Heroes Of The Plague



When our Litany entreats that we may be delivered from 'plague, pestilence, and famine', the first of these words bears a special meaning, which came home with strong and painful force to European minds at the time the Prayer Book was translated, and for the whole following century.

It refers to the deadly sickness emphatically called 'the plague', a typhoid fever exceedingly violent and rapid, and accompanied with a frightful swelling either under the arm or on the corresponding part of the thigh. The East is the usual haunt of this fatal complaint, which some suppose to be bred by the marshy, unwholesome state of Egypt after the subsidence of the waters of the Nile, and which generally prevails in Egypt and Syria until its course is checked either by the cold of winter or the heat in summer. At times this disease has become unusually malignant and infectious, and then has come beyond its usual boundaries and made its way over all the West. These dreadful visitations were rendered more frequent by total disregard of all precautions, and ignorance of laws for preserving health. People crowded together in towns without means of obtaining sufficient air or cleanliness, and thus were sure to be unhealthy; and whenever war or famine had occasioned more than usual poverty, some frightful epidemic was sure to follow in its train, and sweep away the poor creatures whose frames were already weakened by previous privation. And often this 'sore judgment' was that emphatically called the plague; and especially during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a time when war had become far more cruel and mischievous in the hands of hired regiments than ever it had been with a feudal army, and when at the same time increasing trade was filling the cities with more closely packed inhabitants, within fortifications that would not allow the city to expand in proportion to its needs. It has been only the establishment of the system of quarantine which has succeeded in cutting off the course of infection by which the plague was wont to set out on its frightful travels from land to land, from city to city.

The desolation of a plague-stricken city was a sort of horrible dream. Every infected house was marked with a red cross, and carefully closed against all persons, except those who were charged to drive carts through the streets to collect the corpses, ringing a bell as they went. These men were generally wretched beings, the lowest and most reckless of the people, who undertook their frightful task for the sake of the plunder of the desolate houses, and wound themselves up by intoxicating drinks to endure the horrors. The bodies were thrown into large trenches, without prayer or funeral rites, and these were hastily closed up. Whole families died together, untended save by one another, with no aid of a friendly hand to give drink or food; and, in the Roman Catholic cities, the perishing without a priest to administer the last rites of the Church was viewed as more dreadful than death itself.

Such visitations as these did indeed prove whether the pastors of the afflicted flock were shepherds or hirelings. So felt, in 1576, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, the worthiest of all the successors of St. Ambrose, when he learnt at Lodi that the plague had made its appearance in his city, where, remarkably enough, there had lately been such licentious revelry that he had solemnly warned the people that, unless they repented, they would certainly bring on themselves the wrath of heaven. His council of clergy advised him to remain in some healthy part of his diocese till the sickness should have spent itself, but he replied that a Bishop, whose duty it is to give his life for his sheep, could not rightly abandon them in time of peril. They owned that to stand by them was the higher course. 'Well,' he said, 'is it not a Bishop's duty to choose the higher course?'

So back into the town of deadly sickness he went, leading the people to repent, and watching over them in their sufferings, visiting the hospitals, and, by his own example, encouraging his clergy in carrying spiritual consolation to the dying. All the time the plague lasted, which was four months, his exertions were fearless and unwearied, and what was remarkable was, that of his whole household only two died, and they were persons who had not been called to go about among the sick. Indeed, some of the rich who had repaired to a villa, where they spent their time in feasting and amusement in the luxurious Italian fashion, were there followed by the pestilence, and all perished; their dainty fare and the excess in which they indulged having no doubt been as bad a preparation as the poverty of the starving people in the city.

The strict and regular life of the Cardinal and his clergy, and their home in the spacious palace, were, no doubt, under Providence, a preservative; but, in the opinions of the time, there was little short of a miracle in the safety of one who daily preached in the cathedral,-- bent over the beds of the sick, giving them food and medicine, hearing their confessions, and administering the last rites of the Church,--and then braving the contagion after death, rather than let the corpses go forth unblest to their common grave. Nay, so far was he from seeking to save his own life, that, kneeling before the altar in the cathedral, he solemnly offered himself, like Moses, as a sacrifice for his people. But, like Moses, the sacrifice was passed by--'it cost more to redeem their souls'--and Borromeo remained untouched, as did the twenty-eight priests who voluntarily offered themselves to join in his labors.

No wonder that the chief memories that haunt the glorious white marble cathedral of Milan are those of St. Ambrose, who taught mercy to an emperor, and of St. Carlo Borromeo, who practiced mercy on a people.

