HIST 234: Epidemics in Western Society Since 1600
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Epidemics in Western Society Since 1600
HIST 234 - Lecture 5 - Plague (III): Illustrations and Conclusions
Chapter 1. Effects of Bubonic Plague on European Culture [00:00:00]
Professor Frank Snowden: And with that, I’d like to turn to our subject for the morning, which is about the third — it’s the third in our series of lectures on bubonic plague, and I’d like to talk about the effects, or some of the effects, of bubonic plaque on European culture. We’ve been trying to suggest that plague had a major impact on European society, and I want to be arguing that that impact was felt not only on political events but also on culture and intellectual life, and I’d like to look at that this morning.
But I want us to remember that when we’re talking about those effects, I’ll be trying to say it was the effects not only of plague itself as a disease, but also the impact of the organized reaction to plague, the anti-plague measures, and the sense that for the first time society had means that were effective, and could protect itself against this dreadful outside visitor. Well, let’s start again at the beginning. And, as you know, there is a biblical interpretation for the themes of this course. And this is the one that you’re now well familiar with; this is the Fall.
This is Adam and Eve, as painted by the greatest of all — perhaps the greatest of all — plague painters, Jacopo Tintoretto, who was a painter in Venice and lived from 1518 to 1594. You know this is the story of Genesis; that Adam and Eve tasted of the fruit that they were forbidden, and as a result they were expelled from the garden and for the first time became subject to death, and also to disease and illness. And if we move forward, this is the next step. You saw the original sin. This is Masaccio’s — one of the great painters of the Italian Renaissance — this is his painting, in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, of the expulsion from the garden. And you know they’re looking extremely miserable. Not only are they going to die and become ill and experience pain in childbirth, but they’re also — and I’m sorry about this — they’re going to have to work. So this is a tremendously painful experience, and you can see the pain written in their faces, of Adam and Eve.
Chapter 2. “Ars Moriendi”: The Art of Dying [00:02:51]
So that, in a way, is a story of our course. And I’d like to talk now about some attitudes towards what followed — that is, illness and death — just before the arrival of the Black Death. And I’d like to refer to the work of a French historian who died fairly recently and was the great, perhaps, historian of death. His name is Phillippe Ariès, and he had an idea, that before the Black Death, he talked of it as “death tamed.” That is, there were ways that people had beliefs, practices and rituals, that helped them to face the issue of our mortality; to cope with loss; to heal the tear that was caused in a family or a community, the loss of a member of a family; and also to express grief and to pay one’s last respects. And there were two great aids in doing that. One we might say was the ars moriendi, which was “the art of dying.”
There were certain rules that you should be aware of that would prepare you for the final moment and the passage from this life to the next. And then there were what were called a memento mori, which is a reminder of death; that is, a reminder — you should surround yourself with reminders that it’s time to get ready, because any day could be the last and death could come very soon. We’ll see the art of dying portrayed in instructions; sometimes in paintings or engravings; also in books on how to die properly, according to Christian doctrine — who should be there?; what are the last rites?; that is, extreme unction — the final confessions of sins; the last communion and viaticum; the funeral rites; the laying out of the body; the wake; the procession, with perhaps a town crier announcing the event; the funeral service and a burial ceremony with a blessing; an interment in consecrated ground; and finally a funeral meal for surviving friends and relatives.
Leading themes in this are themes of solidarity, dignity and community. And in this slide of the ars moriendi, we see a dying person inhabiting two worlds: the natural world he’s about to leave with possessions, friends, family and home, and a supernatural world he’s about to enter, and that only he can see, but is represented by angels and devils vying for his soul. We can also see in another example by Nicolas Poussin, also a great seventeenth century French painter, who — this is a painting of extreme unction. It’s an illustration of the good death to which everyone should aspire.
