Samuel Pepys – The Great Plague London 1665

I had not planned to quote The Diary of Samuel Pepys, because it is so well known, but several people told me he should by no means be left out. His account is remarkable, because in spite of living through an epidemic which is estimated to have killed as many as 100 000 people out of the London population of c.450 000, he continued his normal life almost unchanged. The plague was endemic in London and so, as in other years, he sent his wife out of town for the dangerous summer months and theatres (his great passion) were closed, but most of his daily diary entries continue to be taken up with work, his travels around London and out to shipyards at Deptford and Greenwich, news of Anglo-Dutch hostilities, music, social occasions, including an important wedding he helped to organize, shopping and opportunities for flirtation. The plague is always there, but very much a backdrop. He notes its increase with disquiet, but not panic, as well as the gradual emptying of London, the closing of shops and the departure of King and Court and, eventually, his own Naval Offices. His cold-blooded calm and acceptance of what is going on around him, well aware he may be struck down at any moment is in remarkable contrast to modern reactions.


Thence to Westminster, where I hear the sicknesse encreases greatly….Thence by coach and late at the office, and so to bed. Sad at the newes that seven or eight houses in Bazing Hall Street [in the City] are shut up of the plague.


I was much troubled this day to hear at Westminster how the officers do bury the dead in the open Tuttle-fields [area south of St James’ Park] pretending want of room elsewhere; whereas the New Chappell churchyard was walled-in at the publick charge in the last plague time, merely for want of room and now none, but such as are able to pay dear for it, can be buried there.


So walked to Redriffe, where I hear the sickness is, and indeed is scattered almost everywhere, there dying 1089 of the plague this week. My Lady Carteret did this day give me a bottle of plague-water home with me. So home to write letters late, and then home to bed, where I have not lain these 3 or 4 nights………This afternoon I waited on the Duke of Albermarle, and so to Mrs Croft’s where I found and saluted [kissed] Mrs Burrows who is a very pretty woman for a mother of so many children. But, Lord! to see how the plague spreads. It being now all over King’s Streete, at the Axe and next door to it, and in other places.


So home and late at my chamber, setting some papers in order; the plague growing very raging, and my apprehensions of it great.


I to Fox-hall [Vauxhall pleasure gardens]…..but I do not see one guest there, the town being so empty of any body to come thither. Only, while I was there, a poor woman come to scold with the master of the house that a kinswoman, I think, of hers, that was newly dead of the plague, might be buried in the church-yard; for, for her part, she should not be buried in the commons, as they said she should……

I met this noon with Dr Burnett [Pepys’ doctor], who told me, and I find in the newsbook this week that he posted upon the ‘Change [Royal Exchange], that whoever did spread the report that, instead of the plague, his servant was by him killed, it was forgery, and shewed me the acknowledgment of the master of the pest-house, that his servant died of a bubo on his right groine, and two spots on his right thigh, which is the plague.


After a little other discourse and the sad news of the death of so many in the parish of the plague, forty last night, the bell always going, I back to the Exchange, where I went up and sat talking with my beauty, Mrs Batelier, a great while, who is indeed one of the finest women I ever saw in my life……

The sicknesse is got into our parish this week, and is got, indeed, every where; so that I begin to think of setting things in order, which I pray God enable me to put both as to soul and body.


At home met the weekly Bill, where above 1000 encreased in the Bill, and of them, in all about 1,700 of the plague, which hath made the officers this day resolve of sitting at Deptford, which puts me to some consideration what to do. Therefore home to think and consider of every thing about it, and without determining any thing eat a little supper and to bed, full of the pleasure of these 6 or 7 last days.


Up betimes, and down to Deptford, where, after a little discourse with Sir G.Carteret, who is much displeased with the order of our officers yesterday to remove the office to Deptford, …….But, Lord! to see in what fear all the people here do live would make one mad, they are afeard of us that come to them, insomuch that I am troubled at it, and wish myself away. But some cause they have; for the chaplin, with whom but a week or two ago we were here mighty high disputing, is since fallen into a fever and dead, being gone hence to a friend’s a good way off. A sober and a healthful man. These considerations make us all hasten the marriage, and resolve it upon Monday next, which is three days before we intended it. Mighty merry all of us, and in the evening with full content took coach again and home by daylight with great pleasure, and thence I down to Woolwich, where find my wife well, and after drinking and talking a little we to bed.


At noon to dinner, where I hear that my Will [Hewer – Pepys manservant/assistant and later close friend] is come in thither and laid down upon my bed, ill of the headake, which put me into extraordinary fear; and I studied all I could to get him out of the house, and set my people to work to do it without discouraging him, and myself went forth to the Old Exchange to pay my fair Batelier for some linnen, and took leave of her, they breaking up shop for a while….


Will was with me to-day, and is very well again. It was a sad noise to hear our bell to toll and ring so often to-day, either for deaths or burials; I think five or six times.


Thus I ended this month with the greatest joy that ever I did any in my life, because I have spent the greatest part of it with abundance of joy, and honour, and pleasant journeys, and brave entertainments, and without cost of money; and at last live to see the business ended with great content on all sides…..

Thus we end this month, as I said, after the greatest glut of content that ever I had; only under some difficulty because of the plague, which grows mightily upon us, the last week being about 1700 or 1800 dead of the plague.


