John Henderson to Deliver Bill Kent Memorial Lecture 2013

John Henderson“Plague, Putrefaction and the Body of the Poor in Early Modern Florence”

The 2013 Bill Kent Memorial Lecture will take place in Prato on 9 December 2013. This annual lecture alternates between Monash’s campuses in Prato and Melbourne. This year’s lecture will be delivered by John Henderson (Birkbeck College), who is currently a member of the Prato Consortium.


Each age faces the challenge of a new epidemic, whether it is cholera, tuberculosis, AIDS, SARS or Bird Flu. But plague has remained a paradigm against which reactions to other epidemics have been judged. Furthmore, early modern Italy has been seen as providing the model for nineteenth- and twentieth- century public health strategies, particularly in isolation and quarantine.

In the Bill Kent Memorial Lecture, John Henderson will argue that it is time to re-assess this paradigm by placing the policies of Italian health authorities within a wider context of existing measures to deal with, on the one hand, the poor and, on the other, the environment. These two themes meet in the context of the plague epidemics of the early modern period by which time governments came to see the poor as the cause of the disease through their disruptive behaviour, poor diet and squalid and insanitary living conditions.

This lecture will examine these themes within the context of the last outbreak of plague in early modern Florence, 1630-31, in order to look behind the official version of events. In particular John Henderson will examine the often moving and tragic stories of the individuals who ran the Lazaretti or isolation hospitals and of the doctors and priests who tended to plague victims, and above all of the ordinary men and women left bereft and confused by the sickness and death of family members. These vivid accounts reflect one of the main themes of Bill Kent’s work, the strength of neighbourhood and family ties. Discussion of the large corpus of contemporary court records will provide fascinating evidence of the numerous survival strategies through which individuals coped with the very real fear generated by a city under siege from an invisible enemy and how they attempted to side-step regulations in order to preserve their possessions and their normal way of life.

About the presenter:

JOHN HENDERSON is one of the leading historians of social, religious and medical history in renaissance and early modern Tuscany. He is Professor of Italian Renaissance History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck, University of London, and Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.

John has published a wide range of books and articles on the medieval and renaissance Tuscany. Major monographs include: Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence, (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994; Chicago University Press, 1997; Casa Editrice Le Lettere, Florence, 1998); The Great Pox. The French Disease in Renaissance Europe, with J. Arrizabalaga and R. French (Yale University Press, 1997), and most recently The Renaissance Hospital. Healing the Body and Healing the Soul (Yale University Press, 1997). He is at present completing a book on plague in early modern Florence, also for Yale University Press.

 He has also edited a number of books including: Christianity and the Renaissance, with Timothy Verdon (Syracuse University Press, 1990); Poor Women and Children in the European Past, with Richard Wall (Routledge, 1994) and The Impact of Hospitals in Europe 1000–2000: People, Landscapes, Symbols, with Peregrine Horden and Alessandro Pastore (Peter Lang, 2006).

Further details on John and his current projects can be found at:

The 2013 Bill Kent Memorial Lecture is proudly supported by Brepols, publishers of the forthcoming volume (2015) Studies on Florence and the Italian Renaissance in Honour of F.W. Kent: ‘A paradise where devils dwell’, edited by Peter Howard and Cecilia Hewlett. If you would like to included in the Tabula memorialis through purchasing a volume at a special price, please email

Future Bill Kent Memorial Lectures, along with other projects related to Bill Kent’s legacy, will be supported by The Bill Kent Foundation Fund. Donations may be made at