Now, the seventeenth century, the time of Defoe’s great work, also witnessed in Britain the publication of the work of one of the most famous of all writers on the theme of ars moriendi, the art of dying; that was the extraordinary Anglican preacher and bishop, Jeremy Taylor, who lived from 1613 to 1667, and wrote two major works, both of which have gone through edition after edition, they were so popular and so influential. The first was called The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, of 1650, and the other was The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying, of 1651. Taylor argued that this life is short and unimportant, and so we should use our time primarily to prepare for the eternal world, making certain that we die with our worldly affairs in good order, and with our souls in a state of grace, prepared to meet our maker on Judgment Day. His books then were instructional manuals on how to do that. And he reminds us that there really isn’t a moment to waste, especially with the threat of plague ever-present, with sudden death that could happen any moment now.
Chapter 3. “Mors Repentina”: Death Unleashed [00:07:54]
So, Phillippe Ariès thinks then the opposite of the good death is death by bubonic plague. That is something we might call “death unleashed,” a sudden mass death for which society had no defenses, and no one was prepared. This sudden death is mors repentina — sudden death — which was always feared. Because sudden death catches a person unprepared, with his will unwritten in this world, and his soul in a state of sin that could lead to eternal damnation in the next. And death from plague was not only sudden but, as we know now, agonizing and dehumanizing. It often meant that the sufferer was alone and abandoned, and it was death without the attentions of the clergy, without funeral rites and proper burial. Or your body was hurled unceremoniously into a mass plague pit; burned perhaps; thrown into the sea, picked over by vultures and crows.
Now, remember, don’t think that this fear of mors repentina was something medieval and very distant from us, or simply early modern. The historian Drew Faust, in her extraordinary recent book on the American Civil War, This Republic of Suffering, places the fear precisely of mors repentina at the center of her account of the Civil War. It was a widespread anxiety, pervasive among the soldiers on both sides of the conflict, and it recurred again and again in the letters they wrote home. Total war, like bubonic plague, provides unlimited opportunity for an unprepared and sudden death that could set us all on the wrong path for eternal life. Well, literature also gives expression to this new and horrifying reality. You’ve seen Boccaccio in his introduction to The Decameron. You’re reading Defoe and The Journal of the Plague Year. You could read about it again in Camus’s The Plague, or Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “Mask of the Red Death.”
Remember too that another aspect of mors repentina, the sudden unprepared death, was the fear of premature burial. The certification of death in the early modern world, say at the time Defoe was writing, was extremely imprecise. The only really certain indication was putrefaction. And, so, those religious rites of laying out — the wake, the funeral procession and so forth — were practical, in that they allowed time, and they ensured observation, to be certain that the dead person really was dead before being interred. But plague, on the other hand — we’ve seen the plague regulations. They meant instead a rapid, hasty burial, with no attention and no observation, and isolation raised a real danger of being buried alive.
In times of epidemic diseases that swept populations, this fear of death was very pervasive. And we’ll come back to it when we talk about cholera in the nineteenth century, when the cemeteries had all sorts of experiments with providing caskets with little bells above ground and a rope underground, so that someone could raise the alarm if they woke up unexpectedly. So, the plague then really led to death unleashed. Let’s look at some of the portrayals of it, in painting and sculpture, from the plague centuries of the second pandemic — remember, from 1347 to 1743. Here’s a bas-relief of Pierre Puget. This was the plague in Marseilles, and I think one can see the extraordinary portrayal.
I wanted to move on though to this particular painting, one of the most important of the plague years. And this again is Poussin, whom you saw earlier telling you how to die properly, what the good death should look like, who should be there and all the rest. This is his famous painting of 1631, now in the Louvre in Paris, called “The Plague of Ashdod.” Let me remind you, it’s again a biblically inspired painting. Let me remind you of what Ashdod was. The story is from the First Book of Samuel in the Old Testament. Ashdod was a city in the Holy Land near Gaza, occupied in biblical times by the Philistines who worshipped the idol Dagon. The Philistines defied the Israelites in battle, and confiscated the Arc of the Covenant as war bootie, and set it up in the Temple of Dagon in Ashdod.
So, the Book of Samuel tells us: “And so it was. The hand of the Lord was against the city, with a very great destruction. And the Lord smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had emerods in their secret parts.” A special reward to any of you who tell me what an emerod actually is. But anyway, this slide is about the destruction of the great temple of Dagon. You can see that here. This may be the Arc of the Covenant. It is, then — again we can see it’s a representation in painting of plague as being a punishment for divine anger and for sin. Some of the things we can note are the gruesome and particular details. We can see that there are rats scurrying. You know the role that rats played in plague.
