walls of the city of Florence? Yet before this lethal catastrophe fell upon the city, it is doubtful whether anyone would have guessed it contained so many inhabitants.
3. The plague in Padua
Cortusii Patavini Duo, sive Gulielmi et Abrigeti Cortusiorum, Historia de Novitatibus Paduae et Lombardiae ab anno MCCLVI usque ad MCCCLXIV, in L. A. Muratori (ed), Rerum italicatum Scriptores
XII, Milan, 1728, cols
Almighty God, who does not desire the death of a sinner, but that he may be converted and live, first threatens and secondly strikes to reform the human race, not to destroy it.A single stranger carried the infection to Padua, to such effect that perhaps a third of the people died within the region as a whole. In the
9 The reference, which will recur repeatedly in these texts, is to Ezechiel 33.11: Say to them: As I live, saith the Lord God, I desire not the death of the wicked, hut that the wicked may turn from his way and live’.
hope of avoiding such a plague, cities banned the entry of all outsiders, with the result that merchants were unable to travel from city to city. Cities and settlements were left desolate by this calamity. No voices could be heard, except in mourning and lamentation. The voice of the bride and groom ceased, and so did music, the songs of young people and all rejoicing. The plagues in the days of Pharoah, David, Ezechiel and Pope Gregory now seemed nothing by comparison, for this plague encircled the whole globe.’As described above, some were infected very badly by this plague and died suddenly from blood poisoning, others from a malignant tumour, or from worms. A certain sign of death, found on almost everyone, were incurable tumours near the genitals, or under the armpits, or in some other part of the body, accompanied by deadly fevers. People with these died on the first or second day; after the third day, although rarely, there was some hope of recovery. Some people fell asleep and never woke up, but passed away. Doctors frankly confessed that they had no cure for the plague, and the most accomplished of them died of it. During the plague Guerra Sambonifacio, podestda of Siena, died with virtually all his household. There was also terrible mortality at Florence, Pisa and throughout the whole of Tuscany. The plague generally lasted for six months after its outbreak in each area. The noble man Andrea Morosini, podestda of Padua, died in July in his third term of office. His son was put in office, but died immediately. Note, however, that amazingly during this plague no king, prince, or ruler of a city died.
4. The plague in Sicily
This account comes from the Cronaca of the Franciscan Michele da Piazza, edited by Rosarius Gregorio, Bibliotheca Scriptorum qui res in Sicilia gestas sub Aragonum imperio retulere I, Palermo, 1791, pp. 562-8. 1 have checked some of the readings against a more recent edition of the text, published by the Istituto di Storia Medievale of the University of Palermo, 1980.
10 These four exemplars recur regularly in fourteenth-century discussions of the plague. Three are biblical: the plague which killed the first born of Egypt (Exodus 12); the plague in the reign of David which was halted by the king’s prayers (2 Kings 24); and the various manifestations of God’s vengeance described by Ezechiel. The plague in Rome in the 590s was halted at the intercession of Pope Gregory —for whom see the introduction to Part Two.
IV: Scientific explanations
56. The report of the Paris medical faculty, October 1348
This is the most authoritative contemporary statement of the nature of the plague and therefore forms an appropriate introduction to this section. The full text consists of two parts: three chapters on the causes of the plague, and seven on remedies and regimen. Only the first part is printed here.
R. Hoeniger (ed), Der Schwarze Tod,
Berlin, 1882, appendix III, pp. 152-6.
Seeing things which cannot be explained, even by the most gifted intellects, initially stirs the human mind to amazement
; but after marvelling, the prudent soul next yields to its desire for understanding and, anxious for its own perfection, strives with all its might to discover the causes of the amazing events. For there is within the human mind an innate desire to seize on goodness and truth. As the Philosopher makes plain, all things seek for the good and want to understand.’ To attain this end we have listened to the opinions of many modern experts on astrology and medicine about the causes of the epidemic which has prevailed since 1345. However, because their conclusions still leave room for considerable uncertainty, we, the masters of the faculty of medicine at Paris, inspired by the command of the most illustrious prince, our most serene lord, Philip, King of France, and by our desire to achieve something of public benefit, have decided to compile
, with God’s help, a brief compendium of the distant and immediate causes of the present universal epidemic (as far as these can be understood by the human intellect) and of wholesome remedies; drawing on the opinions of the most brilliant ancient philosophers and modern experts, astronomers as well as doctors of medicine. And if we cannot explain everything as we would wish, for a sure explanation and perfect understanding of these matters is not always to be had (as Pliny says in book II, chapter 39: ‘some accidental causes of storms are still uncertain, or cannot be explained’), it is open to any diligent reader to make good the deficiency.