It was a hundred years later that the greatest and last visitation of the plague took place in London. Doubtless the scourge called forth--as in Christian lands such judgments always do--many an act of true and blessed self-devotion; but these are not recorded, save where they have their reward: and the tale now to be told is of one of the small villages to which the infection spread--namely, Eyam, in Derbyshire.

This is a lovely place between Buxton and Chatsworth, perched high on a hillside, and shut in by another higher mountain--extremely beautiful, but exactly one of those that, for want of free air, always become the especial prey of infection. At that time lead works were in operation in the mountains, and the village was thickly inhabited. Great was the dismay of the villagers when the family of a tailor, who had received some patterns of cloth from London, showed symptoms of the plague in its most virulent form, sickening and dying in one day.

The rector of the parish, the Rev. William Mompesson, was still a young man, and had been married only a few years. His wife, a beautiful young woman, only twenty-seven years old, was exceedingly terrified at the tidings from the village, and wept bitterly as she implored her husband to take her, and her little George and Elizabeth, who were three and fours years old, away to some place of safety. But Mr. Mompesson gravely showed her that it was his duty not to forsake his flock in their hour of need, and began at once to make arrangements for sending her and the children away. She saw he was right in remaining, and ceased to urge him to forsake his charge; but she insisted that if he ought not to desert his flock, his wife ought not to leave him; and she wept and entreated so earnestly, that he at length consented that she should be with him, and that only the two little ones should be removed while yet there was time.

Their father and mother parted with the little ones as treasures that they might never see again. At the same time Mr. Mompesson wrote to London for the most approved medicines and prescriptions; and he likewise sent a letter to the Earl of Devonshire, at Chatsworth, to engage that his parishioners should exclude themselves from the whole neighborhood, and thus confine the contagion within their own boundaries, provided the Earl would undertake that food, medicines, and other necessaries, should be placed at certain appointed spots, at regular times, upon the hills around, where the Eyamites might come, leave payment for them, and take them up, without holding any communication with the bringers, except by letters, which could be placed on a stone, and then fumigated, or passed through vinegar, before they were touched with the hand. To this the Earl consented, and for seven whole months the engagement was kept.

Mr. Mompesson represented to his people that, with the plague once among them, it would be so unlikely that they should not carry infection about with them, that it would be selfish cruelty to other places to try to escape amongst them, and thus spread the danger. So rocky and wild was the ground around them, that, had they striven to escape, a regiment of soldiers could not have prevented them. But of their own free will they attended to their rector's remonstrance, and it was not known that one parishoner of Eyam passed the boundary all that time, nor was there a single case of plague in any of the villages around.

The assembling of large congregations in churches had been thought to increase the infection in London, and Mr. Mompesson, therefore, thought it best to hold his services out-of-doors. In the middle of the village is a dell, suddenly making a cleft in the mountain-side, only five yards wide at the bottom, which is the pebble bed of a wintry torrent, but is dry in the summer. On the side towards the village, the slope upwards was of soft green turf, scattered with hazel, rowan, and alder bushes, and full of singing birds. On the other side, the ascent was nearly perpendicular, and composed of sharp rocks, partly adorned with bushes and ivy, and here and there rising up in fantastic peaks and archways, through which the sky could be seen from below. One of these rocks was hollow, and could be entered from above--a natural gallery, leading to an archway opening over the precipice; and this Mr. Mompesson chose for his reading-desk and pulpit. The dell was so narrow, that his voice could clearly be heard across it, and his congregation arranged themselves upon the green slop opposite, seated or kneeling upon the grass.

On Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays arose the earnest voice of prayer from that rocky glen, the people's response meeting the pastor's voice; and twice on Sundays he preached to them the words of life and hope. It was a dry, hot summer; fain would they have seen thunder and rain to drive away their enemy; and seldom did weather break in on the regularity of these service. But there was another service that the rector had daily to perform; not in his churchyard--that would have perpetuated the infection--but on a healthy hill above the village. There he daily read of 'the Resurrection and the Life', and week by week the company on the grassy slope grew fewer and scantier. His congregation were passing from the dell to the healthy mound.

Day and night the rector and his wife were among the sick, nursing, feeding, and tending them with all that care and skill could do; but, in spite of all their endeavors, only a fifth part of the whole of their inhabitants lived to spend the last Sunday in Cucklet Church, as the dell is still called. Mrs. Mompesson had persuaded her husband to have a wound made in his leg, fancying that this would lessen the danger of infection, and he yielded in order to satisfy her. His health endured perfectly, but she began to waste under her constant exertions, and her husband feared that he saw symptoms of consumption; but she was full of delight at some appearances in his wound that made her imagine that it had carried off the disease, and that his danger was over.

