Behold a Pale Horse

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Given what the world is currently experiencing with the contemporary plague of Covid 19, I thought I’d post my chapter on the Black Death of the Fourteenth Century from my book From Tolerance to Tyranny: A Cautionary Tale From Fifteenth Century Spain. (Earlier published as The End of Days.) It was a different age, but human responses were the same. I hope you will find it interesting and enjoy the reading.


There was famine, flooding, and the painful erosion of deeply held conviction, but the fourteenth century had not finished delivering up misfortune. In mid-century all of Europe was devastated by unprecedented calamity, and in its wake came terror for the non-Christian minority.

“In A.D. 1348, the people of France and of almost the whole world were struck by a blow other than war,” wrote Jean de Venette, the prior of a Carmelite monastery in Paris.

Looking back at that terrible year the goodly prior suspected he had been permitted to see a celestial portent of the plague:

In the month of August 1348, after Vespers, when the sun was beginning to set, a big and very bright star appeared above Paris, toward the west. It did not seem, as stars usually do, to be very high above our hemisphere but rather very near. At length, when night had come, this big star, to the amazement of all of us who were watching, broke into many different rays. Whether it was a comet or not, whether it was composed of airy exhalations and was finally resolved into vapor, I leave to the decisions of astronomers. It is, however, possible that it was a presage of the amazing pestilence to come.

Since 1346, strange rumours had been circulating through Europe telling of a terrible disease that was spreading through Asia and killing entire populations. But Asia was far away and the idea of contagion was unknown; disease somewhere else only meant that God was punishing other people for their sins.

In 1348, one of the trading ships that plied the seas between the Far East and Italy delivered a terrifying cargo into the harbour of Genoa. The blackened bodies of dead sailors lay across their oars while a few dying companions managed to row the ship into shore. The sick men had large, black swellings in their groins and armpits that oozed pus and blood. They were dizzy, shaking with fever, and suffering terrible pain. A few seemed to be delirious; others did not have the swellings, but coughed incessantly and spat blood on the deck. All of them seemed to be bleeding from deep within, for liquids issuing from their bodies—sputum, vomit, urine, excrement—was bloody and tainted by a foul odour. Those with the cough were dead in a day. Almost all the rest were dead within five.

It was bubonic plague, and there were, in effect, two strains. One was characterized by swelling of lymph nodes, called buboes, and was transmitted to human beings by fleas that had bitten infected rats; the other was pneumonic, a contagious infection that fills the lungs with water. The death rate for the first strain was about 60 to 80 per cent; for the second, 100 per cent.

The bubonic plague reached the Catalonian port of Barcelona in the spring of 1348, and within six months it had devastated the whole of Aragon, Navarre, Castile, and Portugal. The disease spread under exceptionally favourable conditions. Spain had almost doubled its population over the relatively peaceful years of the thirteenth century, industry and international commerce had surged ahead, and thousands of rural peasants had moved to the walled cities where garbage rotted in the streets and the black rat, the deadly carrier of bubonic plague, soon replaced the common rat of the back alleyways. Worse still, floods and famines had physically weakened the population and made them vulnerable to disease.

Lawlessness and debauchery increased, looters raided shops, and the poor boldly squatted on the abandoned lands of dead nobility. Agricultural production ground to a halt. In Barcelona, workers demanded salaries four and five times higher than before the plague. In Gerona, in northeastern Catalonia, the town notables appealed to the king to exempt them from taxes because the city was almost entirely depopulated.

By the end of 1348, the plague had spread along the Mediterranean coast to Corsica, Sardinia, Spain, and France, “where it attacked several cardinals [in Avignon] and took them from their whole household. Then it spread little by little, from town to town, from village to village, and finally from person to person.” By 1349 Austria, Hungary, Germany, Flanders and parts of England were devastated. In 1350 the plague had reached northern England, Scandinavia, and the Baltic countries, stretching to Iceland and Greenland. “All this year and the next, the mortality of men and women, and the young even more than the old … was so great that it was impossible to bury the dead. People lay ill little more than two or three days and died suddenly, as it were in full health. He that was well one day was dead the next and carried to his grave.”

A contemporary described the ravages of the plague in the central Italian city of Orvieto:

In May 1348, a great death came to Orvieto. Things grew worse daily, until June or July, when one day five hundred people died, young and old, men and women. Death and the horror people felt was so extreme that they died suddenly; one morning they were in good health and the next morning they were dead. All the shops were closed, many families were decimated, and many houses remained uninhabited; it is said that nine-tenths of the population died. The survivors remained sick and horrified, and in terror they abandoned their houses and their dead.

In Spain, a traveller stopped at an inn in the town of Salvatierra, near St. James of Compostella. He ate, talked with the innkeeper and his wife, and went to bed for the night. When he awoke the next morning the house was strangely quiet. The entire family was dead.

