Plague doctor contract

A plague doctor contract was an agreement between a town's administrators and a doctor to treat bubonic plague patients.[1] These contracts are present in European city archives.[2] A plague doctor was specifically hired by a European city or town to treat plague patients, rich or poor, in times of epidemics. They were especially designed for the poor that could not afford to pay. Their contractual responsibility was twofold: to treat plague patients and to refrain from treating other types of patients, the latter provision representing an attempt to prevent the spread of disease from plague victims to other patients via a shared physician.[2] In many cases these "doctors" were either volunteers, second-rate doctors, or new young doctors starting a career.[1] A plague doctor had to serve a long quarantine after seeing a plague patient in his plague doctor costume.[1] He was regarded as a "contact" who by agreement had to live in isolation to be quarantined.[2]


The bargaining which always preceded the final contract often consisted of serious negotiations. For example, the town administrators of Turin in 1630 were considering the terms of an agreement requested by one Dr. Maletto to become their plague doctor. After much negotiating, they instructed their broker representatives to make a fair and prompt deal as soon as possible with this Dr. Maletto. They were told to get the best possible deal for their city, but to be careful not to lose the opportunity of hiring this plague doctor as it would be difficult to find someone else to perform these dangerous duties at such a low rate.[3]

As an example of the tough negotiating that went on between plague doctors and infected European towns, there is in Pavia an original agreement between one Giovanni de Ventura and the city in their archives that shows a sixteen clause contract that was further amended even after originally written. Clause one originally showed 30 florins per month for pay, but later modified to be net of living expenses. Clause two was originally that the pay was to be given two months in advance, but later modified to monthly. Clause five provided originally a severance pay of two months, but later modified that to one month's pay. Clause six said the said master Giovanni shall not be bound nor held under obligation except only in attending the plague patients which was later amplified with ...the doctor must treat all patients and visit infected places as it shall be found to be necessary. Clause seven had to do with full citizenship and the original text was modified with according to how he shall behave himself.[3][4][5]

Bernardino di Francesco Rinaldi obtained a clause in his contract when he was hired as plague doctor by the city of Volterra in 1527 that said essentially that the city had the obligation to provide Bernardino with all and everything necessary for his life support (i.e. food, water), and for these living expenses to be paid through the city expenditures.[6]


In 1527, in the city of Prato, a plague doctor by the name of Stefano Mezzettino was noticed attending other patients without a custodian. The rule in the plague doctor contract was that a custodian must always be with the plague doctor when he visits other patients. This created much danger for the public. He was fined for his illegal act and breaking the rule of the plague doctor contract.[7]


  1. ^ a b c Gottfried, p. 125
  2. ^ a b c Miskimin, p. 65
  3. ^ a b Miskimin, p. 66
  4. ^ Miskimin, p. 67
  5. ^ King, p. 371
  6. ^ Miskimin, p. 69
  7. ^ Miskimin, p. 71

Primary sourcesEdit

  • Turin City Archives, Ordinals, envelope 179
  • Prato City Archives, Fondo Communale 4042, c. 14v (December 13, 1527)

Secondary sourcesEdit

  • Gottfried, Robert S., The black death: natural and human disaster in medieval Europe , Simon and Schuster, 1985, ISBN 0-02-912370-4
  • King, Margaret L., Western civilization: a social and cultural history, Prentice Hall, 2002, ISBN 0-13-045007-3
  • Miskimin, Harry A., The Medieval City, Yale University Press, 1977, ISBN 0-300-02081-3