The Black Death and The Dancing Mania
J. F. C. Hecker (translated by B. G. Babington)

Part 1 out of 3

This etext was transcribed by Jane Duff and proofed by David Price,
email from the 1888 Cassell & Company edition.

The Black Death and The Dancing Mania


Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker was one of three generations of
distinguished professors of medicine. His father, August
Friedrich Hecker, a most industrious writer, first practised as a
physician in Frankenhausen, and in 1790 was appointed Professor of
Medicine at the University of Erfurt. In 1805 he was called to
the like professorship at the University of Berlin. He died at
Berlin in 1811.

Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker was born at Erfurt in January, 1795.
He went, of course--being then ten years old--with his father to
Berlin in 1805, studied at Berlin in the Gymnasium and University,
but interrupted his studies at the age of eighteen to fight as a
volunteer in the war for a renunciation of Napoleon and all his
works. After Waterloo he went back to his studies, took his
doctor's degree in 1817 with a treatise on the "Antiquities of
Hydrocephalus," and became privat-docent in the Medical Faculty of
the Berlin University. His inclination was strong from the first
towards the historical side of inquiries into Medicine. This
caused him to undertake a "History of Medicine," of which the
first volume appeared in 1822. It obtained rank for him at Berlin
as Extraordinary Professor of the History of Medicine. This
office was changed into an Ordinary professorship of the same
study in 1834, and Hecker held that office until his death in

The office was created for a man who had a special genius for this
form of study. It was delightful to himself, and he made it
delightful to others. He is regarded as the founder of historical
pathology. He studied disease in relation to the history of man,
made his study yield to men outside his own profession an
important chapter in the history of civilisation, and even took
into account physical phenomena upon the surface of the globe as
often affecting the movement and character of epidemics.

The account of "The Black Death" here translated by Dr. Babington
was Hecker's first important work of this kind. It was published
in 1832, and was followed in the same year by his account of "The
Dancing Mania." The books here given are the two that first gave
Hecker a wide reputation. Many other such treatises followed,
among them, in 1865, a treatise on the "Great Epidemics of the
Middle Ages." Besides his "History of Medicine," which, in its
second volume, reached into the fourteenth century, and all his
smaller treatises, Hecker wrote a large number of articles in
Encyclopaedias and Medical Journals. Professor J.F.K. Hecker was,
in a more interesting way, as busy as Professor A.F. Hecker, his
father, had been. He transmitted the family energies to an only
son, Karl von Hecker, born in 1827, who distinguished himself
greatly as a Professor of Midwifery, and died in 1882.

Benjamin Guy Babington, the translator of these books of Hecker's,
belonged also to a family in which the study of Medicine has
passed from father to son, and both have been writers. B.G.
Babington was the son of Dr. William Babington, who was physician
to Guy's Hospital for some years before 1811, when the extent of
his private practice caused him to retire. He died in 1833. His
son, Benjamin Guy Babington, was educated at the Charterhouse, saw
service as a midshipman, served for seven years in India, returned
to England, graduated as physician at Cambridge in 1831. He
distinguished himself by inquiries into the cholera epidemic in
1832, and translated these pieces of Hecker's in 1833, for
publication by the Sydenham Society. He afterwards translated
Hecker's other treatises on epidemics of the Middle Ages. Dr.
B.G. Babington was Physician to Guy's Hospital from 1840 to 1855,
and was a member of the Medical Council of the General Board of
Health. He died on the 8th of April, 1866.




That Omnipotence which has called the world with all its living
creatures into one animated being, especially reveals Himself in
the desolation of great pestilences. The powers of creation come
into violent collision; the sultry dryness of the atmosphere; the
subterraneous thunders; the mist of overflowing waters, are the
harbingers of destruction. Nature is not satisfied with the
ordinary alternations of life and death, and the destroying angel
waves over man and beast his flaming sword.

These revolutions are performed in vast cycles, which the spirit
of man, limited, as it is, to a narrow circle of perception, is
unable to explore. They are, however, greater terrestrial events
than any of those which proceed from the discord, the distress, or
the passions of nations. By annihilations they awaken new life;
and when the tumult above and below the earth is past, nature is
renovated, and the mind awakens from torpor and depression to the
consciousness of an intellectual existence.

Were it in any degree within the power of human research to draw
up, in a vivid and connected form, an historical sketch of such
mighty events, after the manner of the historians of wars and
battles, and the migrations of nations, we might then arrive at
clear views with respect to the mental development of the human
race, and the ways of Providence would be more plainly
discernible. It would then be demonstrable, that the mind of
nations is deeply affected by the destructive conflict of the
powers of nature, and that great disasters lead to striking
changes in general civilisation. For all that exists in man,
whether good or evil, is rendered conspicuous by the presence of
great danger. His inmost feelings are roused--the thought of
self-preservation masters his spirit--self-denial is put to severe
proof, and wherever darkness and barbarism prevail, there the
affrighted mortal flies to the idols of his superstition, and all
laws, human and divine, are criminally violated.

In conformity with a general law of nature, such a state of
excitement brings about a change, beneficial or detrimental,
according to circumstances, so that nations either attain a higher
degree of moral worth, or sink deeper in ignorance and vice. All
this, however, takes place upon a much grander scale than through
the ordinary vicissitudes of war and peace, or the rise and fall
of empires, because the powers of nature themselves produce
plagues, and subjugate the human will, which, in the contentions
of nations, alone predominates.


The most memorable example of what has been advanced is afforded
by a great pestilence of the fourteenth century, which desolated
Asia, Europe, and Africa, and of which the people yet preserve the
remembrance in gloomy traditions. It was an oriental plague,
marked by inflammatory boils and tumours of the glands, such as
break out in no other febrile disease. On account of these
inflammatory boils, and from the black spots, indicatory of a
putrid decomposition, which appeared upon the skin, it was called
in Germany and in the northern kingdoms of Europe the Black Death,
and in Italy, la mortalega grande, the Great Mortality.

Few testimonies are presented to us respecting its symptoms and
its course, yet these are sufficient to throw light upon the form
of the malady, and they are worthy of credence, from their
coincidence with the signs of the same disease in modern times.

The imperial writer, Kantakusenos, whose own son, Andronikus, died
of this plague in Constantinople, notices great imposthumes of the
thighs and arms of those affected, which, when opened, afforded
relief by the discharge of an offensive matter. Buboes, which are
the infallible signs of the oriental plague, are thus plainly
indicated, for he makes separate mention of smaller boils on the
arms and in the face, as also in other parts of the body, and
clearly distinguishes these from the blisters, which are no less
produced by plague in all its forms. In many cases, black spots
broke out all over the body, either single, or united and

These symptoms were not all found in every case. In many, one
alone was sufficient to cause death, while some patients
recovered, contrary to expectation, though afflicted with all.
Symptoms of cephalic affection were frequent; many patients became
stupefied and fell into a deep sleep, losing also their speech
from palsy of the tongue; others remained sleepless and without
rest. The fauces and tongue were black, and as if suffused with
blood; no beverage could assuage their burning thirst, so that
their sufferings continued without alleviation until terminated by
death, which many in their despair accelerated with their own
hands. Contagion was evident, for attendants caught the disease
of their relations and friends, and many houses in the capital
were bereft even of their last inhabitant. Thus far the ordinary
circumstances only of the oriental plague occurred. Still deeper
sufferings, however, were connected with this pestilence, such as
have not been felt at other times; the organs of respiration were
seized with a putrid inflammation; a violent pain in the chest
attacked the patient; blood was expectorated, and the breath
diffused a pestiferous odour.

In the West, the following were the predominating symptoms on the
eruption of this disease. An ardent fever, accompanied by an
evacuation of blood, proved fatal in the first three days. It
appears that buboes and inflammatory boils did not at first come
out at all, but that the disease, in the form of carbuncular
(anthrax-artigen) affection of the lungs, effected the destruction
of life before the other symptoms were developed.

Thus did the plague rage in Avignon for six or eight weeks, and
the pestilential breath of the sick, who expectorated blood,
caused a terrible contagion far and near; for even the vicinity of
those who had fallen ill of plague was certain death; so that
parents abandoned their infected children, and all the ties of
kindred were dissolved. After this period, buboes in the axilla
and in the groin, and inflammatory boils all over the body, made
their appearance; but it was not until seven months afterwards
that some patients recovered with matured buboes, as in the
ordinary milder form of plague.

Such is the report of the courageous Guy de Chauliac, who
vindicated the honour of medicine, by bidding defiance to danger;
boldly and constantly assisting the affected, and disdaining the
excuse of his colleagues, who held the Arabian notion, that
medical aid was unavailing, and that the contagion justified
flight. He saw the plague twice in Avignon, first in the year
1348, from January to August, and then twelve years later, in the
autumn, when it returned from Germany, and for nine months spread
general distress and terror. The first time it raged chiefly
among the poor, but in the year 1360, more among the higher
classes. It now also destroyed a great many children, whom it had
formerly spared, and but few women.

The like was seen in Egypt. Here also inflammation of the lungs
was predominant, and destroyed quickly and infallibly, with
burning heat and expectoration of blood. Here too the breath of
the sick spread a deadly contagion, and human aid was as vain as
it was destructive to those who approached the infected.

Boccacio, who was an eye-witness of its incredible fatality in
Florence, the seat of the revival of science, gives a more lively
description of the attack of the disease than his non-medical

It commenced here, not as in the East, with bleeding at the nose,
a sure sign of inevitable death; but there took place at the
beginning, both in men and women, tumours in the groin and in the
axilla, varying in circumference up to the size of an apple or an
egg, and called by the people, pest-boils (gavoccioli). Then
there appeared similar tumours indiscriminately over all parts of
the body, and black or blue spots came out on the arms or thighs,
or on other parts, either single and large, or small and thickly
studded. These spots proved equally fatal with the pest-boils,
which had been from the first regarded as a sure sign of death.
No power of medicine brought relief--almost all died within the
first three days, some sooner, some later, after the appearance of
these signs, and for the most part entirely without fever or other
symptoms. The plague spread itself with the greater fury, as it
communicated from the sick to the healthy, like fire among dry and
oily fuel, and even contact with the clothes and other articles
which had been used by the infected, seemed to induce the disease.
As it advanced, not only men, but animals fell sick and shortly
expired, if they had touched things belonging to the diseased or
dead. Thus Boccacio himself saw two hogs on the rags of a person
who had died of plague, after staggering about for a short time,
fall down dead as if they had taken poison. In other places
multitudes of dogs, cats, fowls, and other animals, fell victims
to the contagion; and it is to be presumed that other epizootes
among animals likewise took place, although the ignorant writers
of the fourteenth century are silent on this point.