For most people there was only one explanation: God had sent the plague as an expression of his anger at human sin. There was no use wondering which sin. Every individual had his or her own personal storehouse of guilt. The Church railed against human frailty—adultery, avarice, blasphemy, greed, pride—but without success. Guilt hollowed out deep crevices in the souls of believers and doubters alike.

Doctors and scholars seized on a more logical explanation for the catastrophe. In His anger, God had ordered a pernicious conjunction of the stars and planets, they explained. The proof was that on March 20, 1345, certain astrologers had observed a dangerous juxtaposition of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars under the sign of Pisces: an early portent of calamity.

The fourteenth century believed that diseases were carried through air or water. This was partly true, of course, but since medicine lacked a crucial concept of contagion, or infection, physicians could go no further. They thought the air was corrupted by astral influences, or by winds that carried pestilence, or by various miasmic stinks, including the odour of decomposing bodies. As there was no cure for plague, physicians concentrated their efforts on prevention. Aromatic plants such as cypress, roses, and thyme were placed in the main plazas of Spanish cities to perfume the corrupted air, and frightened people duly sprinkled their houses with vinegar morning and night. Doctors prescribed amulets which were to be worn near the heart. Those made with sapphires and emeralds were said to be the most effective. The physicians recommended chicken, partridge and eggs, and warned against beef, duck, lamb, goat, rabbit, and pork. Pork and duck were the most dangerous because they created humours which threw the body out of balance. Bread had to be eaten within three days; apples or pears were to accompany the first meal of the day; and only dry white wine was safe. All fish was bad, except lobster. Cats and dogs were killed, as their hair was thought to carry the disease.

One cheerful author concluded his narrative of prevention by advising his stricken contemporaries to “live happily and with decent diversion, such as music.”32 Needless to say, his advice applied only to the wealthy. The poor scrounged what they could, where they could, and left thoughts of happiness to others. “Nothing helped, neither physicians, nor medicament,” despaired the chronicler Marchione di Coppo Stefani in his Cronica Fiorentina. “Either this disease is new and hitherto unknown, or the doctors have never studied it. There seems to be no remedy.”

In the face of terror, human beings did the usual thing: they beseeched God for mercy and looked for scapegoats. But turning to God was now a risky proposition, for who could fathom the depth of divine rage if this awful disease was its most visible sign? In Andalusia processions of the faithful transported relics of holy martyrs to local churches, where they prayed to the dead saint to intercede on their behalf. Cathedrals were hastily repaired or newly constructed. People contributed to charities and did good works, hoping to gain points with the Almighty. The rich of Castile donated so much land and wealth to the Church that the prelates grew magnificently rich and the entire economic structure of the country fell into disarray.

If sin had brought about this strike from above, might one still be saved? Church corruption made the faithful despair, but more and more priests trafficked in the sale of indulgences.

Not surprisingly, a new back-to-basics religious movement spread across Europe in tandem with the plague. Barefoot and dressed in dark, hooded robes with a large red cross embroidered on front and back, men and women calling themselves Brothers of the Cross travelled from town to town, punishing themselves twice a day with a three-pronged whip tipped with iron. The men whipped themselves in public, the women in seclusion. Through self-inflicted pain the Flagellants, as they were known, hoped to recover the purity of their original baptism—a state without sin—and therefore protect themselves from the plague. To direct anger at God was impossible; to inflict suffering on themselves in God’s name was permissible. Others rebelled against the established Church order by turning for help to witchcraft, magic, and satanism.

The Flagellants needed an outlet for their rage, and as soon as they arrived in a new town they headed straight for the Jewish quarter, with an excited mob of townsfolk storming behind. Their charge against the Jews was a simple one: Jews were poisoning the wells in order to rid the world of their enemies, the Christians. Once this motive was firmly established, the Flagellants mustered indisputable proof that the Jews had the capacity to carry out this conspiracy. They were doctors, apothecaries, and grocers, were they not? Therefore they had access to the spectrum of poisons.

In 1348 in the southern French city of Toulouse, forty Jews were tortured and eventually “confessed” to poisoning the wells. They were massacred by a mob. Many were thrown into the wells, which did poison the water. Jean de Venette chronicled the attacks:

As a result of this theory of infected water as the source of the plague, the Jews were suddenly and violently charged with infecting wells and water and corrupting the air. The whole world rose against them cruelly on this account and many thousands were burned everywhere, indiscriminately. The unshaken, if fatuous, constancy of the men and their wives was remarkable. For mothers hurled their children first into the fire that they might not be baptized and then leaped in after them to burn with their husbands and children.

The friar was nonetheless skeptical about their supposed guilt:

In truth, such poisonings, granted they actually were perpetrated, could not have caused so great a plague nor have infected so many people. There were other causes; for example, the will of God and the corrupt humors and evil inherent in air and earth.