I was forced to stay a great while before I could get my horse brought over, and then mounted and rode very finely to Dagenhams; along the way people, citizens, walking to and again to enquire how the plague is in the City this week by the Bill [recording the mortality rate]; which by chance, at Greenwich, I had heard was 2,020 of the plague, and 3,000 and odd of all diseases; but methought it was a sad question to be so often asked.

Mr. Marr very kindly staying to lead me the way. By and by met my Lord Crew returning, after having accompanied them a little way, and so after them, Mr. Marr telling me by the way how a mayde servant of Mr. John Wright’s (who lives thereabouts) falling sick of the plague, she was removed to an out-house, and a nurse appointed to look to her; who, being once absent, the mayde got out of the house at the window, and run away. The nurse coming and knocking, and having no answer, believed she was dead, and went and told Mr. Wright so; who and his lady were in great strait what to do to get her buried. At last resolved to go to Burntwood hard by, being in the parish, and there get people to do it. But they would not; so he went home full of trouble, and in the way met the wench walking over the common, which frighted him worse than before; and was forced to send people to take her, which he did; and they got one of the pest coaches and put her into it to carry her to a pest house. And passing in a narrow lane, Sir Anthony Browne, with his brother and some friends in the coach, met this coach with the curtains drawn close. The brother being a young man, and believing there might be some lady in it that would not be seen, and the way being narrow, he thrust his head out of his own into her coach, and to look, and there saw somebody look very ill, and in a sick dress, and stunk mightily; which the coachman also cried out upon. And presently they come up to some people that stood looking after it, and told our gallants that it was a mayde of Mr. Wright’s carried away sick of the plague; which put the young gentleman into a fright had almost cost him his life, but is now well again.


By and by to the office, where we sat all the morning; in great trouble to see the Bill this week rise so high, to above 4,000 in all, and of them above 3,000 of the plague. And an odd story of Alderman Bence’s stumbling at night over a dead corps in the streete, and going home and telling his wife, she at the fright, being with child, fell sicke and died of the plague.


The people die so, that now it seems they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by day-light, the nights not sufficing to do it in. And my Lord Mayor commands people to be within at nine at night all, as they say, that the sick may have liberty to go abroad for ayre. There is one also dead out of one of our ships at Deptford, which troubles us mightily; the Providence fire-ship, which was just fitted to go to sea. But they tell me to-day no more sick on board. And this day W. Bodham tells me that one is dead at Woolwich, not far from the Rope-yard. I am told, too, that a wife of one of the groomes at Court is dead at Salsbury; so that the King and Queene are speedily to be all gone to Milton. God preserve us!


It was dark before I could get home, and so land at Church-yard stairs, where, to my great trouble, I met a dead corps of the plague, in the narrow ally just bringing down a little pair of stairs. But I thank God I was not much disturbed at it. However, I shall beware of being late abroad again.


Thence to the Exchange, where I have not been a great while. But, Lord! how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the ’Change. Jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague; and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.


After church to my inn, and eat and drank, and so about seven o’clock by water, and got between nine and ten to Queenhive, very dark. And I could not get my waterman to go elsewhere for fear of the plague. Thence with a lanthorn, in great fear of meeting of dead corpses, carried to be buried; but, blessed be God, met none, but did see now and then a linke (which is the mark of them) at a distance. So got safe home about 10 o’clock, my people not all abed, and after supper I weary to bed.


Up, and after much pleasant talke and being importuned by my wife and her two mayds, which are both good wenches, for me to buy a necklace of pearle for her, and I promising to give her one of 60l. in two years at furthest, and in less if she pleases me in her painting, I went away and walked to Greenwich, in my way seeing a coffin with a dead body therein, dead of the plague, lying in an open close belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night, and the parish have not appointed any body to bury it; but only set a watch there day and night, that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing: this disease making us more cruel to one another than if we are doggs.


This day I am told that Dr. Burnett, my physician, is this morning dead of the plague; which is strange, his man dying so long ago, and his house this month open again. Now himself dead. Poor unfortunate man!


…. I went forth and walked towards Moorefields to see (God forbid my presumption!) whether I could see any dead corps going to the grave; but, as God would have it, did not. But, Lord! how every body’s looks, and discourse in the street is of death, and nothing else, and few people going up and down, that the towne is like a place distressed and forsaken.


Up and, after putting several things in order to my removal, to Woolwich; the plague having a great encrease this week, beyond all expectation of almost 2,000, making the general Bill 7,000, odd 100; and the plague above 6,000. I down by appointment to Greenwich, to our office, where I did some business, and there dined with our company …….where a good venison pasty, and after a good merry dinner I to my office, and there late writing letters, and then to Woolwich by water, where pleasant with my wife and people, and after supper to bed.

Thus this month ends with great sadness upon the publick, through the greatness of the plague every where through the kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its encrease. In the City died this week 7,496 and of them 6,102 of the plague. But it is feared that the true number of the dead, this week is near 10,000; partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of, through the greatness of the number, and partly from the Quakers and others that will not have any bell ring for them.