In Germany there was a repetition in every respect of the same
phenomena. The infallible signs of the oriental bubo-plague with
its inevitable contagion were found there as everywhere else; but
the mortality was not nearly so great as in the other parts of
Europe. The accounts do not all make mention of the spitting of
blood, the diagnostic symptom of this fatal pestilence; we are
not, however, thence to conclude that there was any considerable
mitigation or modification of the disease, for we must not only
take into account the defectiveness of the chronicles, but that
isolated testimonies are often contradicted by many others. Thus
the chronicles of Strasburg, which only take notice of boils and
glandular swellings in the axillae and groins, are opposed by
another account, according to which the mortal spitting of blood
was met with in Germany; but this again is rendered suspicious, as
the narrator postpones the death of those who were thus affected,
to the sixth, and (even the) eighth day, whereas, no other author
sanctions so long a course of the disease; and even in Strasburg,
where a mitigation of the plague may, with most probability, be
assumed since the year 1349, only 16,000 people were carried off,
the generality expired by the third or fourth day. In Austria,
and especially in Vienna, the plague was fully as malignant as
anywhere, so that the patients who had red spots and black boils,
as well as those afflicted with tumid glands, died about the third
day; and lastly, very frequent sudden deaths occurred on the
coasts of the North Sea and in Westphalia, without any further
development of the malady.

To France, this plague came in a northern direction from Avignon,
and was there more destructive than in Germany, so that in many
places not more than two in twenty of the inhabitants survived.
Many were struck, as if by lightning, and died on the spot, and
this more frequently among the young and strong than the old;
patients with enlarged glands in the axillae and groins scarcely
survive two or three days; and no sooner did these fatal signs
appear, than they bid adieu to the world, and sought consolation
only in the absolution which Pope Clement VI. promised them in the
hour of death.

In England the malady appeared, as at Avignon, with spitting of
blood, and with the same fatality, so that the sick who were
afflicted either with this symptom or with vomiting of blood, died
in some cases immediately, in others within twelve hours, or at
the latest two days. The inflammatory boils and buboes in the
groins and axillae were recognised at once as prognosticating a
fatal issue, and those were past all hope of recovery in whom they
arose in numbers all over the body. It was not till towards the
close of the plague that they ventured to open, by incision, these
hard and dry boils, when matter flowed from them in small
quantity, and thus, by compelling nature to a critical
suppuration, many patients were saved. Every spot which the sick
had touched, their breath, their clothes, spread the contagion;
and, as in all other places, the attendants and friends who were
either blind to their danger, or heroically despised it, fell a
sacrifice to their sympathy. Even the eyes of the patient were
considered a sources of contagion, which had the power of acting
at a distance, whether on account of their unwonted lustre, or the
distortion which they always suffer in plague, or whether in
conformity with an ancient notion, according to which the sight
was considered as the bearer of a demoniacal enchantment. Flight
from infected cities seldom availed the fearful, for the germ of
the disease adhered to them, and they fell sick, remote from
assistance, in the solitude of their country houses.

Thus did the plague spread over England with unexampled rapidity,
after it had first broken out in the county of Dorset, whence it
advanced through the counties of Devon and Somerset, to Bristol,
and thence reached Gloucester, Oxford and London. Probably few
places escaped, perhaps not any; for the annuals of contemporaries
report that throughout the land only a tenth part of the
inhabitants remained alive.

From England the contagion was carried by a ship to Bergen, the
capital of Norway, where the plague then broke out in its most
frightful form, with vomiting of blood; and throughout the whole
country, spared not more than a third of the inhabitants. The
sailors found no refuge in their ships; and vessels were often
seen driving about on the ocean and drifting on shore, whose crews
had perished to the last man.

In Poland the affected were attacked with spitting blood, and died
in a few days in such vast numbers, that, as it has been affirmed,
scarcely a fourth of the inhabitants were left.

Finally, in Russia the plague appeared two years later than in
Southern Europe; yet here again, with the same symptoms as
elsewhere. Russian contemporaries have recorded that it began
with rigor, heat, and darting pain in the shoulders and back; that
it was accompanied by spitting of blood, and terminated fatally in
two, or at most three days. It is not till the year 1360 that we
find buboes mentioned as occurring in the neck, in the axillae,
and in the groins, which are stated to have broken out when the
spitting of blood had continued some time. According to the
experience of Western Europe, however, it cannot be assumed that
these symptoms did not appear at an earlier period.

Thus much, from authentic sources, on the nature of the Black
Death. The descriptions which have been communicated contain,
with a few unimportant exceptions, all the symptoms of the
oriental plague which have been observed in more modern times. No
doubt can obtain on this point. The facts are placed clearly
before our eyes. We must, however, bear in mind that this violent
disease does not always appear in the same form, and that while
the essence of the poison which it produces, and which is
separated so abundantly from the body of the patient, remains
unchanged, it is proteiform in its varieties, from the almost
imperceptible vesicle, unaccompanied by fever, which exists for
some time before it extends its poison inwardly, and then excites
fever and buboes, to the fatal form in which carbuncular
inflammations fall upon the most important viscera.

Such was the form which the plague assumed in the fourteenth
century, for the accompanying chest affection which appeared in
all the countries whereof we have received any account, cannot, on
a comparison with similar and familiar symptoms, be considered as
any other than the inflammation of the lungs of modern medicine, a
disease which at present only appears sporadically, and, owing to
a putrid decomposition of the fluids, is probably combined with
hemorrhages from the vessels of the lungs. Now, as every
carbuncle, whether it be cutaneous or internal, generates in
abundance the matter of contagion which has given rise to it, so,
therefore, must the breath of the affected have been poisonous in
this plague, and on this account its power of contagion
wonderfully increased; wherefore the opinion appears
incontrovertible, that owing to the accumulated numbers of the
diseased, not only individual chambers and houses, but whole
cities were infected, which, moreover, in the Middle Ages, were,
with few exceptions, narrowly built, kept in a filthy state, and
surrounded with stagnant ditches. Flight was, in consequence, of
no avail to the timid; for even though they had sedulously avoided
all communication with the diseased and the suspected, yet their
clothes were saturated with the pestiferous atmosphere, and every
inspiration imparted to them the seeds of the destructive malady,
which, in the greater number of cases, germinated with but too
much fertility. Add to which, the usual propagation of the plague
through clothes, beds, and a thousand other things to which the
pestilential poison adheres--a propagation which, from want of
caution, must have been infinitely multiplied; and since articles
of this kind, removed from the access of air, not only retain the
matter of contagion for an indefinite period, but also increase
its activity and engender it like a living being, frightful ill-
consequences followed for many years after the first fury of the
pestilence was past.

The affection of the stomach, often mentioned in vague terms, and
occasionally as a vomiting of blood, was doubtless only a
subordinate symptom, even if it be admitted that actual
hematemesis did occur. For the difficulty of distinguishing a
flow of blood from the stomach, from a pulmonic expectoration of
that fluid, is, to non-medical men, even in common cases, not
inconsiderable. How much greater then must it have been in so
terrible a disease, where assistants could not venture to approach
the sick without exposing themselves to certain death? Only two
medical descriptions of the malady have reached us, the one by the
brave Guy de Chauliac, the other by Raymond Chalin de Vinario, a
very experienced scholar, who was well versed in the learning of
the time. The former takes notice only of fatal coughing of
blood; the latter, besides this, notices epistaxis, hematuria, and
fluxes of blood from the bowels, as symptoms of such decided and
speedy mortality, that those patients in whom they were observed
usually died on the same or the following day.

That a vomiting of blood may not, here and there, have taken
place, perhaps have been even prevalent in many places, is, from a
consideration of the nature of the disease, by no means to be
denied; for every putrid decomposition of the fluids begets a
tendency to hemorrhages of all kinds. Here, however, it is a
question of historical certainty, which, after these doubts, is by
no means established. Had not so speedy a death followed the
expectoration of blood, we should certainly have received more
detailed intelligence respecting other hemorrhages; but the malady
had no time to extend its effects further over the extremities of
the vessels. After its first fury, however, was spent, the
pestilence passed into the usual febrile form of the oriental
plague. Internal carbuncular inflammations no longer took place,
and hemorrhages became phenomena, no more essential in this than
they are in any other febrile disorders. Chalin, who observed not
only the great mortality of 1348, and the plague of 1360, but also
that of 1373 and 1382, speaks moreover of affections of the
throat, and describes the back spots of plague patients more
satisfactorily than any of his contemporaries. The former
appeared but in few cases, and consisted in carbuncular
inflammation of the gullet, with a difficulty of swallowing, even
to suffocation, to which, in some instances, was added
inflammation of the ceruminous glands of the ears, with tumours,
producing great deformity. Such patients, as well as others, were
affected with expectoration of blood; but they did not usually die
before the sixth, and, sometimes, even as late as the fourteenth
day. The same occurrence, it is well known, is not uncommon in
other pestilences; as also blisters on the surface of the body, in
different places, in the vicinity of which, tumid glands and
inflammatory boils, surrounded by discoloured and black streaks,
arose, and thus indicated the reception of the poison. These
streaked spots were called, by an apt comparison, the girdle, and
this appearance was justly considered extremely dangerous.


An inquiry into the causes of the Black Death will not be without
important results in the study of the plagues which have visited
the world, although it cannot advance beyond generalisation
without entering upon a field hitherto uncultivated, and, to this
hour entirely unknown. Mighty revolutions in the organism of the
earth, of which we have credible information, had preceded it.
From China to the Atlantic, the foundations of the earth were
shaken--throughout Asia and Europe the atmosphere was in
commotion, and endangered, by its baneful influence, both
vegetable and animal life.

The series of these great events began in the year 1333, fifteen
years before the plague broke out in Europe: they first appeared
in China. Here a parching drought, accompanied by famine,
commenced in the tract of country watered by the rivers Kiang and
Hoai. This was followed by such violent torrents of rain, in and
about Kingsai, at that time the capital of the empire, that,
according to tradition, more than 400,000 people perished in the
floods. Finally the mountain Tsincheou fell in, and vast clefts
were formed in the earth. In the succeeding year (1334), passing
over fabulous traditions, the neighbourhood of Canton was visited
by inundations; whilst in Tche, after an unexampled drought, a
plague arose, which is said to have carried off about 5,000,000 of
people. A few months afterwards an earthquake followed, at and
near Kingsai; and subsequent to the falling in of the mountains of
Ki-ming-chan, a lake was formed of more than a hundred leagues in
circumference, where, again, thousands found their grave. In
Houkouang and Honan, a drought prevailed for five months; and
innumerable swarms of locusts destroyed the vegetation; while
famine and pestilence, as usual, followed in their train.
Connected accounts of the condition of Europe before this great
catastrophe are not to be expected from the writers of the
fourteenth century. It is remarkable, however, that
simultaneously with a drought and renewed floods in China, in
1336, many uncommon atmospheric phenomena, and in the winter,
frequent thunderstorms, were observed in the north of France; and
so early as the eventful year of 1333 an eruption of Etna took
place. According to the Chinese annuals, about 4,000,000 of
people perished by famine in the neighbourhood of Kiang in 1337;
and deluges, swarms of locusts, and an earthquake which lasted six
days, caused incredible devastation. In the same year, the first
swarms of locusts appeared in Franconia, which were succeeded in
the following year by myriads of these insects. In 1338 Kingsai
was visited by an earthquake of ten days' duration; at the same
time France suffered from a failure in the harvest; and
thenceforth, till the year 1342, there was in China a constant
succession of inundations, earthquakes, and famines. In the same
year great floods occurred in the vicinity of the Rhine and in
France, which could not be attributed to rain alone; for,
everywhere, even on tops of mountains, springs were seen to burst
forth, and dry tracts were laid under water in an inexplicable
manner. In the following year, the mountain Hong-tchang, in
China, fell in, and caused a destructive deluge; and in Pien-
tcheon and Leang-tcheou, after three months' rain, there followed
unheard-of inundations, which destroyed seven cities. In Egypt
and Syria, violent earthquakes took place; and in China they
became, from this time, more and more frequent; for they recurred,
in 1344, in Ven-tcheou, where the sea overflowed in consequence;
in 1345, in Ki-tcheou, and in both the following years in Canton,
with subterraneous thunder. Meanwhile, floods and famine
devastated various districts, until 1347, when the fury of the
elements subsided in China.