Let’s look — here we can see our friend Rattus rattus playing a starring role. Or let’s notice, again in the foreground, the attempt — the terrifying, haunting attempt — of a baby to suckle its mother who’s dying — I’m sorry, that was in the preceding, and that’s here in the foreground. And we’ll look at this person here. And we can see the passerby holding his nose because of the stench of the victims and the fear of miasma. Or let’s look at another portrayal. And this is Pietro Gaetano “The Plague of the Late-Seventeenth Century.” Or quite a terrifying picture by Micco Spadara, “The Plague of Naples in 1656.”
While we look at this, let’s think of the reference that it’s making. You can see that things are happening in the heavens. And this is Naples being devastated by the plague. There are plague pits and all the rest of it in this picture. I think we should remember how people thought of this. It seemed to be an acting-out of the Book of Revelations, the day of the Apocalypse. The Dies Irae, the day of wrath, and the Lord’s judgment, when the lamb opened the Great Book, closed with seven seals; and that’s the reference in Bergman’s film to The Seventh Seal.
And in the Book of Revelations, let me remind you of what people were thinking at times like this. In Chapter VI it says: “And I saw when the lamb opened one of the seals. And I saw him behold there was a white horse. And he that sat on him had a bow, and he went forth conquering and to conquer. And when he’d opened the second seal, there went out another horse that was red, and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, that they should kill one another. And when he had opened the third seal, I beheld a black horse, and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And he opened the fourth seal. I looked and beheld a pale horse, and he that sat on him was death, and hell followed with him… At last the lamb opened the seventh seal and seven angels appeared, bringing the wrath of God. There was thunder, lightening and earthquake. The sea turned to blood. The grasses were burned up. The waters turned to wormwood. The sun and moon were smitten and a bottomless pit opened. And I saw another sign in the heavens, great and marvelous: seven angels bringing the seven last plagues. For in them is filled up the wrath of God. And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, ‘Go your ways and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth’. And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air. And thence came a great voice saying, ‘It is done.’” I think that’s what’s happening in the heavens here.
Well, other examples of death unleashed are portrayed in the theme that was common in European painting in the time of bubonic plague, during the plague centuries, and that’s the theme of the triumph of death, which is often complete with the horsemen of the Apocalypse, that I just read to you about, and a usual scene is a great cart, pulled by oxen, driven by the figure of death, wielding a great scythe, while before him there goes the Angel of Death blowing a trumpet. And all around you may see dead people and graves that are opening and skeletons. Let me give you one of the scariest paintings I know. This is Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who lived in the sixteenth century. And this is “The Triumph of Death,” now hanging in the Prado in Madrid. And if you look at the details, I think it becomes all the more disturbing, the closer you look at it. You see death coming with his scythe and mowing down the population in their masses, which is what bubonic plague does in particular.
Chapter 4. “Vanitas” and “Danse Macabre”: Life as Transitory and Fragile, and Death as a Merry Dance [00:19:53]
We can look at another artist. This is Andrea Mantegna, who died in 1506, his painting “The Triumph of Death.” There were other new themes in European art that emerged during the plague centuries. And one of these, that I’ll show in a minute — which is not this — but will be the theme of vanitas; a new theme in European art during the plague centuries, when death was unleashed in Europe repeatedly. Vanitas, as a theme, flowered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Now what did it mean? Well, vanitas paintings were meant to display the temporal goods of this world: flowers perhaps; fruits; symbols of learning and culture such as musical instruments or books; or signs of earthly achievement and wealth, like gold and jewels. But they’re juxtaposed to striking and more shocking symbols of what’s meant to be the deeper reality of this transitory, fragile life that we live, and the imminence of death.