Church being done, my Lord Bruncker, Sir J. Minnes, and I up to the Vestry at the desire of the justices of the Peace, Sir Theo. Biddulph and Sir W. Boreman and Alderman Hooker, in order to the doing something for the keeping of the plague from growing; but Lord! to consider the madness of the people of the town, who will (because they are forbid) come in crowds along with the dead corps to see them buried; but we agreed on some orders for the prevention thereof. Among other stories, one was very passionate, methought, of a complaint brought against a man in the towne for taking a child from London from an infected house. Alderman Hooker told us it was the child of a very able citizen in Gracious Street, a saddler, who had buried all the rest of his children of the plague, and himself and wife now being shut up and in despair of escaping, did desire only to save the life of this little child; and so prevailed to have it received stark-naked into the arms of a friend, who brought it (having put it into new fresh clothes) to Greenwich; where upon hearing the story, we did agree it should be permitted to be received and kept in the towne.

4 .9. 1665

….. it troubled me to pass by Coome farme where about twenty-one people have died of the plague, and three or four days since I saw a dead corps in a coffin lie in the Close unburied, and a watch is constantly kept there night and day to keep the people in, the plague making us cruel, as doggs, one to another.


Up by 5 of the clock, mighty full of fear of an ague, but was obliged to go, and so by water, wrapping myself up warm, to the Tower, and there sent for the Weekely Bill, and find 8,252 dead in all, and of them 6,878 of the plague; which is a most dreadfull number, and shows reason to fear that the plague hath got that hold that it will yet continue among us. Thence to Brainford, reading “The Villaine,” a pretty good play, all the way.


Where, when I come home I spent some thoughts upon the occurrences of this day, giving matter for as much content on one hand and melancholy on another, as any day in all my life. For the first; the finding of my money and plate, and all safe at London, and speeding in my business of money this day. The hearing of this good news to such excess, after so great a despair of my Lord’s doing anything this year; adding to that, the decrease of 500 and more, which is the first decrease we have yet had in the sickness since it begun: and great hopes that the next week it will be greater. Then, on the other side, my finding that though the Bill in general is abated, yet the City within the walls is encreased, and likely to continue so, and is close to our house there. My meeting dead

corpses of the plague, carried to be buried close to me at noon-day through the City in Fanchurch-street. To see a person sick of the sores, carried close by me by Gracechurch in a hackney-coach. My finding the Angell tavern, at the lower end of Tower-hill, shut up, and more than that, the alehouse at the Tower-stairs, and more than that, the person was then dying of the plague when I was last there, a little while ago, at night, to write a short letter there, and I overheard the mistresse of the house sadly saying to her husband somebody was very ill, but did not think it was of the plague. To hear that poor Payne, my waiter, hath buried a child, and is dying himself. To hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams, to know how they did there, is dead of the plague; and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning last, when I had been all night upon the water (and I believe he did get his infection that day at Brainford), and is now dead of the plague. To hear that Captain Lambert and Cuttle are killed in the taking these ships; and that Mr. Sidney Montague is sick of a desperate fever at my Lady Carteret’s, at Scott’s-hall. To hear that Mr. Lewes hath another daughter sick. And, lastly, that both my servants, W. Hewer and Tom Edwards, have lost their fathers, both in St. Sepulchre’s parish, of the plague this week, do put me into great apprehensions of melancholy, and with good reason. But I put off the thoughts of sadness as much as I can, and the rather to keep my wife in good heart and family also. After supper (having eat nothing all this day) upon a fine tench of Mr. Shelden’s taking, we to bed.


…..and there drank a cup of good drink, which I am fain to allow myself during this plague time, by advice of all, and not contrary to my oathe, my physician being dead, and chyrurgeon out of the way, whose advice I am obliged to take, and so by water home and eat my supper, and to bed, being in much pain to think what I shall do this winter time; for go every day to Woolwich I cannot, without endangering my life; and staying from my wife at Greenwich is not handsome.


At noon to dinner to my Lord Bruncker, where Sir W. Batten and his Lady come, by invitation, and very merry we were, only that the discourse of the likelihood of the increase of the plague this weeke makes us a little sad, but then again the thoughts of the late prizes make us glad.


I hear by every body how much my poor Lord of Sandwich was concerned for me during my silence a while, lest I had been dead of the plague in this sickly time.


About 4 or 5 of the clock we come to Greenwich, and, having first set down my Lord Bruncker, Cocke and I went to his house, it being light, and there to our great trouble, we being sleepy and cold, we met with the ill newes that his boy Jacke was gone to bed sicke, which put Captain Cocke and me also into much trouble, the boy, as they told us, complaining of his head most, which is a bad sign it seems. So they presently betook themselves to consult whither and how to remove him. However I thought it not fit for me to discover too much fear to go away, nor had I any place to go to. So to bed I went and slept till 10 of the clock and then comes Captain Cocke to wake me and tell me that his boy was well again. With great joy I heard the newes and he told it, so I up and to the office where we did a little, and but a little business.


Called up by Captain Cocke (who was last night put into great trouble upon his boy’s being rather worse than better, upon which he removed him out of his house to his stable), who told me that to my comfort his boy was now as well as ever he was in his life.


But, Lord! what a sad time it is to see no boats upon the River; and grass grows all up and down White Hall court, and nobody but poor wretches in the streets! And, which is worst of all, the Duke showed us the number of the plague this week, brought in the last night from the Lord Mayor; that it is encreased about 600 more than the last, which is quite contrary to all our hopes and expectations, from the coldness of the late season. For the whole general number is 8,297, and of them the plague 7,165; which is more in the whole by above 50, than the biggest Bill yet; which is very grievous to us all.


