Popular Science Monthly/Volume 59/August 1901/The Great Mortality


IN every city of the civilized world to-day, armed and watchful men are standing on guard against a dreaded invader; men armed with knowledge obtained from scientific investigation, with experience drawn from former attacks, with authority of law to enter every household and set aside every individual claim in the work of resistance to the first onset of the foe. This anticipated enemy is the bubonic plague, and the officials of boards of health form a civic guard against it more nearly impassable than any military cordon. Yet with all this watchfulness, with the expenditure of vast sums in delimitation and extirpation, with the relatively cleanly surroundings of daily life in this century, the plague has within the last five years broken through the barriers and made its way into various cities of Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and North and South America. Not only in its indigenous home in India, but in Sydney and Honolulu, in Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro, in Glasgow and San Francisco, in Cairo and Cape Town, it has made a longer or shorter lodgment.

There was a time when there was no such guard against invasion, when the same disease passed westward from its Asiatic birthplace in a fierce attack upon the nations of Europe, and found no measures taken to resist its advance; indeed, in the squalid houses and streets of medieval towns and villages, there was every inducement to enter and batten on populations unfitted by habits of life or by medical knowledge to expel, resist or even mollify their enemy.

"In the year of grace 1349," an old chronicle says, "a great mortality of mankind advanced over the world; beginning in the regions of the north and east and ending with so great a destruction that scarcely half of the people remained. Then towns once full of men became destitute of inhabitants, and so violently did the pestilence increase that the living were scarce able to bury the dead," So sudden, so mysterious, so fatal was this pestilence that even the dry medieval annalist personified it, spoke of it as if it were some active sentient personality. "Very many of those who were attacked in the morning it carried out of human affairs before noon; and no one whom it willed to die did it permit to live longer than three or four days."

Friar Clyn, in his 'Chronicle of Ireland,' after giving many details of the plague, says: "I, therefore, brother of John Clyn of the order of the Minors and the convent of Kilkenny, have written down in this book these wonderful occurrences of our time as I have seen them with my eyes or heard them from credible witnesses; and lest such strange things should perish with the passage of time and should pass from the memory of men who are to come, watching these many evils and the whole world fallen into sickness, and waiting among the dead till death shall come, I have put into writing what I have heard truthfully and observed carefully. And lest the writing should perish with the writer and the labor should fail with the laborer, I leave parchment to continue the work, if it should chance that any man should survive, or any of the race of Adam succeed in escaping this pestilence, to continue the work which I have begun." Then follow two or three confused sentences, when his expectation of death must have been justified, for there is nothing more of the chronicle except an annotation by a later hand, videtur quod auctor hic obiit, 'it seems that the author here died.' Another chronicler lays down his pen at the onset of the plague, and long afterward when resuming his narrative, sick at heart, perhaps, or feeling his skill inadequate to the description of such a period of confusion, enters in the appropriate place only the words magna mortalitas, 'the great mortality.'

This great mortality came 'from the north and east.' On the confines of Asia and Europe, at the mouth of the Sea of Azov, lay the medieval trading city of Kaffa. Here goods were brought from Persia, from India and from China to be handed over by men of the east to men of the west. Genoese and Venetian bought from Tartar and Arab silk, cotton, spices, precious stones and metals, gums, woods and sugar, and carried them through the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to be distributed finally among all the countries of Europe. In the year 1347 a war broke out in the Crimea between these men of the west and of the east, and the Italian inhabitants of Kaffa were besieged by the Tartars. In the midst of the hostilities a terrible pestilence broke out among the besiegers, which devastated their hordes like the hand of the destroying angel in the camp of the Assyrians. In their frenzy the survivors threw numbers of the bodies of those who had died of the plague from their catapults into the besieged city and thus carried infection to those within. The siege was soon raised, and the Genoese merchants and sailors, resuming their trading, set sail toward the west. But they took with them on their voyage, along with the luxuries from the far east, a new scourge for Europe, the contagion of the plague—the Black Death, as it has been called in modern times.

The symptoms of the disease were obscure and varying, and so remained through successive attacks, until only too abundant opportunities for observation have recently enabled modern medical observers to differentiate its various types. But it showed itself then, as it still remains, fatal in a greater proportion of cases than any other disease to which humanity is subject.

