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.
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