Up between five and six o’clock; and by the time I was ready, my Lord’s coach comes for me; and taking Will Hewer with me, who is all in mourning for his father, who is lately dead of the plague, as my boy Tom’s is also, I set out, and took about 100l. with me to pay the fees there, and so rode in some fear of robbing.


By and by to dinner about 3 o’clock and then I in the cabbin to writing down my journall for these last seven days to my great content, it having pleased God that in this sad time of the plague every thing else has conspired to my happiness and pleasure more for these last three months than in all my life before in so little time. God long preserve it and make me thankful for it! After finishing my Journal), then to discourse and to read, and then to supper and to bed, my mind not being at full ease, having not fully satisfied myself how Captain Cocke will deal with me as to the share of the profits.


I do end this month with the greatest content, and may say that these last three months, for joy, health, and profit, have been much the greatest that ever I received in all my life in any twelve months almost in my life, having nothing upon me but the consideration of the sicklinesse of the season during this great plague to mortify mee. For all which the Lord God be praised!


This night I hear that of our two watermen that use to carry our letters, and were well on Saturday last, one is dead, and the other dying sick of the plague. The plague, though decreasing elsewhere, yet being greater about the Tower and thereabouts.

The plague lingered on, but abated through the winter and Pepys mentions it less and less often.

Anyone wishing to read The Diary in full should go to the wonderful website, which originally put up the Diary entries each day on their corresponding date with a vast array of fascinating notes and comments. It can be found at

Claire Tomalin – Samuel Pepys: the Unequalled Self is highly to be recommended for biography and background.



For millennia, leprosy was one of the most feared diseases, but also one of the most mysterious, in part because any one of a range of skin complaints may have been mistakenly identified as leprosy.  It was believed to be highly contagious, hence lepers being exiled from their communities. But it also had a strange way of appearing and disappearing; the reasons are still being debated in the scientific community.

Although it was known earlier, there was an epidemic in Europe in the 11th-14th centuries, to which the church and the community responded with alms houses and hospitals. But, after the Black Death, it seems that in Europe the disease was in retreat and many of the charitable institutions were put to other uses for lack of patients.

 In some parts of the world, such as India, it continued to be endemic, but there were also unexpected epidemics, for example in Norway at the beginning of the 19th century. This outbreak led to considerable research in the country, with attention being paid to questions of hygiene and poverty, as possible causes. The nature of the disease was established in mid-century by the Norwegian, Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen – hence it is now commonly known as Hansen’s Disease.

Other epidemics occurred, for example in Hawai’i, in the 19th century, when a virgin population came into contact with a disease against which they had no resistance, perhaps carried by Chinese immigrants or foreign sailors.

I would have liked to have had a first person account from Norway or Hawai’i, but failed to find one, however, the following, collected in Columbia in the 21st c., reflect the experiences suffered across the world over the centuries.

My father took me to see my aunt, who lived in Socorro, so that I could say good-bye to her. She knew of my situation and took me to a place some distance from the house, where one could see the mountains quite a long way away to the south. And then she said to me, showing me the mountains in the distance: my little son, those mountains over there in the distance are where they are going to take you and none of those whom they take there ever leave again, because they die. Because their arms fall off and their hands fall off and their feet fall off and they become completely disfigured, and they never again let them out of that place. So we here never see them again.

An account of the journey to the lazaretto collected in 2013 in the leper colony of Contratación:

My mother proved to be sick and in those days they hunted down sick just as today they hunt down the guerrillas, and so she had to go to Contratación….

A very mixed group of lepers painfully made their way through the pass in the mountains…..worn out elders, men in the prime of life, young mothers, marriageable girls  and even babes-in-arms made up the band….Some of the sufferers carried their possessions, bringing with them an old mat, a towel, their blanket, and some might have a fine cock, multi-coloured and one-eyed, with a fighting spur, and a dog, thin and worn out, like honour itself…There are always sad and disturbing scenes. The mother who finds her beloved daughter in the group, the son who recognizes his father….It is paradoxical to see the husband who was not prepared to follow his partner when she was sacrificed and driven out into exile; buttressed by prejudice, beset by fears, he believed – wrongly – that he would be spared the fatal disease….

Arrival in the colony could also involve traumatic meetings with family. The following is an oral account given in 2014 by a woman in the lazaretto of Agua de Dios:

The arrival was dramatic. Very painful though and very sad, because my Papa thought I was in Popayán. A man who had come to collect me at the first check point before the entry to the lazaretto called a policeman and told him they should warn my father…..he said: “Look for ‘Chucho the partygoer’, that is Chucho Gonzales, because his daughter is here, arrived from Popayán.” My father didn’t believe it then and there, so the policeman and the manager sent a driver, who was called Señor Carmona, whose hands were diseased and also his nose, but he had good eyes, blue, blue…..and the policeman said to me: “Come on, little girl, they have come for you, do you hear? Your father has sent for you and is over there waiting.” [And they said to Papa]: “Look, look! There’s your little daughter! There’s your little daughter!” [And the father answered]: “Daughter? That skinny little thing? No, no, no! My daughters are in Popayán studying. Where did you pick this child up? Well, if you picked her up, keep her, because she’s not mine!” Then Papa said; “Where are you from, little one? I don’t see that you’re from Popayán, no, not Popayán.” My sister recognized me and pulled me out of the window of the car and screamed and cried: “It’s our little girl! It’s our little girl!” [I asked] “Why are you crying, Papa?” [The father answered]: No, because I’m happy, little one, because you came here to be with us, oh yes, you are going to be here with us.”