The signs of terrestrial commotions commenced in Europe in the
year 1348, after the intervening districts of country in Asia had
probably been visited in the same manner.

On the island of Cyprus, the plague from the East had already
broken out; when an earthquake shook the foundations of the
island, and was accompanied by so frightful a hurricane, that the
inhabitants who had slain their Mahometan slaves, in order that
they might not themselves be subjugated by them, fled in dismay,
in all directions. The sea overflowed--the ships were dashed to
pieces on the rocks, and few outlived the terrific event, whereby
this fertile and blooming island was converted into a desert.
Before the earthquake, a pestiferous wind spread so poisonous an
odour, that many, being overpowered by it, fell down suddenly and
expired in dreadful agonies.

This phenomenon is one of the rarest that has ever been observed,
for nothing is more constant than the composition of the air; and
in no respect has nature been more careful in the preservation of
organic life. Never have naturalists discovered in the atmosphere
foreign elements, which, evident to the senses, and borne by the
winds, spread from land to land, carrying disease over whole
portions of the earth, as is recounted to have taken place in the
year 1348. It is, therefore, the more to be regretted, that in
this extraordinary period, which, owing to the low condition of
science, was very deficient in accurate observers, so little that
can be depended on respecting those uncommon occurrences in the
air, should have been recorded. Yet, German accounts say
expressly, that a thick, stinking mist advanced from the East, and
spread itself over Italy; and there could be no deception in so
palpable a phenomenon. The credibility of unadorned traditions,
however little they may satisfy physical research, can scarcely be
called in question when we consider the connection of events; for
just at this time earthquakes were more general than they had been
within the range of history. In thousands of places chasms were
formed, from whence arose noxious vapours; and as at that time
natural occurrences were transformed into miracles, it was
reported, that a fiery meteor, which descended on the earth far in
the East, had destroyed everything within a circumference of more
than a hundred leagues, infecting the air far and wide. The
consequences of innumerable floods contributed to the same effect;
vast river districts had been converted into swamps; foul vapours
arose everywhere, increased by the odour of putrified locusts,
which had never perhaps darkened the sun in thicker swarms, and of
countless corpses, which even in the well-regulated countries of
Europe, they knew not how to remove quickly enough out of the
sight of the living. It is probable, therefore, that the
atmosphere contained foreign, and sensibly perceptible, admixtures
to a great extent, which, at least in the lower regions, could not
be decomposed, or rendered ineffective by separation.

Now, if we go back to the symptoms of the disease, the ardent
inflammation of the lungs points out, that the organs of
respiration yielded to the attack of an atmospheric poison--a
poison which, if we admit the independent origin of the Black
Plague at any one place of the globe, which, under such
extraordinary circumstances, it would be difficult to doubt,
attacked the course of the circulation in as hostile a manner as
that which produces inflammation of the spleen, and other animal
contagions that cause swelling and inflammation of the lymphatic

Pursuing the course of these grand revolutions further, we find
notice of an unexampled earthquake, which, on the 25th January,
1348, shook Greece, Italy, and the neighbouring countries.
Naples, Rome, Pisa, Bologna, Padua, Venice, and many other cities,
suffered considerably; whole villages were swallowed up. Castles,
houses, and churches were overthrown, and hundreds of people were
buried beneath their ruins. In Carinthia, thirty villages,
together with all the churches, were demolished; more than a
thousand corpses were drawn out of the rubbish; the city of
Villach was so completely destroyed that very few of its
inhabitants were saved; and when the earth ceased to tremble it
was found that mountains had been moved from their positions, and
that many hamlets were left in ruins. It is recorded that during
this earthquake the wine in the casks became turbid, a statement
which may be considered as furnishing proof that changes causing a
decomposition of the atmosphere had taken place; but if we had no
other information from which the excitement of conflicting powers
of nature during these commotions might be inferred, yet
scientific observations in modern times have shown that the
relation of the atmosphere to the earth is changed by volcanic
influences. Why then, may we not, from this fact, draw
retrospective inferences respecting those extraordinary phenomena?

Independently of this, however, we know that during this
earthquake, the duration of which is stated by some to have been a
week, and by others a fortnight, people experienced an unusual
stupor and headache, and that many fainted away.

These destructive earthquakes extended as far as the neighbourhood
of Basle, and recurred until the year 1360 throughout Germany,
France, Silesia, Poland, England, and Denmark, and much further

Great and extraordinary meteors appeared in many places, and were
regarded with superstitious horror. A pillar of fire, which on
the 20th of December, 1348, remained for an hour at sunrise over
the pope's palace in Avignon; a fireball, which in August of the
same year was seen at sunset over Paris, and was distinguished
from similar phenomena by its longer duration, not to mention
other instances mixed up with wonderful prophecies and omens, are
recorded in the chronicles of that age.

The order of the seasons seemed to be inverted; rains, flood, and
failures in crops were so general that few places were exempt from
them; and though an historian of this century assure us that there
was an abundance in the granaries and storehouses, all his
contemporaries, with one voice, contradict him. The consequences
of failure in the crops were soon felt, especially in Italy and
the surrounding countries, where, in this year, a rain, which
continued for four months, had destroyed the seed. In the larger
cities they were compelled, in the spring of 1347, to have
recourse to a distribution of bread among the poor, particularly
at Florence, where they erected large bakehouses, from which, in
April, ninety-four thousand loaves of bread, each of twelve ounces
in weight, were daily dispensed. It is plain, however, that
humanity could only partially mitigate the general distress, not
altogether obviate it.

Diseases, the invariable consequence of famine, broke out in the
country as well as in cities; children died of hunger in their
mother's arms--want, misery, and despair were general throughout

Such are the events which took place before the eruption of the
Black Plague in Europe. Contemporaries have explained them after
their own manner, and have thus, like their posterity, under
similar circumstances, given a proof that mortals possess neither
senses nor intellectual powers sufficiently acute to comprehend
the phenomena produced by the earth's organism, much less
scientifically to understand their effects. Superstition,
selfishness in a thousand forms, the presumption of the schools,
laid hold of unconnected facts. They vainly thought to comprehend
the whole in the individual, and perceived not the universal
spirit which, in intimate union with the mighty powers of nature,
animates the movements of all existence, and permits not any
phenomenon to originate from isolated causes. To attempt, five
centuries after that age of desolation, to point out the causes of
a cosmical commotion, which has never recurred to an equal extent,
to indicate scientifically the influences, which called forth so
terrific a poison in the bodies of men and animals, exceeds the
limits of human understanding. If we are even now unable, with
all the varied resources of an extended knowledge of nature, to
define that condition of the atmosphere by which pestilences are
generated, still less can we pretend to reason retrospectively
from the nineteenth to the fourteenth century; but if we take a
general view of the occurrences, that century will give us copious
information, and, as applicable to all succeeding times, of high

In the progress of connected natural phenomena from east to west,
that great law of nature is plainly revealed which has so often
and evidently manifested itself in the earth's organism, as well
as in the state of nations dependent upon it. In the inmost
depths of the globe that impulse was given in the year 1333, which
in uninterrupted succession for six and twenty years shook the
surface of the earth, even to the western shores of Europe. From
the very beginning the air partook of the terrestrial concussion,
atmospherical waters overflowed the land, or its plants and
animals perished under the scorching heat. The insect tribe was
wonderfully called into life, as if animated beings were destined
to complete the destruction which astral and telluric powers had
begun. Thus did this dreadful work of nature advance from year to
year; it was a progressive infection of the zones, which exerted a
powerful influence both above and beneath the surface of the
earth; and after having been perceptible in slighter indications,
at the commencement of the terrestrial commotions in China,
convulsed the whole earth.

The nature of the first plague in China is unknown. We have no
certain intelligence of the disease until it entered the western
countries of Asia. Here it showed itself as the Oriental plague,
with inflammation of the lungs; in which form it probably also may
have begun in China, that is to say, as a malady which spreads,
more than any other, by contagion--a contagion that, in ordinary
pestilences, requires immediate contact, and only under favourable
circumstances of rare occurrence is communicated by the mere
approach to the sick. The share which this cause had in the
spreading of the plague over the whole earth was certainly very
great; and the opinion that the Black Death might have been
excluded from Western Europe by good regulations, similar to those
which are now in use, would have all the support of modern
experience, provided it could be proved that this plague had been
actually imported from the East, or that the Oriental plague in
general, whenever it appears in Europe, has its origin in Asia or
Egypt. Such a proof, however, can by no means be produced so as
to enforce conviction; for it would involve the impossible
assumption, either that there is no essential difference between
the degree of civilisation of the European nations, in the most
ancient and in modern times, or that detrimental circumstances,
which have yielded only to the civilisation of human society and
the regular cultivation of countries, could not formerly keep up
the glandular plague.

The plague was, however, known in Europe before nations were
united by the bonds of commerce and social intercourse; hence
there is ground for supposing that it sprang up spontaneously, in
consequence of the rude manner of living and the uncultivated
state of the earth, influences which peculiarly favour the origin
of severe diseases. Now we need not go back to the earlier
centuries, for the fourteenth itself, before it had half expired,
was visited by five or six pestilences.

If, therefore, we consider the peculiar property of the plague,
that in countries which it has once visited it remains for a long
time in a milder form, and that the epidemic influences of 1342,
when it had appeared for the last time, were particularly
favourable to its unperceived continuance, till 1348, we come to
the notion that in this eventful year also the germs of plague
existed in Southern Europe, which might be vivified by
atmospherical deteriorations; and that thus, at least in part, the
Black Plague may have originated in Europe itself. The corruption
of the atmosphere came from the East; but the disease itself came
not upon the wings of the wind, but was only excited and increased
by the atmosphere where it had previously existed.

This source of the Black Plague was not, however, the only one;
for far more powerful than the excitement of the latent elements
of the plague by atmospheric influences was the effect of the
contagion communicated from one people to another on the great
roads and in the harbours of the Mediterranean. From China the
route of the caravans lay to the north of the Caspian Sea, through
Central Asia, to Tauris. Here ships were ready to take the
produce of the East to Constantinople, the capital of commerce,
and the medium of connection between Asia, Europe, and Africa.
Other caravans went from India to Asia Minor, and touched at the
cities south of the Caspian Sea, and, lastly, from Bagdad through
Arabia to Egypt; also the maritime communication on the Red Sea,
from India to Arabia and Egypt, was not inconsiderable. In all
these directions contagion made its way; and, doubtless,
Constantinople and the harbours of Asia Minor are to be regarded
as the foci of infection, whence it radiated to the most distant
seaports and islands.

