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- The Coming of the Friars - 20/38 -
it omits and in what it adds to the older narrative that it possesses any great historic value. It agrees with the accounts quoted above in making mention of the swellings, the blood-spitting, and the awful rapidity with which the disease ran its course. It omits all mention of the eruption on the surface of the skin, the flushed eyes, and, above all, the swollen and inflamed condition of the larynx, the cough, the sneezing, and the hiccough, which Dr. Collier found so significant.
Comparing, then, the several accounts which have come down to us, meagre though they are, it ought to be possible to arrive at some conclusions regarding the nature of the plague of the fourteenth century which, for the pathologist, would amount to certainties. The wonder is that such men as Dr. Hecker and his learned translator should have shown so much reserve--not to say timidity--in pronouncing judgment upon the question.
A layman runs a risk of incurring withering scorn at his presumption, and ridicule at his ignorance who ventures to express an opinion--or to have one--on any subject which the medical profession claims as within its own domain; and I should not dare to speak otherwise than as a very humble inquirer when the learned are silent. There are, however, some conclusions which may be accepted without hesitation and which will be admitted by all.
I. The Black Death was _not_ scarlatina maligna, as the plague at Athens undoubtedly was. [Footnote: "The History of the Plague of Athens," translated from Thucydides by C. Collier, M.D., London, 1857.]
II. It was _not_ small-pox.
III. It was _not_ cholera.
IV. It probably _was_ a variety of the Oriental plague, which has reappeared in Europe in more modern times, and regarding which they who wish to know more must seek their information where it is to be found.
The next question usually asked is, Where did the new plague come from? And here the answer is even more uncertain than that to the other question--What the great plague was.
In fact, a careful comparison of such testimony as comes to hand leaves the inquirer in a very perplexed condition, and inclines him rather to accept than reject the old-fashioned theory of a "general corruption of the atmosphere" as the only working hypothesis whereby to account for the startling spontaneity of the outbreak and its appearance at so many and such distant points at the same time.
The Imperial author, who appears to have done his best to gather information, evidently found himself quite baffled in his attempt to follow the march of the plague. It had originated among the Hyperborean Scythians; it had passed through Pontus, and Libya, and Syria, and the furthest East, and "in a manner all the world round about." Other writers are just as much in the dark as Cantacuzene, and it seems mere waste of time to endeavour to arrive at any conclusion from data so defective and statements so void of historical basis as have come down to us. This only seems established, that during the year 1347 there was great atmospheric disturbance extending over a large area of Southern Europe, and resulting in extensive failure of the harvest, and consequent distress and famine; and that in January, 1348, one of the most violent earthquakes in history wrought immense havoc in Italy, the shocks being felt in the islands of the Mediterranean, and even north of the Alps.
It is at least curious that the date of the earthquake coincides very closely with the date which has been given by Guido de Chauliac for the first appearance of the plague at Avignon. He tells us expressly that it broke out in that city in January, 1348, and I think it would be difficult to produce trustworthy evidence of any earlier outbreak than this, at any rate, in Europe. [Footnote: One of our monastic chroniclers states expressly that it began about St. James's Day in 1347. I _feel_ certain that the date is wrong, and that it could be proved to be wrong without much difficulty by reference to documentary evidence which might be consulted.] "It appeared at Florence," says Villani, "at the beginning of April, and at Cesena, on the other side of the Apennines, on the 1st of June." It is asserted that it reached England at the beginning of August, is said to have lingered for some months in the west, and to have devastated Bristol with awful severity.
There can be no doubt that in the towns of Italy and France there was a dreadful mortality; but when we are told that 100,000 died in Venice, and 60,000 in Florence, and 70,000 in Siena, it is impossible to accept such round numbers as anything better than ignorant guesses. Whether the great cities of the Low Countries were visited by the pestilence with any severity, or how far the towns of Germany were affected, I am unable to say, nor am I much concerned at present with such an inquiry; that I leave to others to throw light upon. But as to the progress, the incidence, and the effect of the Black Death in England--when it came and where it showed itself, how long it lasted, and what effects followed--on these questions the time has come for pointing out that we have a body of evidence such as perhaps exists in no other country--evidence, too, which hitherto has hardly received any attention, its very existence entirely overlooked, forgotten, nay! not even suspected.
* * * * * * *
Let us understand where we are, and look about us for a little while.