From: Historial oral y memoria de los enfermos de Hansen en dos lazaretos de Colombia: trayectorias de vida, conflictos y resistencias; Natalia Botero-Jaramillo, Jessica Mora-Blanco, Nelson Daniel Quesada-Jiménez; Hist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos vol.24 no.4 Rio de Janeiro Oct./Dec. 2017


N.B. In case I have infringed copyright on any occasion, please notify me and I will immediately delete the post.

Japan – Smallpox – 735-7 A.D. and after

tsuyu no yo wa
tsuyu no yo nagara
sari nagara

This world of dew
is truly a world of dew,
and yet…and yet….

This poem was written by Issa, one of the greatest of the haiku poets, on the death of his little daughter. Issa’s life was a long series of tragedies, rarely referred to directly in his poetry. He was a devout Buddhist, and dew was the classic image for the evanescence of life.

Half a century earlier, Fukuda Chiyo-ni, one of the best women writers of haiku, had also written a poem for the little son who had loved dragon-flies and died young:

tombo tsuri kyou

wa doko made

itta yara

Dragonfly catcher,
How far have you gone today
In your wandering

Both children had died of smallpox.

By the 18th century, smallpox was endemic in Japan, but the disease was largely associated with children, for whom it was often fatal.

According to contemporary Chronicles – unfortunately, I have not had access to the original sources – in the 6th century, a King of Korea sent Buddhist images to Japan. This was said to have angered the kami, the native gods, who later took their revenge with a violent epidemic. In 584, more images, texts, priests and even a temple architect were sent to encourage conversion:

Again the land was filled with those who were attacked with sores and died thereof. The persons thus inflicted with sores said: “Our bodies are as if they were burnt, as if they were beaten, as if they were broken, and so lamenting they died.”

The debate raged as to whether the disease was the punishment of the Shinto gods on account of the honour paid to the new religion, or the punishment for not accepting Buddhism and its commandments wholeheartedly.

After the Emperor Bidatsu – believed to be the first Emperor to die of smallpox – was succeeded by his brother Yomei, who also allegedly died of the disease, Bidatsu’s widow, the Empress Suiko, came to the throne and ruled for thirty-five years. Prince Shotoku, Yomei’s son, acted as regent, and when his father was stricken in 585, he vowed to build a temple to the “Buddha of Medicine”. This was the Hōryū-ji at Nara.

Other early sources relate that the later epidemic was brought in by a Japanese fisherman shipwrecked in Korea. He returned to Kyushu, bringing the disease with him, which then spread.

As Nara grew in size and the country developed more urban centers and better communications, waves of disease became increasingly serious. In 735-7, there was a terrible epidemic in which it is estimated that about a third of the population died. This led to major social, economic and religious repercussions.

The Emperor Shomu, himself a Buddhist, ordered the building of temples and, finally, vowed the construction of the Daibutsu – Great Buddha – at the Tōdai-ji in Nara, one of the largest images in the world, in the form of Vairocana, who was believed to have negotiated a truce with the indigenous gods.

After the great epidemic, smallpox became established in Japan and there were repeated outbreaks, although none as devastating as that of the early 8th century.

As elsewhere, medical literature devoted to the disease developed*. The 10th century I Shinho recommended the use of red for sufferers – hangings, bedding, clothing, etc, to mitigate the effects of the illness, something also believed in Europe. This persisted in folk practice in many countries into the 19th century. The I Shinho also recommended the setting up of isolation hospitals, indicating some awareness of the mechanics of transmission.

The I Shinho was written about the same time as the Persian physician and scholar Rhazes (al-Rāzī) wrote his treatise On Smallpox and Measles and Chien Chungyang wrote the first scientific description of smallpox in China. According to Joseph Needham, Rhazes was visited by a Chinese medical scholar in Baghdad, but whether they shared information is not known.

In the indigenous, as opposed to Buddhist tradition, in Japan, smallpox was deified as hōsōgami, the smallpox god, who was placated, especially in Okinawa, with songs and dances and other rituals and with much use of the colour red. There is even a collection of smallpox poetry to which, unfortunately, I have not had access. In another strand of folk belief, various heroes were credited with expelling the smallpox demon, which became a popular subject for prints.

*An extremely interesting Sino-Japanese manuscript on smallpox dated c.1720 can be seen on line at Michael Kühn  

Donald R. Hopkins, The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History, Chicago University Press, 2002

Joseph Needham, et al., Science and Civilisation in China, vol VI, Cambridge University Press, 2000

tsombo tsuri kyou

Whether One May Flee a Deadly Plague – Martin Luther – 1527

Martin Luther was at Wittenburg, 56 miles SW of Berlin, when the plague arrived in August, 1527. Luther and other teachers were enjoined to leave, but he refused, although his son fell sick, the wives of two friends died and the monastery where he had his home was turned into a hospital. Before the plague struck, Johann Hess, a follower of Luther, had written to him to ask whether it was proper for Christians to flee such deadly plagues. This was a question that had also long been raised in the Islamic world (see posts by Miss Tully, Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi and Ibn al-Wardi). Luther’s response is, in some respects, curiously similar to that of the Muslim theologians. In spite of his virulent anti-Semitism, in the following letter, Luther does not blame the Jews for the epidemic, as had been the case on a number of occasions in the Middle Ages (this was partly, no doubt, because they dealt in furs and used clothing, although the mechanism of transmission was not understood), but sees it in the first instance as the punishment for sin, facilitated by the carelessness of man. He postulates that whether or not it is right to flee depends largely on  one’s presence being required by individuals or the community.