A few days after, she sickened with symptoms of the plague, and her frame was so weakened that she sank very quickly. She was often delirious; but when she was too much exhausted to endure the exertion of taking cordials, her husband entreated her to try for their children's sake, she lifted herself up and made the endeavor. She lay peacefully, saying, 'she was but looking for the good hour to come', and calmly died, making the responses to her husband's prayers even to the last. Her he buried in the churchyard, and fenced the grave in afterwards with iron rails. There are two beautiful letters from him written on her death--one to his little children, to be kept and read when they would be old enough to understand it; the other to his patron, Sir George Saville, afterwards Lord Halifax. 'My drooping spirits', he says, 'are much refreshed with her joys, which I assure myself are unutterable.' He wrote both these letters in the belief that he should soon follow her, speaking of himself to Sir George as 'his dying chaplain', commending to him his 'distressed orphans', and begging that a 'humble pious man' might be chosen to succeed him in his parsonage. 'Sire, I thank God that I am willing to shake hands in peace with all the world; and I have comfortable assurance that He will accept me for the sake of His Son, and I find God more good than ever I imagined, and wish that his goodness were not so much abused and contemned', writes the widowed pastor, left alone among his dying flock. And he concludes, 'and with tears I entreat that when you are praying for fatherless and motherless infants, you would then remember my two pretty babes'.

These two letters were written on the last day of August and first of September, 1666; but on the 20th of November, Mr. Mompesson was writing to his uncle, in the lull after the storm. 'The condition of this place hath been so dreadful, that I persuade myself it exceedeth all history and example. I may truly say our town has become a Golgotha, a place of skulls; and had there not been a small remnant of us left, we had been as Sodom, and like unto Gomorrah. My ears never heard such doleful lamentations, my nose never smelt such noisome smells, and my eyes never beheld such ghastly spectacles. Here have been seventy-six families visited within my parish, out of which died 259 persons.'

However, since the 11th of October there had been no fresh cases, and he was now burning all woolen cloths, lest the infection should linger in them. He himself had never been touched by the complaint, nor had his maid-servant; his man had had it but slightly. Mr. Mompesson lived many more years, was offered the Deanery of Lincoln, but did not accept it, and died in 1708. So virulent was the contagion that, ninety-one years after, in 1757, when five laboring men, who were digging up land near the plague- graves for a potato-garden, came upon what appeared to be some linen, though they buried it again directly, they all sickened with typhus fever, three of them died, and it was so infectious that no less than seventy persons in the parish were carried off.

The last of these remarkable visitations of the plague, properly so called, was at Marseilles, in 1721. It was supposed to have been brought by a vessel which sailed from Seyde, in the bay of Tunis, on the 31st of January, 1720, which had a clean bill of health when it anchored off the Chateau d'If, at Marseilles, on the 25th of May; but six of the crew were found to have died on the voyage, and the persons who handled the freight also died, though, it was said, without any symptoms of the plague, and the first cases were supposed to be of the fevers caused by excessive poverty and crowding. The unmistakable Oriental plague, however, soon began to spread in the city among the poorer population, and in truth the wars and heavy expenses of Louis XIV. had made poverty in France more wretched than ever before, and the whole country was like one deadly sore, festering, and by and by to come to a fearful crisis. Precautions were taken, the infected families were removed to the infirmaries and their houses walled up, but all this was done at night in order not to excite alarm. The mystery, however, made things more terrible to the imagination, and this was a period of the utmost selfishness. All the richer inhabitants who had means of quitting the city, and who were the very people who could have been useful there, fled with one accord. Suddenly the lazaretto was left without superintendents, the hospitals without stewards; the judges, public officers, notaries, and most of the superior workmen in the most necessary trades were all gone. Only the Provost and four municipal officers remained, with 1,100 livres in their treasury, in the midst of an entirely disorganized city, and an enormous population without work, without restraint, without food, and a prey to the deadliest of diseases.

The Parliament which still survived in the ancient kingdom of Provence signalized itself by retreating to a distance, and on the 31st of May putting out a decree that nobody should pass a boundary line round Marseilles on pain of death; but considering what people were trying to escape from, and the utter overthrow of all rule and order, this penalty was not likely to have much effect, and the plague was carried by the fugitives to Arles, Aix, Toulon, and sixty-three lesser towns and villages. What a contrast to Mr. Mompesson's moral influence!