To Constantinople the plague had been brought from the northern
coast of the Black Sea, after it had depopulated the countries
between those routes of commerce, and appeared as early as 1347 in
Cyprus, Sicily, Marseilles, and some of the seaports of Italy.
The remaining islands of the Mediterranean, particularly Sardinia,
Corsica, and Majorca, were visited in succession. Foci of
contagion existed also in full activity along the whole southern
coast of Europe; when, in January, 1348, the plague appeared in
Avignon, and in other cities in the south of France and north of
Italy, as well as in Spain.

The precise days of its eruption in the individual towns are no
longer to be ascertained; but it was not simultaneous; for in
Florence the disease appeared in the beginning of April, in Cesena
the 1st June, and place after place was attacked throughout the
whole year; so that the plague, after it had passed through the
whole of France and Germany--where, however, it did not make its
ravages until the following year--did not break out till August in
England, where it advanced so gradually, that a period of three
months elapsed before it reached London. The northern kingdoms
were attacked by it in 1349; Sweden, indeed, not until November of
that year, almost two years after its eruption in Avignon. Poland
received the plague in 1349, probably from Germany, if not from
the northern countries; but in Russia it did not make its
appearance until 1351, more than three years after it had broken
out in Constantinople. Instead of advancing in a north-westerly
direction from Tauris and from the Caspian Sea, it had thus made
the great circuit of the Black Sea, by way of Constantinople,
Southern and Central Europe, England, the northern kingdoms, and
Poland, before it reached the Russian territories, a phenomenon
which has not again occurred with respect to more recent
pestilences originating in Asia.

Whether any difference existed between the indigenous plague,
excited by the influence of the atmosphere, and that which was
imported by contagion, can no longer be ascertained from facts;
for the contemporaries, who in general were not competent to make
accurate researches of this kind, have left no data on the
subject. A milder and a more malignant form certainly existed,
and the former was not always derived from the latter, as is to be
supposed from this circumstance--that the spitting of blood, the
infallible diagnostic of the latter, on the first breaking out of
the plague, is not similarly mentioned in all the reports; and it
is therefore probable that the milder form belonged to the native
plague--the more malignant, to that introduced by contagion.
Contagion was, however, in itself, only one of many causes which
gave rise to the Black Plague.

This disease was a consequence of violent commotions in the
earth's organism--if any disease of cosmical origin can be so
considered. One spring set a thousand others in motion for the
annihilation of living beings, transient or permanent, of mediate
or immediate effect. The most powerful of all was contagion; for
in the most distant countries, which had scarcely yet heard the
echo of the first concussion, the people fell a sacrifice to
organic poison--the untimely offspring of vital energies thrown
into violent commotion.


We have no certain measure by which to estimate the ravages of the
Black Plague, if numerical statements were wanted, as in modern
times. Let us go back for a moment to the fourteenth century.
The people were yet but little civilised. The Church had indeed
subdued them; but they all suffered from the ill consequences of
their original rudeness. The dominion of the law was not yet
confirmed. Sovereigns had everywhere to combat powerful enemies
to internal tranquillity and security. The cities were fortresses
for their own defence. Marauders encamped on the roads. The
husbandman was a feudal slave, without possessions of his own.
Rudeness was general, humanity as yet unknown to the people.
Witches and heretics were burned alive. Gentle rulers were
contemned as weak; wild passions, severity and cruelty, everywhere
predominated. Human life was little regarded. Governments
concerned not themselves about the numbers of their subjects, for
whose welfare it was incumbent on them to provide. Thus, the
first requisite for estimating the loss of human life, namely, a
knowledge of the amount of the population, is altogether wanting;
and, moreover, the traditional statements of the amount of this
loss are so vague, that from this source likewise there is only
room for probable conjecture.

Cairo lost daily, when the plague was raging with its greatest
violence, from 10,000 to 15,000; being as many as, in modern
times, great plagues have carried off during their whole course.
In China, more than thirteen millions are said to have died; and
this is in correspondence with the certainly exaggerated accounts
from the rest of Asia. India was depopulated. Tartary, the
Tartar kingdom of Kaptschak, Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia, were
covered with dead bodies--the Kurds fled in vain to the mountains.
In Caramania and Caesarea none were left alive. On the roads--in
the camps--in the caravansaries--unburied bodies alone were seen;
and a few cities only (Arabian historians name Maarael-Nooman,
Schisur, and Harem) remained, in an unaccountable manner, free.
In Aleppo, 500 died daily; 22,000 people, and most of the animals,
were carried off in Gaza, within six weeks. Cyprus lost almost
all its inhabitants; and ships without crews were often seen in
the Mediterranean, as afterwards in the North Sea, driving about,
and spreading the plague wherever they went on shore. It was
reported to Pope Clement, at Avignon, that throughout the East,
probably with the exception of China, 23,840,000 people had fallen
victims to the plague. Considering the occurrences of the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we might, on first view,
suspect the accuracy of this statement. How (it might be asked)
could such great wars have been carried on--such powerful efforts
have been made; how could the Greek Empire, only a hundred years
later, have been overthrown, if the people really had been so
utterly destroyed?

This account is nevertheless rendered credible by the ascertained
fact, that the palaces of princes are less accessible to
contagious diseases than the dwellings of the multitude; and that
in places of importance, the influx from those districts which
have suffered least, soon repairs even the heaviest losses. We
must remember, also, that we do not gather much from mere numbers
without an intimate knowledge of the state of society. We will
therefore confine ourselves to exhibiting some of the more
credible accounts relative to European cities.

In Florence there died of the Black Plague--60,000
In Venice--100,000
In Marseilles, in one month--16,000
In Siena--70,000
In Paris--50,000
In St. Denys--14,000
In Avignon--60,000
In Strasburg--16,000
In Lubeck--9,000
In Basle--14,000
In Erfurt, at least--16,000
In Weimar--5,000
In Limburg--2,500
In London, at least--100,000
In Norwich--51,100

To which may be added -

Franciscan Friars in German--124,434
Minorites in Italy--30,000

This short catalogue might, by a laborious and uncertain
calculation, deduced from other sources, be easily further
multiplied, but would still fail to give a true picture of the
depopulation which took place. Lubeck, at that time the Venice of
the North, which could no longer contain the multitudes that
flocked to it, was thrown into such consternation on the eruption
of the plague, that the citizens destroyed themselves as if in

Merchants whose earnings and possessions were unbounded, coldly
and willingly renounced their earthly goods. They carried their
treasures to monasteries and churches, and laid them at the foot
of the altar; but gold had no charms for the monks, for it brought
them death. They shut their gates; yet, still it was cast to them
over the convent walls. People would brook no impediment to the
last pious work to which they were driven by despair. When the
plague ceased, men thought they were still wandering among the
dead, so appalling was the livid aspect of the survivors, in
consequence of the anxiety they had undergone, and the unavoidable
infection of the air. Many other cities probably presented a
similar appearance; and it is ascertained that a great number of
small country towns and villages, which have been estimated, and
not too highly, at 200,000, were bereft of all their inhabitants.

In many places in France, not more than two out of twenty of the
inhabitants were left alive, and the capital felt the fury of the
plague, alike in the palace and the cot.

Two queens, one bishop, and great numbers of other distinguished
persons, fell a sacrifice to it, and more than 500 a day died in
the Hotel Dieu, under the faithful care of the sisters of charity,
whose disinterested courage, in this age of horror, displayed the
most beautiful traits of human virtue. For although they lost
their lives, evidently from contagion, and their numbers were
several times renewed, there was still no want of fresh
candidates, who, strangers to the unchristian fear of death,
piously devoted themselves to their holy calling.

The churchyards were soon unable to contain the dead, and many
houses, left without inhabitants, fell to ruins.

In Avignon, the Pope found it necessary to consecrate the Rhone,
that bodies might be thrown into the river without delay, as the
churchyards would no longer hold them; so likewise, in all
populous cities, extraordinary measures were adopted, in order
speedily to dispose of the dead. In Vienna, where for some time
1,200 inhabitants died daily, the interment of corpses in the
churchyards and within the churches was forthwith prohibited; and
the dead were then arranged in layers, by thousands, in six large
pits outside the city, as had already been done in Cairo and
Paris. Yet, still many were secretly buried; for at all times the
people are attached to the consecrated cemeteries of their dead,
and will not renounce the customary mode of interment.

In many places it was rumoured that plague patients were buried
alive, as may sometimes happen through senseless alarm and
indecent haste; and thus the horror of the distressed people was
everywhere increased. In Erfurt, after the churchyards were
filled, 12,000 corpses were thrown into eleven great pits; and the
like might, more or less exactly, be stated with respect to all
the larger cities. Funeral ceremonies, the last consolation of
the survivors, were everywhere impracticable.

In all Germany, according to a probable calculation, there seem to
have died only 1,244,434 inhabitants; this country, however, was
more spared than others: Italy, on the contrary, was most
severely visited. It is said to have lost half its inhabitants;
and this account is rendered credible from the immense losses of
individual cities and provinces: for in Sardinia and Corsica,
according to the account of the distinguished Florentine, John
Villani, who was himself carried off by the Black Plague, scarcely
a third part of the population remained alive; and it is related
of the Venetians, that they engaged ships at a high rate to
retreat to the islands; so that after the plague had carried off
three-fourths of her inhabitants, that proud city was left forlorn
and desolate. In Padua, after the cessation of the plague, two-
thirds of the inhabitants were wanting; and in Florence it was
prohibited to publish the numbers of dead, and to toll the bells
at their funerals, in order that the living might not abandon
themselves to despair.

We have more exact accounts of England; most of the great cities
suffered incredible losses; above all, Yarmouth, in which 7,052
died; Bristol, Oxford, Norwich, Leicester, York, and London, where
in one burial ground alone, there were interred upwards of 50,000
corpses, arranged in layers, in large pits. It is said that in
the whole country scarcely a tenth part remained alive; but this
estimate is evidently too high. Smaller losses were sufficient to
cause those convulsions, whose consequences were felt for some
centuries, in a false impulse given to civil life, and whose
indirect influence, unknown to the English, has perhaps extended
even to modern times.

Morals were deteriorated everywhere, and the service of God was in
a great measure laid aside; for, in many places, the churches were
deserted, being bereft of their priests. The instruction of the
people was impeded; covetousness became general; and when
tranquillity was restored, the great increase of lawyers was
astonishing, to whom the endless disputes regarding inheritances
offered a rich harvest. The want of priests too, throughout the
country, operated very detrimentally upon the people (the lower
classes being most exposed to the ravages of the plague, whilst
the houses of the nobility were, in proportion, much more spared),
and it was no compensation that whole bands of ignorant laymen,
who had lost their wives during the pestilence, crowded into the
monastic orders, that they might participate in the respectability
of the priesthood, and in the rich heritages which fell in to the
Church from all quarters. The sittings of Parliament, of the
King's Bench, and of most of the other courts, were suspended as
long as the malady raged. The laws of peace availed not during
the dominion of death. Pope Clement took advantage of this state
of disorder to adjust the bloody quarrel between Edward III and
Philip VI; yet he only succeeded during the period that the plague
commanded peace. Philip's death (1350) annulled all treaties; and
it is related that Edward, with other troops indeed, but with the
same leaders and knights, again took the field. Ireland was much
less heavily visited that England. The disease seems to have
scarcely reached the mountainous districts of that kingdom; and
Scotland too would perhaps have remained free, had not the Scots
availed themselves of the discomfiture of the English to make an
irruption into their territory, which terminated in the
destruction of their army, by the plague and by the sword, and the
extension of the pestilence, through those who escaped, over the
whole country.