Your letter, sent to me at Wittenberg, was received some time ago. You wish to know whether it is proper for a Christian to run away from a deadly plague. I should have answered long ago, but God has for some time disciplined and scourged me so severely that I have been unable to do much reading or writing……..

To begin with, some people are of the firm opinion that one need not and should not run away from a deadly plague. Rather, since death is God’s punishment, which he sends upon us for our sins, we must submit to God and with a true and firm faith patiently await our punishment. They look upon running away as an outright wrong and as lack of belief in God. Others take the position that one may properly flee, particularly if one holds no public office…..….all those in public office such as mayors, judges, and the like are under obligation to remain……To abandon an entire community which one has been called to govern and to leave it without official or government, exposed to all kinds of danger such as fires, murder, riots, and every imaginable disaster is a great sin.

He enumerates the people who are morally obliged to stay, adding:

Yes, no one should dare leave his neighbour unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them…..

Where no such emergency exists and where enough people are available for nursing and taking care of the sick, and where, voluntarily or by orders, those who are weak in faith make provision so that there is no need for additional helpers, or where the sick do not want them and have refused their services, I judge that they have an equal choice either to flee or to remain. If someone is sufficiently bold and strong in his faith, let him stay in God’s name; that is certainly no sin. If someone is weak and fearful, let him flee in God’s name as long as he does not neglect his duty toward his neighbour but has made adequate provision for others to provide nursing care……

It would be well, where there is such an efficient government in cities and states, to maintain municipal homes and hospitals staffed with people to take care of the sick so that patients from private homes can be sent there — as was the intent and purpose of our forefathers with so many pious bequests, hospices, hospitals, and infirmaries so that it should not be necessary for every citizen to maintain a hospital in his own home. That would indeed be a fine, commendable, and Christian arrangement to which everyone should offer generous help and contributions, particularly the government. Where there are no such institutions — and they exist in only a few places — we must give hospital care and be nurses for one another in any extremity or risk the loss of salvation and the grace of God ..…..

Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together (as previously indicated) so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another. First, we can be sure that God’s punishment has come upon us, not only to chastise us for our sins but also to test our faith and love — our faith in that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love in that we may recognize how we should act toward our neighbour.

I am of the opinion that all the epidemics, like any plague, are spread among the people by evil spirits who poison the air or exhale a pestilential breath which puts a deadly poison into the flesh. Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbour, risking our lives in this manner as St. John teaches…..

This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running….

Those are nothing but lies; whoever wants to serve Christ in person would surely serve his neighbour as well. This is said as an admonition and encouragement against fear and a disgraceful flight to which the devil would tempt us so that we would disregard God’s command in our dealings with our neighbour and so we would fall into sin on the left hand.

Others sin on the right hand. They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health..…

Moreover, he who has contracted the disease and recovered should keep away from others and not admit them into his presence unless it be necessary. Though one should aid him in his time of need, as previously pointed out, he in turn should, after his recovery, so act toward others that no one becomes unnecessarily endangered on his account and so cause another’s death……if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbours in their plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die….

Some are even worse than that. They keep it secret that they have the disease and go among others in the belief that by contaminating and poisoning others they can rid themselves of the plague and so recover….. My advice is that if any such persons are discovered, the judge should take them by the ear and turn them over to Master Jack, the hangman, as outright and deliberate murderers.

If in the Old Testament God himself ordered lepers to be banished from the community and compelled to live outside the city to prevent contamination [Leviticus 13–14], we must do the same with this dangerous pestilence so that anyone who becomes infected will stay away from other persons, or allow himself to be taken away and given speedy help with medicine. Under such circumstances it is our duty to assist such a person and not forsake him in his plight, as I have repeatedly pointed out before. Then the poison is stopped in time, which benefits not only the individual but also the whole community, which might be contaminated if one person is permitted to infect others. Our plague here in Wittenberg has been caused by nothing but filth. The air, thank God, is still clean and pure, but some few have been contaminated because of the laziness or recklessness of some. So the devil enjoys himself at the terror and flight which he causes among us. May God thwart him! Amen.

The long letter ends with advice on preparation of the soul at such times and a disquisition on the need for proper places of burial.

From Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 119–38. On-line at

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Ibn al-Wardi – On the Advance of Plague – 1348

Ibn al-Wardi (1292-1348/9) was a Syrian historian and geographer.

The Plague frightened and killed. It began in the land of darkness. Oh, what a visitor! It has been current for fifteen years. China was not preserved from it nor could the strongest fortress hinder it. The plague afflicted the Indians in India. It weighed upon the Sind. It seized with its hand and ensnared even the land of the Uzbeks. How many backs did it break in what is Transoxiana? The plague increased and spread further. It attacked the Persians…and gnawed away at the Crimea. It pelted Rum with live coals and led the outrage to Cyprus and the islands. The plague destroyed mankind in Cairo. Its eye was cast upon Egypt, and behold, the people were wide awake. It stilled all movement in Alexandria. The plague did its work like a silkworm. It took from the tiraz*factory its beauty and did to its workers what fate decreed.