When King Edward III. entered London in triumph on the 14th of October, 1347, he was the foremost man in Europe, and England had reached a height of power and glory such as she had never attained before. At the battle of Creçi France had received a crushing blow, and by the loss of Calais, after an eleven months' siege, she had been reduced well-nigh to the lowest point of humiliation. David II., King of Scotland, was now lying a prisoner in the Tower of London. Louis of Bavaria had just been killed by a fall from his horse, the Imperial throne was vacant, and the electors in eager haste proclaimed that they had chosen the King of England to succeed. To their discomfiture the King of England declined the proffered crown. He "had other views." Intoxicated by the splendour of their sovereign and his martial renown, and the Success which seemed to attend him wherever he showed himself, the English people had gone mad with exultation--all except the merchant princes, the monied men, who are not often given to lose their heads. They took a much more sober view of the outlook than the populace did--they had an eye to their own interests and the interests of the trade and commerce in which they were engaged. They were very much in earnest in asserting their rights and protesting against their wrongs, and they presented their petitions to the King after the fashion of the time--petitions which must have seemed rather startling protests in the fourteenth century, betraying, as they did, some advanced opinions for which the world at large was hardly then prepared.
Students of the manual, compendium, and popular handbook style of literature may possibly be hardly aware that the war of protection _versus_ free trade, and the other war concerned with the incidence of taxation upon property, real and personal, had already begun. Even my distinguished friend, Mr. Cadaverous, who never made a mistake in his life, and whose memory for facts is portentous--even Mr. Cadaverous assures me that he has never met with any mention of the above fact in all his study of history.
History! What is history but the science which teaches us to see the throbbing life of the present in the throbbing life of the past?
Note that these "gentlemen of the House of Commons," who made themselves somewhat disagreeable in the Parliament of 1348, were not the warriors who had gone out to fight the King's battles, but the burghers who stayed at home, heaped up money, and grumbled. It was otherwise with the roistering swash-bucklers who came back in that glorious autumn. They are said to have returned laden with the spoils of France, the plunder of Calais, and so on and so on. Calais must have been rather a queer little place to afford much _plunder_ after all that it had gone through. The swash-bucklers doubtless brought prize-money home, but it did not all come from France--that is pretty certain. Villani, our Florentine friend, tells us of an unexampled commercial crisis at Florence about this time--brought about, observe, by the English conqueror of France not paying his debts. So the Bardi and the Peruzzi actually stopped payment; for the King owed them a million and a half of gold florins, and there was lamentation and distress of mind, and the level of the Arno rose by reason of the flood of tears that fell "from tired eyelids upon tired eyes." All that made no difference to the swash-bucklers, and up and down England there was wild extravagance, and money seemed to burn in people's pockets. Feasting and merriment, and all that appertains thereto, were the order of the day, and all went merry as a marriage bell.
The King got all he could get out of the Parliament, but he did not get, he could not get, all he wished. What was to be done next? The Pope said, "Make peace!" and his Holiness did his little best to bring about the desired end. The summer of 1348 had come, and it seems that at Avignon the plague had by this time spent itself, people were no longer afraid to go there now, and the Pope would peradventure come out of his seclusion and receive an embassy. So on the 28th of July Edward III. wrote a letter to Pope Clement, and announced his intention of sending his ambassadors to Avignon to treat about terms. The negotiations fell through, and on the 8th of October the King announced by proclamation that he was once more going to make an inroad upon France with an armed force. He did not keep his word. In November a truce was patched up somehow; and on the first of the next month we find the King once more at Westminster, and there he seems to have remained over Christmas. If the dates are correctly given, the news from the west of England about this time was not likely to have provoked much merriment.
Are the dates correct? Gentlemen of an antiquarian turn of mind, out in the west there, might do worse than spend some weeks in looking into this matter.
Meanwhile, it is at this point that we get our first direct, unquestionable proof, that the plague had reached our shores. On the 1st of January, 1349, the King wrote to the Bishop of Winchester, informing him that although the Parliament had been summoned to meet on the 19th of the month, yet because a _sudden visitation of deadly pestilence had broken out at Westminster and the neighbourhood,_ which was increasing daily, and occasioning much apprehension for the safety of any great concourse of people, should it assemble in that place at the time appointed; therefore it had been determined to prorogue the Parliament to Monday, the 27th of April.
I gather from the wording of this document that the Government did not look upon the outbreak with any very grave apprehension, that they did not regard it as anything more than an epidemic which would
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