At the commencement, there was in England a superabundance of all
the necessaries of life; but the plague, which seemed then to be
the sole disease, was soon accompanied by a fatal murrain among
the cattle. Wandering about without herdsmen, they fell by
thousands; and, as has likewise been observed in Africa, the birds
and beasts of prey are said not to have touched them. Of what
nature this murrain may have been, can no more be determined, than
whether it originated from communication with plague patients, or
from other causes; but thus much is certain, that it did not break
out until after the commencement of the Black Death. In
consequence of this murrain, and the impossibility of removing the
corn from the fields, there was everywhere a great rise in the
price of food, which to many was inexplicable, because the harvest
had been plentiful; by others it was attributed to the wicked
designs of the labourers and dealers; but it really had its
foundation in the actual deficiency arising from circumstances by
which individual classes at all times endeavour to profit. For a
whole year, until it terminated in August, 1349, the Black Plague
prevailed in this beautiful island, and everywhere poisoned the
springs of comfort and prosperity.

In other countries, it generally lasted only half a year, but
returned frequently in individual places; on which account, some,
without sufficient proof, assigned to it a period of seven years.

Spain was uninterruptedly ravaged by the Black Plague till after
the year 1350, to which the frequent internal feuds and the wars
with the Moors not a little contributed. Alphonso XI., whose
passion for war carried him too far, died of it at the siege of
Gibraltar, on the 26th of March, 1350. He was the only king in
Europe who fell a sacrifice to it; but even before this period,
innumerable families had been thrown into affliction. The
mortality seems otherwise to have been smaller in Spain than in
Italy, and about as considerable as in France.

The whole period during which the Black Plague raged with
destructive violence in Europe was, with the exception of Russia,
from the year 1347 to 1350. The plagues which in the sequel often
returned until the year 1383, we do not consider as belonging to
"the Great Mortality." They were rather common pestilences,
without inflammation of the lungs, such as in former times, and in
the following centuries, were excited by the matter of contagion
everywhere existing, and which, on every favourable occasion,
gained ground anew, as is usually the case with this frightful

The concourse of large bodies of people was especially dangerous;
and thus the premature celebration of the Jubilee to which Clement
VI. cited the faithful to Rome (1350) during the great epidemic,
caused a new eruption of the plague, from which it is said that
scarcely one in a hundred of the pilgrims escaped.

Italy was, in consequence, depopulated anew; and those who
returned, spread poison and corruption of morals in all
directions. It is therefore the less apparent how that Pope, who
was in general so wise and considerate, and who knew how to pursue
the path of reason and humanity under the most difficult
circumstances, should have been led to adopt a measure so
injurious; since he himself was so convinced of the salutary
effect of seclusion, that during the plague in Avignon he kept up
constant fires, and suffered no one to approach him; and in other
respects gave such orders as averted, or alleviated, much misery.

The changes which occurred about this period in the north of
Europe are sufficiently memorable to claim a few moments'
attention. In Sweden two princes died--Haken and Knut, half-
brothers of King Magnus; and in Westgothland alone, 466 priests.
The inhabitants of Iceland and Greenland found in the coldness of
their inhospitable climate no protection against the southern
enemy who had penetrated to them from happier countries. The
plague caused great havoc among them. Nature made no allowance
for their constant warfare with the elements, and the parsimony
with which she had meted out to them the enjoyments of life. In
Denmark and Norway, however, people were so occupied with their
own misery, that the accustomed voyages to Greenland ceased.
Towering icebergs formed at the same time on the coast of East
Greenland, in consequence of the general concussion of the earth's
organism; and no mortal, from that time forward, has ever seen
that shore or its inhabitants.

It has been observed above, that in Russia the Black Plague did
not break out until 1351, after it had already passed through the
south and north of Europe. In this country also, the mortality
was extraordinarily great; and the same scenes of affliction and
despair were exhibited, as had occurred in those nations which had
already passed the ordeal: the same mode of burial--the same
horrible certainty of death--the same torpor and depression of
spirits. The wealthy abandoned their treasures, and gave their
villages and estates to the churches and monasteries; this being,
according to the notions of the age, the surest way of securing
the favour of Heaven and the forgiveness of past sins. In Russia,
too, the voice of nature was silenced by fear and horror. In the
hour of danger, fathers and mothers deserted their children, and
children their parents.

Of all the estimates of the number of lives lost in Europe, the
most probable is, that altogether a fourth part of the inhabitants
were carried off. Now, if Europe at present contain 210,000,000
inhabitants, the population, not to take a higher estimate, which
might easily by justified, amounted to at least 105,000,000 in the
sixteenth century.

It may therefore be assumed, without exaggeration, that Europe
lost during the Black Death 25,000,000 of inhabitants.

That her nations could so quickly overcome such a fearful
concussion in their external circumstances, and, in general,
without retrograding more than they actually did, could so develop
their energies in the following century, is a most convincing
proof of the indestructibility of human society as a whole. To
assume, however, that it did not suffer any essential change
internally, because in appearance everything remained as before,
is inconsistent with a just view of cause and effect. Many
historians seem to have adopted such an opinion; accustomed, as
usual, to judge of the moral condition of the people solely
according to the vicissitudes of earthly power, the events of
battles, and the influence of religion, but to pass over with
indifference the great phenomena of nature, which modify, not only
the surface of the earth, but also the human mind. Hence, most of
them have touched but superficially on the "Great Mortality" of
the fourteenth century. We, for our parts, are convinced that in
the history of the world the Black Death is one of the most
important events which have prepared the way for the present state
of Europe.

He who studies the human mind with attention, and forms a
deliberate judgment on the intellectual powers which set people
and States in motion, may perhaps find some proofs of this
assertion in the following observations:- at that time, the
advancement of the hierarchy was, in most countries,
extraordinary; for the Church acquired treasures and large
properties in land, even to a greater extent than after the
Crusades; but experience has demonstrated that such a state of
things is ruinous to the people, and causes them to retrograde, as
was evinced on this occasion.

After the cessation of the Black Plague, a greater fecundity in
women was everywhere remarkable--a grand phenomenon, which, from
its occurrence after every destructive pestilence, proves to
conviction, if any occurrence can do so, the prevalence of a
higher power in the direction of general organic life. Marriages
were, almost without exception, prolific; and double and triple
births were more frequent than at other times; under which head,
we should remember the strange remark, that after the "Great
Mortality" the children were said to have got fewer teeth than
before; at which contemporaries were mightily shocked, and even
later writers have felt surprise.

If we examine the grounds of this oft-repeated assertion, we shall
find that they were astonished to see children, cut twenty, or at
most, twenty-two teeth, under the supposition that a greater
number had formerly fallen to their share. Some writers of
authority, as, for example, the physician Savonarola, at Ferrara,
who probably looked for twenty-eight teeth in children, published
their opinions on this subject. Others copied from them, without
seeing for themselves, as often happens in other matters which are
equally evident; and thus the world believed in the miracle of an
imperfection in the human body which had been caused by the Black

The people gradually consoled themselves after the sufferings
which they had undergone; the dead were lamented and forgotten;
and, in the stirring vicissitudes of existence, the world belonged
to the living.


The mental shock sustained by all nations during the prevalence of
the Black Plague is without parallel and beyond description. In
the eyes of the timorous, danger was the certain harbinger of
death; many fell victims to fear on the first appearance of the
distemper, and the most stout-hearted lost their confidence.
Thus, after reliance on the future had died away, the spiritual
union which binds man to his family and his fellow-creatures was
gradually dissolved. The pious closed their accounts with the
world--eternity presented itself to their view--their only
remaining desire was for a participation in the consolations of
religion, because to them death was disarmed of its sting.

Repentance seized the transgressor, admonishing him to consecrate
his remaining hours to the exercise of Christian virtues. All
minds were directed to the contemplation of futurity; and
children, who manifest the more elevated feelings of the soul
without alloy, were frequently seen, while labouring under the
plague, breathing out their spirit with prayer and songs of

An awful sense of contrition seized Christians of every communion;
they resolved to forsake their vices, to make restitution for past
offences, before they were summoned hence, to seek reconciliation
with their Maker, and to avert, by self-chastisement, the
punishment due to their former sins. Human nature would be
exalted, could the countless noble actions which, in times of most
imminent danger, were performed in secret, be recorded for the
instruction of future generations. They, however, have no
influence on the course of worldly events. They are known only to
silent eyewitnesses, and soon fall into oblivion. But hypocrisy,
illusion, and bigotry stalk abroad undaunted; they desecrate what
is noble, they pervert what is divine, to the unholy purposes of
selfishness, which hurries along every good feeling in the false
excitement of the age. Thus it was in the years of this plague.
In the fourteenth century, the monastic system was still in its
full vigour, the power of the ecclesiastical orders and
brotherhoods was revered by the people, and the hierarchy was
still formidable to the temporal power. It was therefore in the
natural constitution of society that bigoted zeal, which in such
times makes a show of public acts of penance, should avail itself
of the semblance of religion. But this took place in such a
manner, that unbridled, self-willed penitence, degenerated into
lukewarmness, renounced obedience to the hierarchy, and prepared a
fearful opposition to the Church, paralysed as it was by
antiquated forms.

While all countries were filled with lamentations and woe, there
first arose in Hungary, and afterwards in Germany, the Brotherhood
of the Flagellants, called also the Brethren of the Cross, or
Cross-bearers, who took upon themselves the repentance of the
people for the sins they had committed, and offered prayers and
supplications for the averting of this plague. This Order
consisted chiefly of persons of the lower class, who were either
actuated by sincere contrition, or who joyfully availed themselves
of this pretext for idleness, and were hurried along with the tide
of distracting frenzy. But as these brotherhoods gained in
repute, and were welcomed by the people with veneration and
enthusiasm, many nobles and ecclesiastics ranged themselves under
their standard; and their bands were not unfrequently augmented by
children, honourable women, and nuns; so powerfully were minds of
the most opposite temperaments enslaved by this infatuation. They
marched through the cities, in well-organised processions, with
leaders and singers; their heads covered as far as the eyes; their
look fixed on the ground, accompanied by every token of the
deepest contrition and mourning. They were robed in sombre
garments, with red crosses on the breast, back, and cap, and bore
triple scourges, tied in three or four knots, in which points of
iron were fixed. Tapers and magnificent banners of velvet and
cloth of gold were carried before them; wherever they made their
appearance, they were welcomed by the ringing bells, and the
people flocked from all quarters to listen to their hymns and to
witness their penance with devotion and tears.

In the year 1349, two hundred Flagellants first entered Strasburg,
where they were received with great joy, and hospitably lodged by
citizens. Above a thousand joined the brotherhood, which now
assumed the appearance of a wandering tribe, and separated into
two bodies, for the purpose of journeying to the north and to the
south. For more than half a year, new parties arrived weekly; and
on each arrival adults and children left their families to
accompany them; till at length their sanctity was questioned, and
the doors of houses and churches were closed against them. At
Spires, two hundred boys, of twelve years of age and under,
constituted themselves into a Brotherhood of the Cross, in
imitation of the children who, about a hundred years before, had
united, at the instigation of some fanatic monks, for the purpose
of recovering the Holy Sepulchre. All the inhabitants of this
town were carried away by the illusion; they conducted the
strangers to their houses with songs of thanksgiving, to regale
them for the night. The women embroidered banners for them, and
all were anxious to augment their pomp; and at every succeeding
pilgrimage their influence and reputation increased.