Oh Alexandria; this plague is like a lion which extends its paw to you. Have patience with the fate of the plague, which leaves of seventy men only seven.

Then, the plague turned to Upper Egypt. It also sent forth its storm to Barqah. The plague attacked Gaza, and it shook Asqalan severely. The plague oppressed Acre. The scourge came to Jerusalem and paid the zakat**[with the souls of men]. It overtook those people who fled to the al-Aqsa mosque, which stands beside the Dome of the Rock. If the door of mercy had not been opened, the end of the world would have occurred in a moment. It, then, hastened its pace and attacked the entire maritime plain. The plague attacked Sidon and descended unexpectedly upon Beirut, cunningly. Next, it directed the shooting of its arrows to Damascus. There the plague sat like a king on a throne and swayed with power, killing daily 1000 or more and decimating the population. It destroyed mankind with its pustules. May God the Most High spare Damascus to pursue its own path and extinguish the plague’s fires so they do not come close to her fragrant orchards.

Oh God, restore Damascus and protect her from insult. Its morale has been so lowered that people in the city sell themselves for a grain.

Oh God, it is acting by Your command. Lift this from us. It happens where You wish; keep the plague from us. Who will defend us against the horror other than You the Almighty? . . .

How many places has the plague entered. It swore not to leave the houses without [taking] their inhabitants. It searched them with a lamp. The pestilence caused the people of Aleppo the same disturbance. It sent out its snake and crept along. It was named the “Plague of the Ansab.” ***It was the sixth plague to strike in Islam. To me it is the death of which our Prophet warned, on him be the best prayers and peace.

One man begs another to take care of his children, one says goodbye to his neighbors. A third perfects his works, and another prepares his shroud. A fifth is reconciled with his enemies, and another treats his friends with kindness. One is very generous; another makes friends with those who have betrayed him. Another man puts aside his property; one frees his servants [slaves]. One man changes his character while another mends his ways. For this plague has captured all people and is about to send its ultimate destruction. There is no protection today from it other than His mercy, praise be to God.

Nothing prevented us from running away from the plague except our devotion to the noble tradition. Come then, seek the aid of God Almighty for raising the plague, for He is the best helper.

Ibn al-Wardi goes on to mention the medical precautions taken in Aleppo:

 Oh, if you could see the nobles of Aleppo studying their inscrutable books of medicine. They multiply its remedies by eating dried and sour foods. The buboes which disturb men’s healthy lives are smeared the Armenian clay. Each man treated his humours and made his life more comfortable. They perfumed their homes with ambergris and camphor, cyprus and sandal. They wore ruby rings and put onions, vinegar, and sardines together with the daily meal. They ate less broth and fruit but ate the citron and similar things.

In the Muslim world, there was a tension between the learning of the physicians, based on classical medicine and the religious tradition, based on the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. According to the latter, disease of any kind came from Allah, perhaps as punishment for sin, and any attempt to avoid it was impious and anyway pointless, because no matter where one fled, if it was Allah’s will, one would die. The question of contagion was, therefore, in a sense irrelevant. To die of plague was considered martyrdom and martyrdom was highly desirable, as affording immediate entry into paradise, hence Ibn al-Wardi’s words, contrasting the attitude of the Muslim and the non-Muslim:

The dwellers of Sis are happy with what afflicts us, and this is what you can expect from the enemies of the true religion. God will spread it to them soon so that He will put plague upon plague.

The plague is for Muslims a martyrdom and a reward, and for the unbelievers a punishment and a rebuke. When the Muslim endures misfortune, then patience is his worship. It has been established by our Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, that the plague-stricken are martyrs. This noble tradition is true and assures martyrdom. And this secret should be pleasing to the true believer. If someone says it causes infection and destruction, say: God creates and recreates. If the liar disputes the matter of infection and tries to find an explanation, I say that the Prophet, on him be peace, said: who was infected the first? If we acknowledge the plague’s devastation of the people, it is the will of the Chosen Doer. So it has happened again and again.

Ibn al-Wardi wrote some verses on the plague, two days before he died of it at Aleppo in 1349:

I am not afraid of the plague as others are – It is a martyrdom, or else a victory. If I die, I rest from rivalry and strife, If I live, my eye and ear [understanding] will be healed

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

*tiraz  – officially produced textiles of the highest quality, generally with calligraphic inscriptions, or the factories where they were woven.

** zakat – alms-giving (2.5%), religiously mandated in Islam.

*** ansab – sacrificial alters from before Islam.

Owing to libraries being closed due to our present plague, I was not able to find a translation for Ibn al-Wardi’s text. The quotations here are taken from the internet and were often not credited. I believe the most probably sources are the following.

Michael W. Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East, (Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1977).

Michael W. Dols, “Ibn al-Wardi’s Risalah Al- Naba’ ‘An Al-Waba’, A Translation of a Major Source for the History of the Black Death in the Middle East,” in Dickran K. Kouymjian, ed. Near Eastern Numismatics,  Iconography, Epigraphy and History (Beirut; American University of Beirut, 1974).