The distribution of its germs through the Mediterranean lands was quickly accomplished. In the fall of 1347 Constantinople was more than decimated. The shores of the Ægean were quickly infected, and before the close of the year Sicily, the cities and towns of southern Italy, and all the ports of the Adriatic were alike prostrate under the scourge. A Sicilian tells how "a most deadly pestilence sprang up over the entire island. It happened that in the month of October, in the year of our Lord 1347, about the beginning of the month, twelve Genoese ships flying from the divine vengeance which our Lord for their sins had sent upon them, put into the port Messina, bringing with them such a sickness clinging to their very bones that, did anyone speak to them, he was directly struck with a mortal sickness from which there was no escape. Flight profited nothing, for the sickness already contracted and clinging to the fugitives was only carried wherever they sought refuge. Some of those who fled fell on the roads and dragged themselves to die in the fields, the woods, the valleys."

By the springtime the storm had spent its fury in the south of Italy, but it had passed on northward. It was in April of 1348, Boccaccio tells us, that the malady appeared in the fair city of Florence. There while human nature was resolved into its most primitive elements, as he describes in the introduction to the Decameron, his little group of story tellers gathered in a country house about two miles outside of the city trying to avoid the pestilence, or at least to make what time should remain pass more cheerfully in the recounting of sad or merry tales. The occasional pathos, the frequent salacity, and the unvarying humor and grace of the tales stand out boldly in Boccaccio's setting of them against the dark background of the mournful remembrance of that most fatal plague so terrible yet in the memories of us all. In the city the sick were lying deserted by friends, family, servants, physicians and even by the priest, as implacable death crept upon them; palaces stood deserted and unfastened, jewels and rich garments lying unguarded, except by the dread of infection; the bodies of the dead were being hastily dragged from the houses, carried to the cemeteries and deposited in long rows in pits, with no bells rung, no rites said, no solemn chant or mourning of friends; while outside the city the story tellers of the Decameron were passing away the time governed by the one rule that none should bring to them any news of the plague-stricken outer world.

Not only Boccaccio in Florence, but Petrarch in Parma, writes in the midst of the plague: "Where are now our pleasant friends? Where the loved faces? Where their cheering words? Where their sweet and gentle conversation? We were surrounded by a crowd of friends; now we are almost alone." And he might well see the world darkening around him, for had not Laura just died of the plague at Avignon? The 'great mortality' was indeed no respecter of persons. It is true that the poor died in greater numbers in proportion to the closeness and insalubrity of their dwellings and to their lack of power of resistance from insufficient food. But the list of the great ones of the earth who died is a long one. One of the earliest victims of the plague on its entrance into Europe was Andronicus, the son of the Emperor at Constantinople. The King and Queen of Arragon both died from it. Joan, the daughter of Edward III., on her way to Castile to be married, was smitten suddenly at Bordeaux and died, escaping, it is true, the worse fate of living to be the wife of Pedro the Cruel. Great churchmen died in all parts of Europe—the archbishop of Cantania, the archbishop of Canterbury, the archbishop of Drontheim; bishops and abbots in every country. Of the twelve city magistrates of Montpellier, in France, ten died; of the twenty-four prominent physicians, twenty. Nobles and burghers, ecclesiastics and lawyers fared but little better than the great masses, except that their names are mentioned, while the hundreds of thousands of lesser men died unknown.

The Mediterranean was then still the middle of the world, and the pestilence, like art and literature and money, was distributed readily from Italy to all parts of Europe. Before the year 1348 was over it was in France, Switzerland and Germany, and had obtained a foothold in the southern seaports of England. The next year it passed still further northward through England, Scotland and Ireland. It was carried from England to Scandinavia by a London ship, all of whose crew died, leaving the boat with its fatal cargo to be cast on the Norwegian coast at Bergen. During the same year and the succeeding spring, it had passed down the Valley of the Rhine, through the Netherlands and northern Germany, until the year 1350 saw 'the great mortality,' its harvest reaped for that season, passing out of the northern and western portals of Europe to the all-purifying waters of the great ocean.

