The Mobile Woman: Getting Around during the 1630 Plague in Bologna


  • Natalie Massong IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, Italy



mobility, female work, plague hospitals, confinement


Legal proclamations show that during the 1630 plague outbreak in Bologna, Italy, women were required to remain quarantined in their homes for the duration of the epidemic while men remained mobile. However, primary texts and visual sources demonstrate that despite these legal restrictions, women remained active players in the fight against the plague by circumventing regulations. Significantly, women played a key role in sustaining the Bolognese economy, in particular by travelling to work in the silk industry. Moreover, while male doctors enjoyed special dispensations to avoid visiting the sick directly, female nurses left their homes to care for the daily needs of patients in the lazzaretto, the plague hospital.

Artworks and primary texts depict a mobile woman. They show women from the poorest of backgrounds who were compelled to move through the city’s public spaces, remaining active in the street life of the plagued city. For instance, along with unlicensed women healers and nuns, prostitutes commonly volunteered for service in the plague hospitals. This required a brief shift in the social status of these women as they moved from their brothels to the pestilent walls of the lazzaretto. This paper will address the contribution that these resilient women made to maintaining the family economy and the significant positions women held in administering care, which have been overlooked in the scholarship. It will argue that by performing these essential activities, Bolognese women enjoyed an increase in physical but also social mobility, albeit short-lived.