We shall divide the work into two parts, in the first of which we shall investigate the causes of this pestilence and whence they come, for
without knowledge of the causes no one can prescribe cures. In the second part we shall include methods of prevention and cure. There will be three chapters in the first part, for this epidemic arises from a double cause. One cause is distant and from above, and pertains to the heavens; the other is near and from below and pertains to the earth, and is dependent, causally and effectively, on the first cause. Therefore the first chapter will deal with the first cause, the second with the second cause, and the third with the prognostications and signs associated with both of them. There will be two treatises in the second part. The first will deal with medical means of prevention and cure and will be divided into four chapters: the first on the disposition of the air and its rectification; the second on exercise and baths; the third on food and drink; the fourth on sleeping and waking, emptiness and fullness of the stomach and on the emotions. The second treatise will have three chapters: the first on universal remedies; the second on specific remedies appropriate to different patients; the third on antidotes.
CHAPTER 1 OF THE FIRST PART: cONcERNING
THE UNIVERSAL AND DISTANT CAUSE
We say that the distant and first cause of this pestilence was and is the configuration of the heavens. In 1345, at one hour after noon on 20 March, there was a major conjunction of three planets in Aquarius. This conjunction, along with other earlier conjunctions and eclipses, by causing a deadly corruption of the air around us, signifies mortality and famine — and also other things about which we will not speak here because they are not relevant. Aristotle testifies that this is the case in his book Concerning the causes of the properties of the elements,2 2
This work, although credited to Aristotle in the middle ages, was not by him. It was the subject of a commentary by Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great, d. 1280),
which the medical faculty cites in the next sentence.
The houses of the zodiac are each associated with one of the elements, listed in 58.
Aquarius is one of the air signs, and therefore hot and wet.
hot and dry, then ignites the vapours, and as a result there were lightnings, sparks, noxious vapours and fires throughout the air.
These effects were intensified because Mars — a malevolent planet, breeding anger and wars — was in the sign of Leo from 6 October 1347 until the end of May this year, along with the head of the dragon, and because all these things are hot they attracted many vapours; which is why the winter was not as cold as it should have been.CHAPTER 2 OF THE FIRST PART: CONCERNING
THE PARTICULAR AND NEAR CAUSE
Although major pestilential illnesses can be caused by the corruption of water or food, as happens at times of famine and infertility, yet we still regard illnesses proceeding from the corruption of the air as much more dangerous. This is because bad air is more noxious than food or drink in that it can penetrate quickly to the heart and lungs to do its damage. We believe that the present epidemic or plague has arisen
Leo is one of the fire signs — hot and dry — and therefore intensifies the hot/dry characteristics of Mars.
When observed from the earth against the background of the fixed stars
, planets at times appear to loop backwards (to be retrograde) or to stand still. Mars makes a backward loop in some part of the sky once every 780
As they move round the heavens, through the twelve houses of the zodiac, the planets’ position relative to each other sometimes takes on particular significance, whether for good or bad. In these positions the planets are said to be looking at each other, and the positions are known as aspects. For instance, two planets in opposite houses of the zodiac (i.e. separated by 1800
of the 3600
circle) are said to be in opposition, and the aspect is malign. The other aspects are: trine (1200
apart, benign), quartile (900
apart, malign) and sextile (600
7 As the authors immediately make clear
, they do not mean by this that the nature
of the air changed, which would be impossible, but that it was corrupted by being mixed with bad vapours. John of Burgundy [E62]
makes the same point, but uses ‘substance’ in the opposite sense, to mean the unchanging, essential nature of an element, rather than (as here) its outward form.
from air corrupt in its substance, and not changed in its attributes.And moreover these winds, which have become so common here, have carried among us (and may perhaps continue to do so in future) bad, rotten and poisonous vapours from elsewhere: from swamps, lakes and chasms, for instance, and also (which is even more dangerous) from unburied or unburnt corpses — which might well have been a cause of the epidemic. Another possible cause of corruption, which needs to be borne in mind, is the escape of the rottenness trapped in the centre of the earth as a result of earthquakes — something which has indeed recently occurred. But the conjunctions could have been the universal and distant cause of all these harmful things, by which air and water have been corrupted.