Horrible crimes were committed. Malefactors were released from the prisons and convicts from the galleys, and employed for large payment to collect the corpses and carry the sick to the infirmaries. Of course they could only be wrought up to such work by intoxication and unlimited opportunities of plunder, and their rude treatment both of the dead and of the living sufferers added unspeakably to the general wretchedness. To be carried to the infirmary was certain death,--no one lived in that heap of contagion; and even this shelter was not always to be had,--some of the streets were full of dying creatures who had been turned out of their houses and could crawl no farther.

What was done to alleviate all these horrors? It was in the minority of Louis XV., and the Regent Duke of Orleans, easy, good-natured man that he was, sent 22,000 marks to the relief of the city, all in silver, for paper money was found to spread the infection more than anything else. He also sent a great quantity of corn, and likewise doctors for the sick, and troops to shut in the infected district. The Pope, Clement XI., sent spiritual blessings to the sufferers, and, moreover, three shiploads of wheat. The Regent's Prime Minister, the Abbe Dubois, the shame of his Church and country, fancied that to send these supplies cast a slight upon his administration, and desired his representative at Rome to prevent the sailing of the ships, but his orders were not, for very shame, carried out, and the vessels set out. On their way they were seized by a Moorish corsair, who was more merciful than Dubois, for he no sooner learnt their destination than he let them go unplundered.

And in the midst of the misery there were bright lights 'running to and fro among the stubble'. The Provost and his five remaining officers, and a gentleman call Le Chevalier Rose, did their utmost in the bravest and most unselfish way to help the sufferers, distribute food, provide shelter, restrain the horrors perpetrated by the sick in their ravings, and provide for the burial of the dead. And the clergy were all devoted to the task of mercy. There was only one convent, that of St. Victor, where the gates were closed against all comers in the hope of shutting out infection. Every other monastic establishment freely devoted itself. It was a time when party spirit ran high. The bishop, Henri Francois Xavier de Belzunce, a nephew of the Duke de Lauzun, was a strong and rigid Jesuit, and had joined so hotly in the persecution of the Jansenists that he had forbidden the brotherhood called Oratorian fathers to hear confessions, because he suspected them of a leaning to Jansenist opinions; but he and they both alike worked earnestly in the one cause of mercy. They were content to obey his prejudiced edict, since he was in lawful authority, and threw themselves heartily into the lower and more disdained services to the sick, as nurses and tenders of the body alone, not of the soul, and in this work their whole community, Superior and all, perished, almost without exception. Perhaps these men, thus laying aside hurt feeling and sense of injustice, were the greatest conquerors of all whose golden deeds we have described.

Bishop Belzunce himself, however, stands as the prominent figure in the memory of those dreadful five months. He was a man of commanding stature, towering above all around him, and his fervent sermons, aided by his example of severe and strict piety, and his great charities, had greatly impressed the people. He now went about among the plague- stricken, attending to their wants, both spiritual and temporal, and sold or mortgaged all his property to obtain relief for them, and he actually went himself in the tumbrils of corpses to give them the rites of Christian burial. His doings closely resembled those of Cardinal Borromeo, and like him he had recourse to constant preaching of repentance, processions and assemblies for litanies in the church. It is curiously characteristic that it was the English clergyman, who, equally pious, and sensible that only the Almighty could remove the scourge, yet deemed it right to take precautions against the effects of bringing a large number of persons into one building. How Belzunce's clergy seconded him may be gathered from the numbers who died of the disease. Besides the Oratorians, there died eighteen Jesuits, twenty-six of the order called Recollets, and forty-three Capuchins, all of whom had freely given their lives in the endeavor to alleviate the general suffering. In the four chief towns of Provence 80,000 died, and about 8,000 in the lesser places. The winter finally checked the destroyer, and then, sad to say, it appeared how little effect the warning had had on the survivors. Inheritances had fallen together into the hands of persons who found themselves rich beyond their expectations, and in the glee of having escaped the danger, forgot to be thankful, and spent their wealth in revelry. Never had the cities of Provence been so full of wild, questionable mirth as during the ensuing winter, and it was remarked that the places which had suffered most severely were the most given up to thoughtless gaiety, and even licentiousness.

Good Bishop Belzunce did his best to protest against the wickedness around him, and refused to leave his flock at Marseilles, when, four years after, a far more distinguished see was offered to him. He died in 1755, in time to escape the sight of the retribution that was soon worked out on the folly and vice of the unhappy country.


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