But during those four years of devastation what experiences had humanity gone through! We can look back now and see only dimly through the mist. The figures are blurred and their movements indistinct. The light of imagination fails to illuminate a condition so different from normal experience. Only here and there a clear light is cast upon some spot by a record made at the time. In the inn of a little town in Spain a French pilgrim returning from the tomb of St. James of Campostella, after supping with the host, who with two daughters and one servant had alone so far survived of his entire family and who was not then conscious of any sickness upon them, settled with him for his entertainment, intending to start on his journey at daybreak, and went to bed. The next morning, rising and wanting something from those with whom they had supped, the travelers could make no one hear. Then they learned from an old woman whom they found in bed that the host, his two daughters and servant had died in the night. "In the spring of 1348 a Genoese, infected with the plague, came to Piacenza. He sought out his friend, Fulchino della Croce, who took him into his house. Almost immediately afterward he died, and the said Fulchino was also quickly carried ofE with his entire family and many of his neighbors." "The bishop of Rochester out of his small household lost four priests, five gentlemen, ten serving men, seven young clerks and six pages, so that not a person remained who might serve him in any office." "Alas, for our sorrow! This mortality swept away so vast a multitude of both sexes that none could be found to carry the corpses to the grave. Men and women bore their own offspring on their shoulders to the church and cast them into a common pit." "And I, Agniolo di Tura, carried with my own hands my five little sons to the pit."

Everywhere through Europe the story is the same. The sudden onset, the four or five months of devastation, the glutting of the old cemeteries and the opening up of new, the pits into which the bodies were piled, the extermination of whole families, the collapse of government, the desertion of the sick and the dead, the avoidance of the infected, the occasional heroism, self-sacrifice, devotion to duty, and the sadly more frequent selfishness, cruelty, callousness and recklessness; then the passing away of the visitation, leaving behind it, often, according to the bewildered judgment of the contemporary chronicler, not a tenth part of the people, and even according to modern and moderate computation seldom as many as one-half of the population it had found.

Then came the gleaning. Physical disease then as always brought moral degeneracy. A great catastrophe then as always weakened the virtues and strengthened the vices of poor custom-bound humanity. A physician at Avignon writes: "The father did not visit his son, nor the son his father. Charity was dead." Villani says of his neighbors at Florence that they behaved as "might perhaps be expected from infidels and savages." "Men gave themselves up to the enjoyment of the worldly riches to which they had succeeded." The English manor court rolls record more than one case where a house bereft of its occupants by the plague was plundered by the neighbors, and bodies of the dead stripped by their own fellow villagers. The wealthy, in the months following the plague, gambled, reveled, steeped themselves in gluttony and lechery; the poor idled, brawled, took advantage of the necessities of their lords, and became irreligious and rebellious. Scarcely a writer fails to record the utter selfishness of the period of the visitation and the dissoluteness and lowered morals which followed in its wake. The surviving laborers insisted on higher wages, and employers used their influence with the Government to pass laws to compel the acceptance of the old rates. Contention raged between rich and poor, and the seeds were sown for Jacqueries and Peasants' Rebellions. The building of churches ceased for a time. The newly laid foundations of the vast nave and choir of the cathedral at Siena were left as they were and have never been built upon to this day. A thousand partially built churches remained stationary for a time, and their construction was resumed only when architectural style had changed so distinctly that the line of division can still be seen. At Oxford and Cambridge and Paris the number of students was depleted and never again rose to its former number. The clergy suffered more than any other class in the community. Many a monastery had lost its whole body of occupants. In others the few survivors, with diminished income from their land and weakened devotion and discipline because of the death of their leading members, never refilled their numbers or regained their old prosperity and vigor. The bishops were compelled to ordain to the service of the church the young, the inexperienced, the illiterate; and even then there were too few for its needs. Society gradually reconstructed itself on much the same old lines. Permanent changes come not from sudden and conspicuous, but from slowly acting and obscure, influences. Yet Europe was never quite the same again. Two centuries may have passed before the void in medieval population was refilled. Even to this day grain ripens yearly over the sites of villages which lost their population and their name in the great mortality. Various social changes were hastened or retarded or deflected from their former direction. Even though there was no actual breach in the continuity of European development, yet new interests arose, new evil and new good appeared. 'Sithence the pestilence' is an era which Piers Plowman quite naturally uses; for it was graven deep in the memory of his generation.