The Black Death Part 2

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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 sh.o.r.e or its inhabitants.

It has been observed above, that in Russia the Black Plague did not break out until 1351, after it had already pa.s.sed 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 pa.s.sed 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 a.s.sumed, 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 circ.u.mstances, 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 a.s.sume, 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 pa.s.s 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 a.s.sertion 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 a.s.sertion, 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 Plague.

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 partic.i.p.ation 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 thanksgiving.

An awful sense of contrition seized Christians of every communion; they resolved to forsake their vices, to make rest.i.tution for past offences, before they were summoned hence, to seek reconciliation with their Maker, and to avert, by self-chastis.e.m.e.nt, the punishment due to their former sins. Human nature would be exalted, could the countless n.o.ble 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 n.o.ble, 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 const.i.tution 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 cla.s.s, 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 n.o.bles 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 a.s.sumed 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 sanct.i.ty 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, const.i.tuted 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 circ.u.mstance 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: n.o.ble and ign.o.ble, 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 G.o.d. 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 p.r.o.nounce 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 a.s.sociation. 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 a.s.surance 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 s.p.a.ce 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 n.o.ble-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 a.s.sistance 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 Ja.n.u.ssius, 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 b.l.o.o.d.y 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, a.s.sociated with hatred, and leagued with the baser pa.s.sions, 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 inst.i.tuted 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 circ.u.mstances 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 n.o.body 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 pa.s.sions. The n.o.ble and the mean fearlessly bound themselves by an oath to extirpate the Jews by fire and sword, and to s.n.a.t.c.h 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 s.p.a.ce 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 n.o.bles 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, a.s.sembled 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 s.n.a.t.c.hed 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 mult.i.tude 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 G.o.d, 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 n.o.bles, 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 compa.s.sion 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 witches.

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 const.i.tution 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, amus.e.m.e.nts of all descriptions, the indulgence of every gratification, and an indifference to what was pa.s.sing 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 a.s.sistance 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 s.e.xtons, 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 cla.s.ses, 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 pa.s.sing 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 cla.s.s.

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 compa.s.sion, courage, and the n.o.bler feelings are found but in the few, while cowardice, selfishness and ill-will, with the baser pa.s.sions in their train, a.s.sert 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 circ.u.mstances. 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, princ.i.p.ally 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 pa.s.sed 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 foresight.

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 doc.u.ment 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.

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The Black Death Part 2 summary

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