And, so, alongside these earthly things, you’ll see a skull; a candle whose flame has just gone out; an hourglass marking the passage of time; the crossbones. And the message is — that also is a biblical one — vanity from Ecclesiastes. Let me just read you a sentence. “What profit hath a man of his labor under the sun? One generation passeth away and another generation cometh.” In an age of sudden mass death, human achievement was futile and impermanent, and you should instead be preparing yourselves for the true reality of death and the ever-lasting life. Now, this we can see directly linked to what you’re reading about in Defoe.
Here we have the London Bills of Mortality, in 1664 to 1665; years that you know and are coming to love. And this is the illustration that introduced the bills. It helps us to make the direct connection between plague and the iconography I’ve just been talking about. You’ll notice that the symbols are the classic vanitas symbols of the seventeenth century. You see the skeleton, the crossbones, the shovel and all the rest of it, all around the edges. The skull, the hourglass here. The time is running out. And indeed you’ll see right here that this is — the inscription is a memento mori. This is to remind you that death is coming and could strike at any moment, and you had best prepare.
Let’s look at another painting of these centuries. This is Lucas Furtenagel — well, this actually isn’t, I’m sorry. This is a different one. But let me move — you can see in this painting again the candle going out. You can see the skull and human achievements. All are vanity, is the lesson. Or this, rather — this is the one I was mentioning; Lucas Rutenagel, in the sixteenth century in Germany. This is “Hans Burgkmair and His Wife,” a painting of 1527. And the point is that looking in the mirror, they see the true reality of themselves, which is their skulls after death. And, so, this is reminding us that this is the true reality that lies beneath all of us. Or let’s look at another painting.
This is Harmen Steenwyck, a painting called “Vanitas,” of 1640. I’m trying to show you paintings from different countries, from England, France, the Low Countries, Germany and so on. This is the Low Countries. And this painting, housed in Leiden, and is quite clearly about exactly what we’ve been talking about; the candle, the skull, the books that are evanescent. Or more subtly but quite famously, this is Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting called “The Ambassadors,” which now hangs in London in the National Gallery. It’s an ironic commentary on the court of Henry VIII. All about the painting you see the display of symbols of wealth, power and learning: elegant costumes, the globe, the book, musical instruments. But in somber juxtaposition to them all is the apparent smudge in the foreground of the painting. But if you look at it closely, what it actually is, is a large and perfectly constructed skull, seen from a different perspective; a technique known as an anamorphosis. Let’s look at one more vanitas. This is Renard de Saint-Andre’s seventeenth-century painting called, appropriately, “Vanitas”. I think you get the picture.
Another theme of these centuries, of death unleashed, is the theme called the danse macabre, the dance of death. Now, let me stress that once again this is not a school of painting. This is part of the iconography. It’s the theme in the painting. It appears as a common motif in European Art, from the mid-fourteenth century to the sixteenth; in paintings, in prints and very importantly on tombstones. It began with the Black Death. And with the eighteenth century and the vanishing of the plague, it becomes rarer and rarer, it more or less fades out.
The danse macabre portrays death as a skeleton, inviting people of all ages, ranks and sexes to join in the merry dance of death. And death is usually armed with a scythe, or an arrow, or a dart, and often plays a musical instrument. In the words of The Catholic Encyclopedia: “The Black Death brought before popular imagination the subject of death and its universal sway, as never before. At this time, death appeared as the messenger of God, summoning men to the world beyond the grave. During those years, many churches enacted literal dances of death, or transformed it into a play conveying the idea of the fragility of life and the nearness of death and the need for repentance.” There are other examples.
I’d like to show you five slides from St. Mary’s Church of Lübeck in Germany. A glorious mural from 1463, one of the glories of the Renaissance in Germany. But unfortunately it was destroyed by Allied bombing in the war, and so there’s only a black and white reproduction that I can show you. But the theme comes across quite clearly, and is a good example of the danse macabre. What it is, is a portrayal, in separate paintings, of a whole society suddenly summoned by Angel of Death, the bubonic plague. The first one is the pope and the emperor being summoned by death. It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone falls victim in time of plague. Well, here we see another level of society, a canon and a nobleman being called again by death. Or the third is the parish priest and the artisan, who are also being asked to take part in the dance, and then the priest and peasant. The whole of society, in other words, is being stricken by mass death. And here we have youth, a maiden and a baby. So, we have a portrayal, in a sense, of universal death. This was important in the time of bubonic plague.