It was not merely some individual parts of the country that
fostered them: all Germany, Hungary, Poland, Bohemia, Silesia,
and Flanders, did homage to the mania; and they at length became
as formidable to the secular as they were to the ecclesiastical
power. The influence of this fanaticism was great and
threatening, resembling the excitement which called all the
inhabitants of Europe into the deserts of Syria and Palestine
about two hundred and fifty years before. The appearance in
itself was not novel. As far back as the eleventh century, many
believers in Asia and Southern Europe afflicted themselves with
the punishment of flagellation. Dominicus Loricatus, a monk of
St. Croce d'Avellano, is mentioned as the master and model of this
species of mortification of the flesh; which, according to the
primitive notions of the Asiatic Anchorites, was deemed eminently
Christian. The author of the solemn processions of the
Flagellants is said to have been St. Anthony; for even in his time
(1231) this kind of penance was so much in vogue, that it is
recorded as an eventful circumstance in the history of the world.
In 1260, the Flagellants appeared in Italy as Devoti. "When the
land was polluted by vices and crimes, an unexampled spirit of
remorse suddenly seized the minds of the Italians. The fear of
Christ fell upon all: noble and ignoble, old and young, and even
children of five years of age, marched through the streets with no
covering but a scarf round the waist. They each carried a scourge
of leathern thongs, which they applied to their limbs, amid sighs
and tears, with such violence that the blood flowed from the
wounds. Not only during the day, but even by night, and in the
severest winter, they traversed the cities with burning torches
and banners, in thousands and tens of thousands, headed by their
priests, and prostrated themselves before the altars. They
proceeded in the same manner in the villages: and the woods and
mountains resounded with the voices of those whose cries were
raised to God. The melancholy chaunt of the penitent alone was
heard. Enemies were reconciled; men and women vied with each
other in splendid works of charity, as if they dreaded that Divine
Omnipotence would pronounce on them the doom of annihilation."

The pilgrimages of the Flagellants extended throughout all the
province of Southern Germany, as far as Saxony, Bohemia, and
Poland, and even further; but at length the priests resisted this
dangerous fanaticism, without being able to extirpate the
illusion, which was advantageous to the hierarchy as long as it
submitted to its sway. Regnier, a hermit of Perugia, is recorded
as a fanatic preacher of penitence, with whom the extravagance
originated. In the year 1296 there was a great procession of the
Flagellants in Strasburg; and in 1334, fourteen years before the
Great Mortality, the sermon of Venturinus, a Dominican friar of
Bergamo, induced above 10,000 persons to undertake a new
pilgrimage. They scourged themselves in the churches, and were
entertained in the market-places at the public expense. At Rome,
Venturinus was derided, and banished by the Pope to the mountains
of Ricondona. He patiently endured all--went to the Holy Land,
and died at Smyrna, 1346. Hence we see that this fanaticism was a
mania of the middle ages, which, in the year 1349, on so fearful
an occasion, and while still so fresh in remembrance, needed no
new founder; of whom, indeed, all the records are silent. It
probably arose in many places at the same time; for the terror of
death, which pervaded all nations and suddenly set such powerful
impulses in motion, might easily conjure up the fanaticism of
exaggerated and overpowering repentance.

The manner and proceedings of the Flagellants of the thirteenth
and fourteenth centuries exactly resemble each other. But, if
during the Black Plague, simple credulity came to their aid, which
seized, as a consolation, the grossest delusion of religious
enthusiasm, yet it is evident that the leaders must have been
intimately united, and have exercised the power of a secret
association. Besides, the rude band was generally under the
control of men of learning, some of whom at least certainly had
other objects in view independent of those which ostensibly
appeared. Whoever was desirous of joining the brotherhood, was
bound to remain in it thirty-four days, and to have fourpence per
day at his own disposal, so that he might not be burthensome to
any one; if married, he was obliged to have the sanction of his
wife, and give the assurance that he was reconciled to all men.
The Brothers of the Cross were not permitted to seek for free
quarters, or even to enter a house without having been invited;
they were forbidden to converse with females; and if they
transgressed these rules, or acted without discretion, they were
obliged to confess to the Superior, who sentenced them to several
lashes of the scourge, by way of penance. Ecclesiastics had not,
as such, any pre-eminence among them; according to their original
law, which, however, was often transgressed, they could not become
Masters, or take part in the Secret Councils. Penance was
performed twice every day: in the morning and evening they went
abroad in pairs, singing psalms amid the ringing of the bells; and
when they arrived at the place of flagellation, they stripped the
upper part of their bodies and put off their shoes, keeping on
only a linen dress, reaching from the waist to the ankles. They
then lay down in a large circle, in different positions, according
to the nature of the crime: the adulterer with his face to the
ground; the perjurer on one side, holding up three of his fingers,
&c., and were then castigated, some more and some less, by the
Master, who ordered them to rise in the words of a prescribed
form. Upon this they scourged themselves, amid the singing of
psalms and loud supplications for the averting of the plague, with
genuflexions and other ceremonies, of which contemporary writers
give various accounts; and at the same time constantly boasted of
their penance, that the blood of their wounds was mingled with
that of the Saviour. One of them, in conclusion, stoop up to read
a letter, which it was pretended an angel had brought from heaven
to St. Peter's Church, at Jerusalem, stating that Christ, who was
sore displeased at the sins of man, had granted, at the
intercession of the Holy Virgin and of the angels, that all who
should wander about for thirty-four days and scourge themselves,
should be partakers of the Divine grace. This scene caused as
great a commotion among the believers as the finding of the holy
spear once did at Antioch; and if any among the clergy inquired
who had sealed the letter, he was boldly answered, the same who
had sealed the Gospel!

All this had so powerful an effect, that the Church was in
considerable danger; for the Flagellants gained more credit than
the priests, from whom they so entirely withdrew themselves, that
they even absolved each other. Besides, they everywhere took
possession of the churches, and their new songs, which went from
mouth to mouth, operated strongly on the minds of the people.
Great enthusiasm and originally pious feelings are clearly
distinguishable in these hymns, and especially in the chief psalm
of the Cross-bearers, which is still extant, and which was sung
all over Germany in different dialects, and is probably of a more
ancient date. Degeneracy, however, soon crept in; crimes were
everywhere committed; and there was no energetic man capable of
directing the individual excitement to purer objects, even had an
effectual resistance to the tottering Church been at that early
period seasonable, and had it been possible to restrain the
fanaticism. The Flagellants sometimes undertook to make trial of
their power of working miracles; as in Strasburg, where they
attempted, in their own circle, to resuscitate a dead child:
they, however, failed, and their unskilfulness did them much harm,
though they succeeded here and there in maintaining some
confidence in their holy calling, by pretending to have the power
of casting out evil spirits.

The Brotherhood of the Cross announced that the pilgrimage of the
Flagellants was to continue for a space of thirty-four years; and
many of the Masters had doubtless determined to form a lasting
league against the Church; but they had gone too far. So early as
the first year of their establishment, the general indignation set
bounds to their intrigues: so that the strict measures adopted by
the Emperor Charles IV., and Pope Clement, who, throughout the
whole of this fearful period, manifested prudence and noble-
mindedness, and conducted himself in a manner every way worthy of
his high station, were easily put into execution.

The Sorbonne, at Paris, and the Emperor Charles, had already
applied to the Holy See for assistance against these formidable
and heretical excesses, which had well-nigh destroyed the
influence of the clergy in every place; when a hundred of the
Brotherhood of the Cross arrived at Avignon from Basle, and
desired admission. The Pope, regardless of the intercession of
several cardinals, interdicted their public penance, which he had
not authorised; and, on pain of excommunication, prohibited
throughout Christendom the continuance of these pilgrimages.
Philip VI., supported by the condemnatory judgment of the
Sorbonne, forbade their reception in France. Manfred, King of
Sicily, at the same time threatened them with punishment by death;
and in the East they were withstood by several bishops, among whom
was Janussius, of Gnesen, and Preczlaw, of Breslau, who condemned
to death one of their Masters, formerly a deacon; and, in
conformity with the barbarity of the times, had him publicly
burnt. In Westphalia, where so shortly before they had venerated
the Brothers of the Cross, they now persecuted them with
relentless severity; and in the Mark, as well as in all the other
countries of Germany, they pursued them as if they had been the
authors of every misfortune.

The processions of the Brotherhood of the Cross undoubtedly
promoted the spreading of the plague; and it is evident that the
gloomy fanaticism which gave rise to them would infuse a new
poison into the already desponding minds of the people.

Still, however, all this was within the bounds of barbarous
enthusiasm; but horrible were the persecutions of the Jews, which
were committed in most countries, with even greater exasperation
than in the twelfth century, during the first Crusades. In every
destructive pestilence the common people at first attribute the
mortality to poison. No instruction avails; the supposed
testimony of their eyesight is to them a proof, and they
authoritatively demand the victims of their rage. On whom, then,
was it so likely to fall as on the Jews, the usurers and the
strangers who lived at enmity with the Christians? They were
everywhere suspected of having poisoned the wells or infected the
air. They alone were considered as having brought this fearful
mortality upon the Christians. They were, in consequence, pursued
with merciless cruelty; and either indiscriminately given up to
the fury of the populace, or sentenced by sanguinary tribunals,
which, with all the forms of the law, ordered them to be burnt
alive. In times like these, much is indeed said of guilt and
innocence; but hatred and revenge bear down all discrimination,
and the smallest probability magnifies suspicion into certainty.
These bloody scenes, which disgraced Europe in the fourteenth
century, are a counterpart to a similar mania of the age, which
was manifested in the persecutions of witches and sorcerers; and,
like these, they prove that enthusiasm, associated with hatred,
and leagued with the baser passions, may work more powerfully upon
whole nations than religion and legal order; nay, that it even
knows how to profit by the authority of both, in order the more
surely to satiate with blood the sword of long-suppressed revenge.

The persecution of the Jews commenced in September and October,
1348, at Chillon, on the Lake of Geneva, where the first criminal
proceedings were instituted against them, after they had long
before been accused by the people of poisoning the wells; similar
scenes followed in Bern and Freyburg, in January, 1349. Under the
influence of excruciating suffering, the tortured Jews confessed
themselves guilty of the crime imputed to them; and it being
affirmed that poison had in fact been found in a well at
Zoffingen, this was deemed a sufficient proof to convince the
world; and the persecution of the abhorred culprits thus appeared
justifiable. Now, though we can take as little exception at these
proceedings as at the multifarious confessions of witches, because
the interrogatories of the fanatical and sanguinary tribunals were
so complicated, that by means of the rack the required answer must
inevitably be obtained; and it is, besides, conformable to human
nature that crimes which are in everybody's mouth may, in the end,
be actually committed by some, either from wantonness, revenge, or
desperate exasperation: yet crimes and accusations are, under
circumstances like these, merely the offspring of a revengeful,
frenzied spirit in the people; and the accusers, according to the
fundamental principles of morality, which are the same in every
age, are the more guilty transgressors.

