Hannā Diyāb from Aleppo Witnesses Plague, the Great Frost and Famine in Paris – 1708

Hannā Diyāb was a young Christian from Aleppo. Taken on as a servant by Paul Lucas, a buyer of antiques for Louis XIV, he travelled with him to Europe and, fifty years later, sat down to write a charming and amusing account of his adventures. Translated from the Arabic manuscript by Paul Lunde, The Man Who Wrote Aladdin gives a fascinating and, often surprising, view of Europe through the eyes of a working man from a province of the Ottoman Empire. Hannā was in some ways unlucky in his visit to Paris: it was the coldest winter in 500 years. As to the plague, very little had changed in terms of mitigating it, since the time of Gregory of Tours, more than a thousand years earlier (see post).

During this time, an epidemic of plague broke out in Paris. People without number died because of it. The victim suffered twenty-four hours, then died. The people of Paris prayed to be relieved from this affliction. Then they sought intercession from the patron saint of Paris, St Genevieve. They decided to take her body in procession throughout Paris, praying for her intercession, so that God Almighty might lift this affliction from them.

Hannā describes the complex negotiations involved in organizing the procession, because of the fear the body would be stolen.

On the stipulated day the procession went out, composed of priests, monks and deacons, dressed in the finest costumes and carrying lighted candles in their hands. Four metropolitan bishops carried the sarcophagus containing the body of the saint on their shoulders. They passed through the streets of the city, and you could see each group of priests, monks and deacons singing angelic hymns in soft voices set to wondrous melodies. They took two hours to pass by. It is possible that there were as many as ten thousand persons taking part. The people all stood in front of their shops imploring Almighty God to accept the intercession of the saint and remove the plague from them. Our Lord answered their prayers and the sickness ceased completely. I was in Paris at the time and witnessed the procession and the miracle that God performed for them through the intercession of St Genevieve.

Hannā tells the rather charming story of St Genevieve and then continues:

On the 25th of December, there was a terrible cold spell, to such a degree that the trees dried out and the Seine, which flows through the centre of Paris, froze solid. The ice was a hand span thick, so that carriages could cross it as if they were driving across stony ground. This freezing cold lasted fifteen days. During that time people from the seven parishes of Paris died. Each parish is the size of Aleppo. The death knells of the churches tolled eighty thousand times*, not counting the deaths of little children, the poor and the immigrants. They found mothers and children dead in their beds, the man and wife dead in one another’s arms, because they lived on upper floors of buildings, where the rent was low. Parisian houses have five floors, and each flat is cheaper than the one below.

They found the children of peasants, who had come to the towns to work as servants, lying in heaps in the garbage in the throes of death. The city was empty of people. Everyone had taken refuge indoors. No one left their room and stove. I took refuge in my room with my stove and stayed imprisoned there for fifteen days in front of the fire. The priests were constrained to put braziers on the altars, lest the vessels of consecrated wine placed there freeze.

The urine of many people not only froze in the air when they urinated, but inside their urinary tract as well, causing their death. The brass chamber pots they keep in their rooms burst. The broke their bread into little bits and soaked it in hot water in order to eat it. And what shall I say of their gardens? All the trees were frost bitten, including the vines and the olive trees, as well as the crops in the fields, which normally ripen two, or even three, times a year. This calamity afflicted all France.

He describes what happened to him when, after fifteen days, he could no longer bear being shut in and went out to the barber and how his master, Paul Lucas, saved him frostbite.

Not long after this, the city was struck by serious famine and inflated prices, to such an extent that the civic authorities wrote down the names of the people in the houses and the governor ordered every person to be given an ounce** of bread, no more, so that they would not perish. The members of each family were registered with the baker, and seated in every bakery was a government official with a register of the names of the members of all the families. Because of this regulation, no one else could get any food, not even the weight of a dram.

A few days later, the peasants, people from towns and villages, flocked into Paris to beg, so they wouldn’t starve to death. I myself saw many people lying dead of hunger in the streets, for no one could give them alms, because everyone had only one ounce of bread, and it was not possible to divide that ounce and give anything to the beggar. This was the reason so many died of hunger.

When the grandees of the city, and the metropolitans and officials saw this calamity, they thought of – or rather sought – help from Our Lord, who is merciful to His servants. They decided to employ these peasants, paying them from the city’s charitable endowments, to build houses on the outskirts of Paris, where there was a hill. They wanted them to level the ground and build houses. They brought wheat for them from other countries, but it was expensive. They set up a bakery there to make bread for those people, and gave every man, woman and child able to move earth, a loaf of bread weighing two ounces and a wage of two jarq, that is eight ‘uthmānī, which equals four sous. They kept on working and the citizens of Paris were given a respite from them, until times improved, and wheat imported from the Levant and North Africa and other places brought down the prices.

*Traditionally, the passing bell tolled the age of the deceased, so not 80000 dead, although Hannā was probably simply using it to mean a very large number.

** The word used, but the ration, though small, must have been more than the modern ounce

From The Man Who Wrote Aladdin by Hannā Diyāb, translated Paul Lunde, Hardinge simple, Edinburgh, 2020 pp.190-5

One thought on “Hannā Diyāb from Aleppo Witnesses Plague, the Great Frost and Famine in Paris – 1708

  1. Fascinating reading material, that I had never heard of. Guatemala has been handling the pandemic in its best, but it is a poor country and many, but many people are in need of food. The government is doing its best and also organizations and groups are providing as much as they can. We all hope that every country will find a way out of this insolite times, without too much harm. I feel it is such a surrealistic happening. Let us try to help as much as we can as face it as best as we can.

    Liked by 1 person

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