CHAPTER 3: CONCERNING PROGNOSTICATION AND SIGNS
Unseasonable weather is a particular cause of illness. For the ancients, notably Hippocrates, are agreed that if the four seasons run awry, and do not keep their proper course
, then plagues and mortal passions are engendered that year. Experience tells us that for some time the seasons have not succeeded each other in the proper way. Last winter was not as cold as it should have been, with a great deal of rain; the spring windy and latterly wet. Summer was late, not as hot as it should have been, and extremely wet — the weather very changeable from day to day, and hour to hour; the air often troubled, and then still again, looking as if it was going to rain but then not doing so. Autumn too was very rainy and misty. It is because the whole year here — or most
‘Spirit’ in these medical tracts has a very precise meaning. It was a substance created by the heart from inhaled air, and was envisaged as an extremely thin
, light vapour, which was carried through the body by the arteries. It was, in a literal and immediate sense, the life force, and without it the body would die.
of it — was warm and wet that the air is pestilential. For it is a sign of pestilence for the air to be warm and wet at unseasonable times.
Wherefore we may fear a future pestilence here, which is particularly from the root beneath,9 because it is subject to the evil impress of the heavens, especially since that conjunction was in a western sign. Therefore if next winter is very rainy and less cold than it ought to be, we should expect an epidemic round about late winter and spring —and if it occurs it will be long and dangerous, for usually unseasonable weather is of only brief duration, but when it lasts over many seasons, as has obviously been the case here
, it stands to reason that its effects will be longer-lasting and more dangerous, unless ensuing seasons change their nature in the opposite way. Thus if the winter in the north turns out to be cold and dry, the plagues might be arrested.
We have not said that the future pestilence will be exceptionally dangerous, for we do not wish to give the impression that it will be as dangerous here as in southern or eastern regions. For the conjunctions and the other causes discussed above had a more immediate impact on those regions than on ours. However, in the judgement of astrologers (who follow Ptolemy on this) plagues are likely, although not inevitable, because so many exhalations and inflammations have been observed, such as a comet and shooting stars.’No wonder, therefore, that we fear that we are in for an epidemic. But it should be noted that in saying this we do not intend to exclude the possibility of illnesses arising from the character of the present year —9
By the ‘root beneath’ the authors mean terrestrial causes as distinct from celestial
ones. Exactly the same phrase is used by the translator of Bengt linutsson .
No comet was seen before the first plague epidemic and the authors are presumably referring to the mysterious ‘star’ Which appeared over Paris in August 1348 .
for as the aphorism of Hippocrates has it: a year of many fogs and damps is a year of many illnesses. On the other hand, the susceptibility of the body of the patient is the most immediate cause in the breeding of illnesses, and therefore no cause is likely to have an effect unless the patient is susceptible to its effects. We must therefore emphasise that although, because everyone has to breathe, everyone will be at risk from the corrupted air, not everyone will be made ill by it but only those, who will no doubt be numerous, who have a susceptibility to it; and very few indeed of those who do succumb will escape.
The- bodies most likely to take the stamp of this pestilence are those which are hot and moist, for they are the most susceptible to putrefaction. The following are also more at risk: bodies bunged up with evil humours, because the unconsumed waste matter is not being expelled as it should; those following a bad life style, with too much exercise, sex and bathing; the thin and weak, and persistent worriers; babies, women and young people; and corpulent people with a ruddy complexion. However those with dry bodies, purged of waste matter, who adopt a sensible and suitable regimen, will succumb to the pestilence more slowly.
We must not overlook the fact that any pestilence proceeds from the divine will, and our advice can therefore only be to return humbly to God. But this does not mean forsaking doctors. For the Most High created earthly medicine, and although God alone cures the sick, he does so through the medicine which in his generosity he provided. Blessed be the glorious and high God, who does not refuse his help, but has clearly set out a way of being cured for those who fear him. And this is enough of the third chapter, and of the whole first part.