Already in the autumn of 1348 a dreadful panic, caused by this
supposed empoisonment, seized all nations; in Germany especially
the springs and wells were built over, that nobody might drink of
them or employ their contents for culinary purposes; and for a
long time the inhabitants of numerous towns and villages used only
river and rain water. The city gates were also guarded with the
greatest caution: only confidential persons were admitted; and if
medicine or any other article, which might be supposed to be
poisonous, was found in the possession of a stranger--and it was
natural that some should have these things by them for their
private use--they were forced to swallow a portion of it. By this
trying state of privation, distrust, and suspicion, the hatred
against the supposed poisoners became greatly increased, and often
broke out in popular commotions, which only served still further
to infuriate the wildest passions. The noble and the mean
fearlessly bound themselves by an oath to extirpate the Jews by
fire and sword, and to snatch them from their protectors, of whom
the number was so small, that throughout all Germany but few
places can be mentioned where these unfortunate people were not
regarded as outlaws and martyred and burnt. Solemn summonses were
issued from Bern to the towns of Basle, Freyburg in the Breisgau,
and Strasburg, to pursue the Jews as poisoners. The burgomasters
and senators, indeed, opposed this requisition; but in Basle the
populace obliged them to bind themselves by an oath to burn the
Jews, and to forbid persons of that community from entering their
city for the space of two hundred years. Upon this all the Jews
in Basle, whose number could not have been inconsiderable, were
enclosed in a wooden building, constructed for the purpose, and
burnt together with it, upon the mere outcry of the people,
without sentence or trial, which, indeed, would have availed them
nothing. Soon after the same thing took place at Freyburg. A
regular Diet was held at Bennefeld, in Alsace, where the bishops,
lords, and barons, as also deputies of the counties and towns,
consulted how they should proceed with regard to the Jews; and
when the deputies of Strasburg--not indeed the bishop of this
town, who proved himself a violent fanatic--spoke in favour of the
persecuted, as nothing criminal was substantiated against them, a
great outcry was raised, and it was vehemently asked, why, if so,
they had covered their wells and removed their buckets. A
sanguinary decree was resolved upon, of which the populace, who
obeyed the call of the nobles and superior clergy, became but the
too willing executioners. Wherever the Jews were not burnt, they
were at least banished; and so being compelled to wander about,
they fell into the hands of the country people, who, without
humanity, and regardless of all laws, persecuted them with fire
and sword. At Spires, the Jews, driven to despair, assembled in
their own habitations, which they set on fire, and thus consumed
themselves with their families. The few that remained were forced
to submit to baptism; while the dead bodies of the murdered, which
lay about the streets, were put into empty wine-casks and rolled
into the Rhine, lest they should infect the air. The mob was
forbidden to enter the ruins of the habitations that were burnt in
the Jewish quarter; for the senate itself caused search to be made
for the treasure, which is said to have been very considerable.
At Strasburg two thousand Jews were burnt alive in their own
burial-ground, where a large scaffold had been erected: a few who
promised to embrace Christianity were spared, and their children
taken from the pile. The youth and beauty of several females also
excited some commiseration, and they were snatched from death
against their will; many, however, who forcibly made their escape
from the flames were murdered in the streets.

The senate ordered all pledges and bonds to be returned to the
debtors, and divided the money among the work-people. Many,
however, refused to accept the base price of blood, and, indignant
at the scenes of bloodthirsty avarice, which made the infuriated
multitude forget that the plague was raging around them, presented
it to monasteries, in conformity with the advice of their
confessors. In all the countries on the Rhine, these cruelties
continued to be perpetrated during the succeeding months; and
after quiet was in some degree restored, the people thought to
render an acceptable service to God, by taking the bricks of the
destroyed dwellings, and the tombstones of the Jews, to repair
churches and to erect belfries.

In Mayence alone, 12,000 Jews are said to have been put to a cruel
death. The Flagellants entered that place in August; the Jews, on
this occasion, fell out with the Christians and killed several;
but when they saw their inability to withstand the increasing
superiority of their enemies, and that nothing could save them
from destruction, they consumed themselves and their families by
setting fire to their dwellings. Thus also, in other places, the
entry of the Flagellants gave rise to scenes of slaughter; and as
thirst for blood was everywhere combined with an unbridled spirit
of proselytism, a fanatic zeal arose among the Jews to perish as
martyrs to their ancient religion. And how was it possible that
they could from the heart embrace Christianity, when its precepts
were never more outrageously violated? At Eslingen the whole
Jewish community burned themselves in their synagogue, and mothers
were often seen throwing their children on the pile, to prevent
their being baptised, and then precipitating themselves into the
flames. In short, whatever deeds fanaticism, revenge, avarice and
desperation, in fearful combination, could instigate mankind to
perform,--and where in such a case is the limit?--were executed in
the year 1349 throughout Germany, Italy, and France, with
impunity, and in the eyes of all the world. It seemed as if the
plague gave rise to scandalous acts and frantic tumults, not to
mourning and grief; and the greater part of those who, by their
education and rank, were called upon to raise the voice of reason,
themselves led on the savage mob to murder and to plunder. Almost
all the Jews who saved their lives by baptism were afterwards
burnt at different times; for they continued to be accused of
poisoning the water and the air. Christians also, whom
philanthropy or gain had induced to offer them protection, were
put on the rack and executed with them. Many Jews who had
embraced Christianity repented of their apostacy, and, returning
to their former faith, sealed it with their death.

The humanity and prudence of Clement VI. must, on this occasion,
also be mentioned to his honour; but even the highest
ecclesiastical power was insufficient to restrain the unbridled
fury of the people. He not only protected the Jews at Avignon, as
far as lay in his power, but also issued two bulls, in which he
declared them innocent; and admonished all Christians, though
without success, to cease from such groundless persecutions. The
Emperor Charles IV. was also favourable to them, and sought to
avert their destruction wherever he could; but he dared not draw
the sword of justice, and even found himself obliged to yield to
the selfishness of the Bohemian nobles, who were unwilling to
forego so favourable an opportunity of releasing themselves from
their Jewish creditors, under favour of an imperial mandate. Duke
Albert of Austria burnt and pillaged those of his cities which had
persecuted the Jews--a vain and inhuman proceeding, which,
moreover, is not exempt from the suspicion of covetousness; yet he
was unable, in his own fortress of Kyberg, to protect some
hundreds of Jews, who had been received there, from being
barbarously burnt by the inhabitants. Several other princes and
counts, among whom was Ruprecht von der Pfalz, took the Jews under
their protection, on the payment of large sums: in consequence of
which they were called "Jew-masters," and were in danger of being
attacked by the populace and by their powerful neighbours. These
persecuted and ill-used people, except indeed where humane
individuals took compassion on them at their own peril, or when
they could command riches to purchase protection, had no place of
refuge left but the distant country of Lithuania, where Boleslav
V., Duke of Poland (1227-1279) had before granted them liberty of
conscience; and King Casimir the Great (1333-1370), yielding to
the entreaties of Esther, a favourite Jewess, received them, and
granted them further protection; on which account, that country is
still inhabited by a great number of Jews, who by their secluded
habits have, more than any people in Europe, retained the manners
of the Middle Ages.

But to return to the fearful accusations against the Jews; it was
reported in all Europe that they were in connection with secret
superiors in Toledo, to whose decrees they were subject, and from
whom they had received commands respecting the coining of base
money, poisoning, the murder of Christian children, &c; that they
received the poison by sea from remote parts, and also prepared it
themselves from spiders, owls, and other venomous animals; but, in
order that their secret might not be discovered, that it was known
only to their Rabbis and rich men. Apparently there were but few
who did not consider this extravagant accusation well founded;
indeed, in many writings of the fourteenth century, we find great
acrimony with regard to the suspected poison-mixers, which plainly
demonstrates the prejudice existing against them. Unhappily,
after the confessions of the first victims in Switzerland, the
rack extorted similar ones in various places. Some even
acknowledged having received poisonous powder in bags, and
injunctions from Toledo, by secret messengers. Bags of this
description were also often found in wells, though it was not
unfrequently discovered that the Christians themselves had thrown
them in; probably to give occasion to murder and pillage; similar
instances of which may be found in the persecutions of the

This picture needs no additions. A lively image of the Black
Plague, and of the moral evil which followed in its train, will
vividly represent itself to him who is acquainted with nature and
the constitution of society. Almost the only credible accounts of
the manner of living, and of the ruin which occurred in private
life during this pestilence, are from Italy; and these may enable
us to form a just estimate of the general state of families in
Europe, taking into consideration what is peculiar in the manners
of each country.

"When the evil had become universal" (speaking of Florence), "the
hearts of all the inhabitants were closed to feelings of humanity.
They fled from the sick and all that belonged to them, hoping by
these means to save themselves. Others shut themselves up in
their houses, with their wives, their children and households,
living on the most costly food, but carefully avoiding all excess.
None were allowed access to them; no intelligence of death or
sickness was permitted to reach their ears; and they spent their
time in singing and music, and other pastimes. Others, on the
contrary, considered eating and drinking to excess, amusements of
all descriptions, the indulgence of every gratification, and an
indifference to what was passing around them, as the best
medicine, and acted accordingly. They wandered day and night from
one tavern to another, and feasted without moderation or bounds.
In this way they endeavoured to avoid all contact with the sick,
and abandoned their houses and property to chance, like men whose
death-knell had already tolled.

"Amid this general lamentation and woe, the influence and
authority of every law, human and divine, vanished. Most of those
who were in office had been carried off by the plague, or lay
sick, or had lost so many members of their family, that they were
unable to attend to their duties; so that thenceforth every one
acted as he thought proper. Others in their mode of living chose
a middle course. They ate and drank what they pleased, and walked
abroad, carrying odoriferous flowers, herbs, or spices, which they
smelt to from time to time, in order to invigorate the brain, and
to avert the baneful influence of the air, infected by the sick
and by the innumerable corpses of those who had died of the
plague. Others carried their precaution still further, and
thought the surest way to escape death was by flight. They
therefore left the city; women as well as men abandoning their
dwellings and their relations, and retiring into the country. But
of these also many were carried off, most of them alone and
deserted by all the world, themselves having previously set the
example. Thus it was that one citizen fled from another--a
neighbour from his neighbours--a relation from his relations; and
in the end, so completely had terror extinguished every kindlier
feeling, that the brother forsook the brother--the sister the
sister--the wife her husband; and at last, even the parent his own
offspring, and abandoned them, unvisited and unsoothed, to their
fate. Those, therefore, that stood in need of assistance fell a
prey to greedy attendants, who, for an exorbitant recompense,
merely handed the sick their food and medicine, remained with them
in their last moments, and then not unfrequently became themselves
victims to their avarice and lived not to enjoy their extorted
gain. Propriety and decorum were extinguished among the helpless
sick. Females of rank seemed to forget their natural bashfulness,
and committed the care of their persons, indiscriminately, to men
and women of the lowest order. No longer were women, relatives or
friends, found in the house of mourning, to share the grief of the
survivors--no longer was the corpse accompanied to the grave by
neighbours and a numerous train of priests, carrying wax tapers
and singing psalms, nor was it borne along by other citizens of
equal rank. Many breathed their last without a friend to soothe
their dying pillow; and few indeed were they who departed amid the
lamentations and tears of their friends and kindred. Instead of
sorrow and mourning, appeared indifference, frivolity and mirth;
this being considered, especially by the females, as conducive to
health. Seldom was the body followed by even ten or twelve
attendants; and instead of the usual bearers and sextons,
mercenaries of the lowest of the populace undertook the office for
the sake of gain; and accompanied by only a few priests, and often
without a single taper, it was borne to the very nearest church,
and lowered into the grave that was not already too full to
receive it. Among the middling classes, and especially among the
poor, the misery was still greater. Poverty or negligence induced
most of these to remain in their dwellings, or in the immediate
neighbourhood; and thus they fell by thousands; and many ended
their lives in the streets by day and by night. The stench of
putrefying corpses was often the first indication to their
neighbours that more deaths had occurred. The survivors, to
preserve themselves from infection, generally had the bodies taken
out of the houses and laid before the doors; where the early
morning found them in heaps, exposed to the affrighted gaze of the
passing stranger. It was no longer possible to have a bier for
every corpse--three or four were generally laid together--husband
and wife, father and mother, with two or three children, were
frequently borne to the grave on the same bier; and it often
happened that two priests would accompany a coffin, bearing the
cross before it, and be joined on the way by several other
funerals; so that instead of one, there were five or six bodies
for interment."