Chapter 5. Cults of Plague Saints [00:29:14]
There was another major development of the plague centuries, and this was the emergence of cults of famous plague saints. Saint Sebastian, San Rocco and Saint George. And let’s look then at four pictures of Saint Sebastian, from four of the great artists of the Plague Era. You remember why Saint Sebastian was so important? Because the arrows were symbols of the plague, and Saint Sebastian is offering his body to defend humanity against the wrath of the Lord. And Saint Sebastian is a theme who becomes very important in these centuries, for the first time in European painting. This is Sandro Botticelli’s painting of Saint Sebastian of 1484. Or let me show you another major painter, Raphael’s “Saint Sebastian.” Or let me show you Guido Reni’s picture of him. Or finally, from the Low Countries, Hendrick ter Brugghen’s early-seventeenth-century painting, 1635, Saint Sebastian.
It was also, as I said, — the time of the cult of another saint — and this is Saint Roch, or we can call him San Rocco. You know his life already. He was from Montpellier in France, and devoted himself during his travels to tending the plaque-stricken in Italy, and protecting the faithful. After his death, then, his intercession was invoked across Europe, and his cult spread from country to country. Often we see Sebastian and Rocco painted together. This is Andrea da Murano, “Christ Embracing the Saints,” Sebastian here to his right, and San Rocco to his left. And you can almost always tell that San Rocco has the bubo in his thigh. It’s clearly the bubonic plague that’s being referred to here. Or Francesco Vecellio — this is the Madonna, between Sebastian here and San Rocco there.
In addition, it was larger scale than just paintings. It also affected architecture across Europe, and churches were built to San Rocco across Europe, in France, in Austria, in Vienna, in Rome. But I think if we’re going to talk about plague and its impact on the built environment and architecture, as well as painting, I think the best place we could go is Venice. Venice, as you know, because of its site in the Mediterranean, at the center of the trade routes, was scourged again and again by bubonic plague, and was the place that first devised the anti-plague measures. So, Venice has a deep association with bubonic plague, and it left its imprint in stone and on canvas. I’d like to look at some of — if you were to visit Venice, you would see that its whole urban landscape is deeply affected by bubonic plague. Also, even the gondolas are, in fact, a reference — that’s why they’re black — to bubonic plague; from conveying the bodies at the time.
This is the church of Saint Mary of Health [Santa Maria della Salute], built in the 1530s. And what it’s doing is after the plague had passed, this is a church that’s built to commemorate the passage of plague, and to thank God for allowing his wrath to be assuaged, and for health to be returned. And, so, that’s why we have one of the most important churches in Venice is Saint Mary of Health. And these are a couple of closer pictures of it. And that’s moving into the interior. Let me also show you another church.
This is the Church of the Redeemer, and it’s a church also built at time of plague to thank God for the assuaging of his wrath and the survival of the city. A closer picture. And we’ll move on. This is again one of the glories of Venetian art. It’s called the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which is the Great School of Saint Rocco. Let’s remember what the school meant. There were three-hundred or so so-called “schools” at Venice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What they were is confraternities, associations of laymen, including the leading trades of the city. Some of them had large and wealthy memberships, and played a major role in the government of the city, and amassed enormous wealth.
The functions of the confraternities were originally devotional. And given the exposure of Venice to the plague, it’s not surprising that the very largest and most powerful of the schools chose Saint Rocco as its patron saint. And this is — it bears the name. It constructed a magnificent building, and commissioned the greatest Venetian artist of the century, Jacopo Tintoretto, to decorate it, in veneration of Saint Rocco, and in direct rivalry to the Sistine Chapel in Rome. So, let’s move inside. There we are. And we’ll see that we’re looking at — in these plague scenes, we’ll be seeing that we’re going to look at the magnificence of the art. And this is the interior of it.
