We all have mental images of plague doctors but very rarely do we actually find much information about who they were or what they were contracted to do. Deep in the archives of the medieval city of Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik, Croatia) a rare set of documents gives us a unique glimpse at one of these men.
Ragusa, the capital of the Ragusan Republic, was a little different from most medieval cities. Here doctors were contracted and paid by the state. A plague doctor was expected to treat both patricians and commoners alike. The position of plague doctor (medicus pestis) was a specialty. Plague doctors were not allowed to treat patients with other conditions or illnesses.
On New Year’s Eve 1526 Ivan Mednić (Johannes Mednich de Catharo) of Kotor (87 km south of Ragusa) proposed his services as a plague doctor (medicus pestis) to the Senate of Ragusa. His goal is clear. He wants to establish his family as citizens of Ragusa, where his father Pavao had been born. His stresses this linkage in his proposal along with his desire to care for the people of his paternal city. He promised to diligently care for people with or suspected of having the plague with treatment including bloodletting and lancing buboes. Mednić also appended recipes of plague remedies that he suggests they may verify with other physicians.
In return for these services for a year, Mednić made an unusual request: in addition to his treatment supplies, a salary of 200 ducats paid in three equal installments plus 3 ducats per month for life for his five sons. His wife Ruža and daughter are not mentioned in the proposal. The Ragusan Senate accepted the proposal on the same day it was filed with only amendments to the unusual clause on payments to his sons. The lifetime terms for his sons were only to be paid if he stayed more than one year, and then only while the sons remained productive citizens of the city of Ragusa. If he did not meet his obligations or the sons left Ragusa, they would not get paid. If Mednić died during his year of service, including from the plague, the remainder of his salary would not be paid but his sons would continue to receive their 3 ducats per month. Still no mention of payments for the care of his wife and daughter if he died. In their recent book on plague in Ragusa (Dubrovnik), Tomić and Blažina assure us that these are generous terms. It was typical in the neighboring Italian city states for the unpaid portion of a physician’s salary to not be paid if they died while working. The stipend for Mednić’s sons is, in their opinion, unprecedented.
Ivan Mednić is mentioned in the archives as a dedicated physician who came when ever needed to diagnose or treat people suspected of plague. He was also called on to confirm plague as the cause of death and testify in cases of quarantine violations. One of his surviving patients, a poor commoner, was convicted of breaking quarantine for which he was hung while another surviving patient, a patrician, broke similar quarantine rules and got off with an apology to the court. Mednić had to be comfortable with his role in enforcing quarantine laws imposed even on long surviving patients. His thoughts on the matter are unknown. He managed to survive Ragusa’s worst plague epidemic that claimed the lives of approximately 25% of its population. The chronicles all agree that 20,000 commoners perished, plus varying numbers of patricians and other officials depending on the source.
Prior to petitioning to become a plague doctor in Ragusa, Mednić had been trained as a surgeon in Venice and worked for several years as a surgeon in Kotor. After the plague was over, Mednić was hired by the city of Ragusa as a surgeon once again. He would continue to incise abscesses, as he had done with plague buboes, and would also do trepanations, set broken bones and other treatments done by contemporary surgeons. He also vowed to assume the duties of a plague doctor again if the epidemic returned. Thankfully, it did not. With the plague gone, competition for medial services grew and the Senate was able to contract his services for the year of 1658 for 100 ducats and free residence in the city (worth 15 ducats), half his previous fee as a plague doctor. His sons did continue to receive their stipend. He could also supplement his income with additional fees for private patients that could be substantial. On March 12, 1529, Mednić signed a pre-treatment contract to treat one patient’s syphilitic lesions for 8 ducats. Compared to the 15 ducat evaluation of his free residence in the city, it was a very good supplement indeed. Mednić’s gamble taking the plague doctor’s position seems to have paid off earning the family a comfortable and enduring place in Ragusa.
Zlata Blažina Tomić and Vesna Blažina. Expelling the Plague: The Health Office and the Implementation of Quarantine in Dubrovnik, 1377-1533. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015. p. 165, 174-179, 189, 305.