Thus far Boccacio. On the conduct of the priests, another
contemporary observes: "In large and small towns they had
withdrawn themselves through fear, leaving the performance of
ecclesiastical duties to the few who were found courageous and
faithful enough to undertake them." But we ought not on that
account to throw more blame on them than on others; for we find
proofs of the same timidity and heartlessness in every class.
During the prevalence of the Black Plague, the charitable orders
conducted themselves admirably, and did as much good as can be
done by individual bodies in times of great misery and
destruction, when compassion, courage, and the nobler feelings are
found but in the few, while cowardice, selfishness and ill-will,
with the baser passions in their train, assert the supremacy. In
place of virtue which had been driven from the earth, wickedness
everywhere reared her rebellious standard, and succeeding
generations were consigned to the dominion of her baleful tyranny.


If we now turn to the medical talent which encountered the "Great
Mortality," the Middle Ages must stand excused, since even the
moderns are of opinion that the art of medicine is not able to
cope with the Oriental plague, and can afford deliverance from it
only under particularly favourable circumstances. We must bear in
mind, also, that human science and art appear particularly weak in
great pestilences, because they have to contend with the powers of
nature, of which they have no knowledge; and which, if they had
been, or could be, comprehended in their collective effects, would
remain uncontrollable by them, principally on account of the
disordered condition of human society. Moreover, every new plague
has its peculiarities, which are the less easily discovered on
first view because, during its ravages, fear and consternation
humble the proud spirit.

The physicians of the fourteenth century, during the Black Death,
did what human intellect could do in the actual condition of the
healing art; and their knowledge of the disease was by no means
despicable. They, like the rest of mankind, have indulged in
prejudices, and defended them, perhaps, with too much obstinacy:
some of these, however, were founded on the mode of thinking of
the age, and passed current in those days as established truths;
others continue to exist to the present hour.

Their successors in the nineteenth century ought not therefore to
vaunt too highly the pre-eminence of their knowledge, for they too
will be subjected to the severe judgment of posterity--they too
will, with reason, be accused of human weakness and want of

The medical faculty of Paris, the most celebrated of the
fourteenth century, were commissioned to deliver their opinion on
the causes of the Black Plague, and to furnish some appropriate
regulations with regard to living during its prevalence. This
document is sufficiently remarkable to find a place here.

"We, the Members of the College of Physicians of Paris, have,
after mature consideration and consultation on the present
mortality, collected the advice of our old masters in the art, and
intend to make known the causes of this pestilence more clearly
than could be done according to the rules and principles of
astrology and natural science; we, therefore, declare as follows:-

"It is known that in India and the vicinity of the Great Sea, the
constellations which combated the rays of the sun, and the warmth
of the heavenly fire, exerted their power especially against that
sea, and struggled violently with its waters. (Hence vapours
often originate which envelop the sun, and convert his light into
darkness.) These vapours alternately rose and fell for twenty-
eight days; but, at last, sun and fire acted so powerfully upon
the sea that they attracted a great portion of it to themselves,
and the waters of the ocean arose in the form of vapour; thereby
the waters were in some parts so corrupted that the fish which
they contained died. These corrupted waters, however, the heat of
the sun could not consume, neither could other wholesome water,
hail or snow and dew, originate therefrom. On the contrary, this
vapour spread itself through the air in many places on the earth,
and enveloped them in fog.

"Such was the case all over Arabia, in a part of India, in Crete,
in the plains and valleys of Macedonia, in Hungary, Albania, and
Sicily. Should the same thing occur in Sardinia, not a man will
be left alive, and the like will continue so long as the sun
remains in the sign of Leo, on all the islands and adjoining
countries to which this corrupted sea-wind extends, or has already
extended, from India. If the inhabitants of those parts do not
employ and adhere to the following or similar means and precepts,
we announce to them inevitable death, except the grace of Christ
preserve their lives.

"We are of opinion that the constellations, with the aid of
nature, strive by virtue of their Divine might, to protect and
heal the human race; and to this end, in union with the rays of
the sun, acting through the power of fire, endeavour to break
through the mist. Accordingly, within the next ten days, and
until the 17th of the ensuing month of July, this mist will be
converted into a stinking deleterious rain, whereby the air will
be much purified. Now, as soon as this rain shall announce itself
by thunder or hail, every one of you should protect himself from
the air; and, as well before as after the rain, kindle a large
fire of vine-wood, green laurel, or other green wood; wormwood and
camomile should also be burnt in great quantity in the market-
places, in other densely inhabited localities, and in the houses.
Until the earth is again completely dry, and for three days
afterwards, no one ought to go abroad in the fields. During this
time the diet should be simple, and people should be cautious in
avoiding exposure in the cool of the evening, at night, and in the
morning. Poultry and water-fowl, young pork, old beef, and fat
meat in general, should not be eaten; but, on the contrary, meat
of a proper age, of a warm and dry, but on no account of a heating
and exciting nature. Broth should be taken, seasoned with ground
pepper, ginger, and cloves, especially by those who are accustomed
to live temperately, and are yet choice in their diet. Sleep in
the day-time is detrimental; it should be taken at night until
sunrise, or somewhat longer. At breakfast one should drink
little; supper should be taken an hour before sunset, when more
may be drunk than in the morning. Clear light wine, mixed with a
fifth or six part of water, should be used as a beverage. Dried
or fresh fruits, with wine, are not injurious, but highly so
without it. Beet-root and other vegetables, whether eaten pickled
or fresh, are hurtful; on the contrary, spicy pot-herbs, as sage
or rosemary, are wholesome. Cold, moist, watery food in is
general prejudicial. Going out at night, and even until three
o'clock in the morning, is dangerous, on account of dew. Only
small river fish should be used. Too much exercise is hurtful.
The body should be kept warmer than usual, and thus protected from
moisture and cold. Rain-water must not be employed in cooking,
and every one should guard against exposure to wet weather. If it
rain, a little fine treacle should be taken after dinner. Fat
people should not sit in the sunshine. Good clear wine should be
selected and drunk often, but in small quantities, by day. Olive
oil as an article of food is fatal. Equally injurious are fasting
and excessive abstemiousness, anxiety of mind, anger, and
immoderate drinking. Young people, in autumn especially, must
abstain from all these things if they do not wish to run a risk of
dying of dysentery. In order to keep the body properly open, an
enema, or some other simple means, should be employed when
necessary. Bathing is injurious. Men must preserve chastity as
they value their lives. Every one should impress this on his
recollection, but especially those who reside on the coast, or
upon an island into which the noxious wind has penetrated."

On what occasion these strange precepts were delivered can no
longer be ascertained, even if it were an object to know it. It
must be acknowledged, however, that they do not redound to the
credit either of the faculty of Paris, or of the fourteenth
century in general. This famous faculty found themselves under
the painful necessity of being wise at command, and of firing a
point-blank shot of erudition at an enemy who enveloped himself in
a dark mist, of the nature of which they had no conception. In
concealing their ignorance by authoritative assertions, they
suffered themselves, therefore, to be misled; and while
endeavouring to appear to the world with eclat, only betrayed to
the intelligent their lamentable weakness. Now some might suppose
that, in the condition of the sciences of the fourteenth century,
no intelligent physicians existed; but this is altogether at
variance with the laws of human advancement, and is contradicted
by history. The real knowledge of an age is shown only in the
archives of its literature. Here alone the genius of truth speaks
audibly--here alone men of talent deposit the results of their
experience and reflection without vanity or a selfish object.
There is no ground for believing that in the fourteenth century
men of this kind were publicly questioned regarding their views;
and it is, therefore, the more necessary that impartial history
should take up their cause, and do justice to their merits.

The first notice on this subject is due to a very celebrated
teacher in Perugia, Gentilis of Foligno, who, on the 18th of June,
1348, fell a sacrifice to the plague, in the faithful discharge of
his duty. Attached to Arabian doctrines, and to the universally
respected Galen, he, in common with all his contemporaries,
believed in a putrid corruption of the blood in the lungs and in
the heart, which was occasioned by the pestilential atmosphere,
and was forthwith communicated to the whole body. He thought,
therefore, that everything depended upon a sufficient purification
of the air, by means of large blazing fires of odoriferous wood,
in the vicinity of the healthy as well as of the sick, and also
upon an appropriate manner of living, so that the putridity might
not overpower the diseased. In conformity with notions derived
from the ancients, he depended upon bleeding and purging, at the
commencement of the attack, for the purpose of purification;
ordered the healthy to wash themselves frequently with vinegar or
wine, to sprinkle their dwellings with vinegar, and to smell often
to camphor, or other volatile substances. Hereupon he gave, after
the Arabian fashion, detailed rules, with an abundance of
different medicines, of whose healing powers wonderful things were
believed. He had little stress upon super-lunar influences, so
far as respected the malady itself; on which account, he did not
enter into the great controversies of the astrologers, but always
kept in view, as an object of medical attention, the corruption of
the blood in the lungs and heart. He believed in a progressive
infection from country to country, according to the notions of the
present day; and the contagious power of the disease, even in the
vicinity of those affected by plague, was, in his opinion, beyond
all doubt. On this point intelligent contemporaries were all
agreed; and, in truth, it required no great genius to be convinced
of so palpable a fact. Besides, correct notions of contagion have
descended from remote antiquity, and were maintained unchanged in
the fourteenth century. So far back as the age of Plato a
knowledge of the contagious power of malignant inflammations of
the eye, of which also no physician of the Middle Ages entertained
a doubt, was general among the people; yet in modern times
surgeons have filled volumes with partial controversies on this
subject. The whole language of antiquity has adapted itself to
the notions of the people respecting the contagion of pestilential
diseases; and their terms were, beyond comparison, more expressive
than those in use among the moderns.

Arrangements for the protection of the healthy against contagious


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