I just wanted to show you that at the height of the painting is Tintoretto’s painting of the Triumph of San Rocco; San Rocco, the great plague saint, achieving his reward in heaven and going up to God. Plague also affected across Europe. Let me also say another theme in the urban landscape involved plague columns. And you can see these, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, a great plague column in the center of Vienna, or also in Pilsen in the Czech Republic. Or in — here’s yet another in Hungary. Now, in these plague scenes, of course, remember that by definition we’re looking at works by survivors, whose sense of horror was tempered perhaps by a bit of relief. If it were possible to have works by the victims, perhaps the scenes would be even more wrenching. There are also aspects that aren’t mentioned in the literature and are unknowable, but perhaps probable.
Chapter 6. Plague as a Factor in European Intellectual History [00:37:24]
What happened to those who suffered from the plague and then were recovered? Was their fertility affected? Were there long-term sequelae and neurological deficits? Were there psychological effects that we would now term posttraumatic stress syndrome? But in our discussion of plague, I also want to say that there were a couple of speculative, large-scale conclusions that I want to hint at. The presence of plague over four centuries, as we’ve just seen, had a major impact on religion, on culture, on societal attitudes toward life and death, and left a major imprint on architecture, on painting and sculpture. In addition, I want to speculate for a moment and say that we might also think that perhaps the plague — and especially not the plague itself, but the triumph over it, by the means we described last time — may have been a factor that helped to transform European intellectual history.
Now, it’s one of the great clichés that the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment, was a great age of optimism and belief in progress. But I’d argue that perhaps the belief in progress required some tangible material foundation, and that this was grounded in a new sense that life, in fact, was becoming more secure, and that perhaps mankind could master its environment and its destiny. And, so, I would argue that it’s very significant that the first great medical conquest — at least public health conquest — resulted from the application of the power of the state, of administrative measures in the plague regulations. And it’s no coincidence then that the eighteenth century — and during this time, the State came to be seen as a source of redeeming power, that could transform human lifeand society. Here was an impetus towards reform, and a re-thinking intellectually.
Medical history, in a sense, one could argue, was one factor that helped to sound the death knell of the old regime, dramatically and successfully demonstrating humans’ capacity — that is, man’s capacity to make his or her own history. Here was a basis for a new faith in reason, and the creative potential of political power. Perhaps it’s suggestive to remember that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the founder of modern revolutionary political thought, began his — and one of the heroes of the Enlightenment — began his career in Venice, which for a time he regarded as a model regime. And that his time there included a month of reflection, as he underwent a term of quarantine in the great Venetian lazaretto. But again, I want to avoid giving any suggestion that I want to propound a germ theory of history.
As a historian, I’m opposed, by training, to mono-causal explanations of major events. And, so, what I’m not saying is that the conquest of the plague caused the Enlightenment; I’m not saying that. I merely want to note that the conquest over the plague first — and we’ll be talking next week about smallpox second — were extraordinary influences, triumphs over the two most feared diseases of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the first conquest over infectious disease. And I would say that that wasn’t a million miles away from being a background influence on the coming of the Age of the Enlightenment.
I would also speculate that the triumph over plague first, and then smallpox, also played a role in the coming of the industrial revolution; that the plague and smallpox had been enormous brakes on demographic growth and the growth of the economy. And the conquest of the plague by the eighteenth century, followed by victory over smallpox, had a major impact on launching a great age of European population growth. And population growth, in turn, was a precondition for the coming of the Industrial Revolution. Again, note that I’m not saying that the conquest of plague was a mono-causal explanation for the coming of the Industrial Revolution. I’m saying simply that it was one of many pre-conditions; that it was a growing population that provided that endless supply of free laborers for factories, mines and sweatshops. And it also provided a growing market for industrial products. Demographic change then supplied a large home market for industry.
Having made that argument with regard to plague, next week what I’d like to do is to turn to the second major epidemic disease. If plague was the greatest feared disease of the seventeenth century, and from the fourteenth through the seventeenth, in the eighteenth century the most feared disease was smallpox. And I’d like to look next at smallpox, its impact, and on the second great development of a public health measure, a very different one, which was the public health measure of vaccination. So, that’s where we’re going next.
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