus and Marie Caroline in an inebriated state. Furthermore, he discovered that they had broken his cabinet and had stolen some textiles, which they had hocked at the local pawnshop (the Berg van Barmhartigheid or Mount of Charity) to buy beer and gin. Joseph, who was fed up with his son’s behaviour, went out to call the local watchmen. However, he was unable to find them and returned home. Once there, he was attacked by Jacobus, who stabbed his father in the left shoulder with a knife. Jacobus immediately fled the house, and a number of neighbours rushed in to help Joseph. Surgeon Pieter De Buck was called to provide medical assistance. He judged the injury to be lethal, and asked a priest to administer Last Rites. While this was being done, De Buck wrote a report for the judicial authorities. Following an ordinance from 1615, the surgeons of Ghent were required to report all injuries they treated to the local authorities so they could obtain a better overview of violent crime. This allowed them to initiate judicial proceedings as soon as possible while preventing victims from seeking private revenge.

Ghent’s authorities leapt into action. Two aldermen and a representative of the hoogbaljuw or public prosecutor were sent to Joseph’s home to question him regarding the incident. Furthermore, the town physicians and surgeons were required to examine the victim and write an official report on his medical condition. They judged the wound to be dangerous but curable. However, the medical experts also declared that – given the possibility of sudden complications – a proper prognosis was only possible after a certain interval of time had passed. Luckily, Joseph’s condition rapidly improved, and De Buck reported on March 18 that most of his symptoms (pain in the chest, a fever, red-tinged phlegm) had greatly diminished. Now, the aldermen could turn their full attention to the suspect, who had been arrested at one of the city gates on the day of the attack and imprisoned in the city jail. When interrogated on March 16, Jacobus Kerrebrouck immediately admitted that he had stabbed his father in the shoulder with a knife. He imputed this act to a combination of anger and drunkenness.

The aldermen did not take this incident lightly. The act in question was nothing less than an attempt at parricide, one of the most serious offences in early modern criminal law. According to the Flemish jurist Filips Wielant (ca. 1441/2-1520), those who committed parricide should be dragged “in the most dishonourable and degrading way” to the place of execution, where they would be beheaded and their corpse displayed on a wheel. If judges wished to impose additional punishments, they were allowed to do so “because of the enormity of the crime and as an example to others”. This harsh language is mirrored in the sentence pronounced by the aldermen against Jacobus Kerrebrouck on April 24 1784. They called Jacobus’s attack on his father “a horrendous, denatured and abominable fact”. Therefore, a harsh punishment was required “as an example to other denatured and evil children”. Jacobus was sentenced to be publicly whipped on the scaffold before the city hall and branded with the mark of the city. Moreover, he was condemned to fifty years of imprisonment in the provincial house of correction. If Jacobus actually served his full term in prison – which seems very unlikely – he would have been released in 1834. Not only would he be 76 by then, he would probably hardly have recognised the world he re-entered. He would have missed the Brabant revolution against Austrian rule in 1789-90, the annexation of the Austrian Netherlands by revolutionary France in 1795, the rise and fall of the Napoleonic Empire (1804-14) and the brief existence of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-30). The convict would have been a subject of the newly independent Kingdom of Belgium, a state whose existence no one living in 1784 could have imagined.

However, this scenario belongs to historical fiction rather than historical fact. Let’s return to the criminal case records. After his son was confined to the house of correction, Joseph Kerrebrouck took action against his wife. On May 8, he submitted a petition in which he asked that Marie Caroline be confined in a “secure place”. In eighteenth-century Flanders, confinement on request was a very common procedure for dealing with unruly, debauched or insane relatives. The aldermen interrogated Marie Caroline regarding the allegations contained in her husband’s petition and even subjected her to a medical examination by a surgeon, who diagnosed her with scabies. Although the medical report does not explicitly mention the examined body parts, one might reasonably assume that the surgeon was looking for signs of venereal disease, the presence of which would confirm Joseph’s statement about her debauched lifestyle. Unfortunately, the records do not tell us whether Marie Caroline De Rocke was confined, and if so, for how long. But after this series of unfortunate events, we can only hope that Joseph Kerrebrouck was allowed to spend his remaining days in relative tranquillity.


City Archives Ghent, Old Archives, series 108bis, no. 41: Ordinance of 2 January 1615; series 213, no. 294-295: Criminal trial records, 1784.

Wielant, Filips. Corte Instructie in Materie Criminele, ed. Jos Monballyu. Brussels: Paleis der Academiën, 1995.

Selected Readings

Doyon, Julie. ‘Les enjeux medico-judiciaires de la folie parricide au XVIIIe siècle’. Crime, Histoire et Sociétés/Crime, History and Societies 15 (2011), no. 1: 5-27.

Lis, Catharina and Hugo Soly. Te gek om los te lopen? Collocatie in de 18de eeuw. Turnhout: Brepols, 1990.

Roets, Anne-Marie. ‘Rudessen, dieften ende andere crimen’. Misdadigheid in Gent in de zeventiende en achttiende eeuw: een kwantitatieve en kwalitatieve analyse. PhD thesis, Ghent University, 1987.

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.