But a fellow chronicler named Jean le Bel, who had become a knight before becoming a priest, had fewer doubts. The Jews poisoned the wells, he alleged:

in order to poison all Christendom and to have lordship over the world, wherefore both great and small were so enraged against them that they were all burned and put to death by lords and judges of the places along the route of the Flagellants. And they all went to their death dancing and singing joyously as though they were going to a wedding, and they would not be converted, nor would fathers nor mothers permit their children to be baptised … saying that they had found in the books of the prophets that as soon as the sect of the Flagellants had overrun the world, that all Jewry would be destroyed by fire, and that the souls of those who remained firm in their faith would go to paradise. Wherefore as soon as they saw the fire, men and women leaped into it, always singing and carrying their little infants with them for fear that they might become Christians.

The higher Catholic clergy was appalled and disturbed by the Flagellants’ success, and in July and September of 1348 Pope Clement VI published two bulls declaring that the poison-well accusation was preposterous. Anyone with eyes could see that the Jews were losing as many people to the plague as Christians, he pointed out; in Saragossa, for example, 80 per cent of the Jews had died of plague. The pope went on to explain that Christians who blamed the Jews were being “seduced by that liar, the Devil,” but a combination of public hysteria and disdain for the Church mitigated the impact of his intervention.

In defiance of the pope, King Philip VI of France accused the Jews of receiving poisons from their “grand master” in Toledo and commanded them to stand trial for well poisoning. The poisons were said to have been extracted from venomous scorpions, spiders, and toads, which were powdered then carried to France in “stitched leather satchels.” Jews were massacred all over Europe—in France, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, and Lithuania. In the city of Strasbourg, on February 13, 1349, nine hundred individuals were hurled into bonfires.

It is of interest that not one of the chroniclers relaying these fevered accusations even pretended to verify the existence of a toxic substance capable of poisoning water with plague: rumour and belief in place of scientific fact sufficed in the fourteenth century, as it occasionally does today. It is also worth noting that although the great scientific collaborations of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the translation centres of Toledo had excited the intellectual classes of Europe, they had apparently frightened ordinary people. In the popular mind Toledo was a “Jewish city” where mysterious, anti-Christian science was explored, such as grinding up scorpions to make poisons. The impulse was a familiar one: those who are not one of us must necessarily be against us.

Although accusations of well poisoning brought about the worst anti-minority attacks of the entire Middle Ages, Spanish Jews were largely spared. There were a few anti-Jewish uprisings in 1348, sometimes instigated by debtors who could not, or would not, repay their loans; but only in Barcelona and Lérida did violent pogroms causing death occur, and both of those Catalonian cities were geographically close to France and subject to French influence.

By 1351 the plague had largely passed, although there were to be frequent recurrences throughout the rest of the fourteenth century and the fifteenth as well.38 Between 25 and 30 per cent of the population of Europe was dead—about twenty-five million people in all: in fact, in one small French parish the records indicate more deaths for the period of August 1 to November 19, 1348, than for the previous twenty years. In Spain the preplague population had been 7,470,000. When the ravages of the disease subsided, 4,000,000 remained.

The plague was followed by a widespread psychological aftershock, as stunned and brutalized survivors struggled to resume their lives. The survivors had witnessed the agonizing deaths of loved ones. They had watched doctors and clergy abandon the dying, and they felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of sin they believed they and their families must have committed to have been punished so severely. Eventually they could no longer care about the heaps of uncollected bodies rotting in the streets and, finally, they could think only of their own personal survival. Deepening their anguish was the belief that thousands had died without the benefit of last rites before the pope eventually issued a general dispensation. To die without confession was to risk burning in the fires of hell in perpetual torment.

The shock of massive death invaded all of Europe and was mirrored through the dark lens of art. Death personified—a grinning skeleton brandishing scythe and hourglass—interrupts the joyous celebrations of young and old. He bides his time in gleeful expectation or actively carries away his victims under the helpless, horrified watch of their companions who are, of course, next in line to go. No army can defeat him. He is the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse from the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, painted by Jean Colombe in 1470: “And Behold a pale horse, and he that sat upon him his name was Death.”

A desperate dissoluteness now marked Europe. In Valencia, houses were looted in broad daylight and murders were committed in the streets. Gambling tables operated in public squares and the richest families recklessly threw away their fortunes, borrowing heavily at uncontrolled interest rates to maintain the spending frenzy. Courtiers paraded about in rich gowns of red, blue, and green velvet or silk, their sleeves and bodices draped in lavish folds. Wealthy widows were quickly remarried to new husbands with an eye for opportunity. A careless disregard for the future pervaded society; only the present mattered. Jean de Venette offered the following lament:

Woe is me! the world was not changed for the better but for the worse. For men were more avaricious and grasping than before. They were more covetous and disturbed each other more frequently with suits, brawls, disputes and pleas. Greater evils than before abounded everywhere in the world. And this fact was very remarkable. Although there was an abundance of all goods, yet everything was twice as dear, whether it were utensils, victuals, or merchandise, hired helpers, or peasants or serfs. Charity began to cool, and iniquity with ignorance and sin to abound, and few could be found in the good towns and castles who knew how or were willing to instruct children in the rudiments of grammar.

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