The Black Death, and The Dancing Mania
by Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker
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Transcribed from the 1888 Cassell & Company edition by Jane Duff, proofed by David Price, email

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 1850.

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 confluent.

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 contemporaries.

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 glands.

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 north.

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 Christendom.

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 importance.

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 frenzy.

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 disease.

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 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 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 thanksgiving.

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.

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