There is an extensive literature on the Black Death, but an in interesting article on the different perceptions of contagion in Islam is:

 “There is no contagion, there is no evil portent”: Arabic Responses to Plague and Contagion in the Fourteenth Century, Robin S Reich – available on-line at

And a useful survey of Arabic Plague literature:

Lawrence I. Conrad, Arabic Plague chronicles and treatises in Studia Islamica no.54 (1981) pp.51-93.

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Meditations in Time of Plague – Marcus Aurelius – c.161-180

The Meditations – literally “Things to One’s Self” – of the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, is one of the best known and best loved works of philosophy. Teaching American students European history and culture in the early 2000s, it was almost invariably the text they picked out as being the most interesting and “relevant”.

Marcus Aurelius was of the Stoic school of philosophy. As he tries to define a “good life” and a “good man”, the themes to which he returns again and again are the need to accept the workings of nature – including loss and death – to avoid being dominated by worldly desires, the importance of charity and kindness to all, but above all calm courage and resignation when faced with what cannot be changed.

All this becomes very personal when it is realized that much of the work was written against the background of the Antonine Plague. It began in 165-6 and devastated the Roman Empire, which recovered largely thanks to Marcus Aurelius’ firm leadership and enlightened policies, so much so that his reign was considered on balance a happy one.

Marcus Aurelius’ adopted brother and co-Emperor died of the plague; up to 10% of the population succumbed and, among many other results, tax revenues from Egypt plummeted; civic building works had to be suspended for fifteen years for lack of money and man-power; mining was disrupted, something reflected in the dramatic fall in lead pollution in Greenland ice cores*; the army was so depleted that new recruitment and immigration arrangements had to be made.

There is debate about the nature of the plague in question, which is described in some detail by the great physician Galen, but the fairly general consensus is that it was small pox **. He remarks that that the mortality rate was much higher among the poor and the slaves, and where people were crowded together, as in the army, and that this was characteristic of epidemics. Himself a Stoic, he bore the loss in a fire of all his possessions, including a vast collection of medical texts, with equanimity.

The Meditations seem to be personal jottings, not rigorously organized and intended for publication and this is, perhaps, their attraction. Himself in poor health, he had survived the plague and outlived his beloved wife, Faustina, and many of their children. He is writing to convince himself, not as an academic exercise.

Marcus Aurelius begins his Meditations looking back over his life and, in a few very moving sentences, recalling and thanking those who had most influenced him:

From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.

From the reputation and remembrance of my father [who died when Marcus Aurelius was three] , modesty and a manly character.

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.

From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally.

From my tutor, to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partisan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights; from him too I learned endurance of labour, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.

From Diognetus, not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to what was said by miracle-workers and jugglers about incantations and the driving away of daemons and such things; and not to breed quails for fighting, nor to give myself up passionately to such things; and to endure freedom of speech; and to have become intimate with philosophy……

From Rusticus …..I learned….. to write my letters with simplicity, like the letter which Rusticus wrote from Sinuessa to my mother; and with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled; and to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch; and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus [ex-slave and one of the greatest Stoic philosophers], which he communicated to me out of his own collection.

From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to trust to nothing but reason, not even for a moment; and to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness; and to see clearly in a living example that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding…….

From Sextus, a benevolent disposition, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the idea of living in harmony with nature; and gravity without affectation; and to look carefully after the interests of friends; and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration…..

From Alexander the Platonic, rarely, unless absolutely necessary, to say to any one, or to write in a letter, that I have no leisure; nor continually to excuse the neglect of duties required by our relationship to those with whom we live, by alleging urgent occupations…….

From my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice…..


Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to throw away. Death stands at your elbow. Be good for something while you live and it is in your power

Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, it is a violent stream, for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.

The unripe grape, the ripe bunch, the dried grape, all are changes, not into nothing, but into something which does not yet exist.

Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.

When a man kisses his child, said Epictetus, he should whisper to himself, “To-morrow maybe you will die.”

– But those are words of bad omen.

“No word is a word of bad omen,” said Epictetus, “which expresses any work of nature. Or if it is so, it is also a word of bad omen to speak of the ears of corn being reaped.”


Don’t let yourself forget how many doctors have died, furrowing their brows over how many deathbeds. How many astrologers, after pompous forecasts about others’ ends. How many philosophers, after endless disquisitions on death and immortality. How many warriors, after inflicting thousands of casualties themselves. How many tyrants, after abusing the power of life and death atrociously, as if they were themselves immortal.

How many whole cities have met their end: Helike [destroyed in a tsunami in 373 B.C.], Pompeii, Herculaneum, and countless others.

And all those you know yourself, one after another. One who laid out another for burial, and was buried himself, and then the man who buried him – all in the same short space of time.

In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a drop of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.

To pass through this brief life as nature demands. To give it up without complaint.

Like an olive that ripens and falls.

Praising its mother, thanking the tree it grew on.


The Meditations are available on-line at

*The Antonine Plague Revisited, Richard Duncan-Jones, Actos 52 (2018) pp.41-72 and on-line at

**Galen and the Plague, Rebecca Fleming, on-line at

In Praise of the Land of the Dead – a Harper’s Song – Egypt c.1300 B.C.

Some scholars consider that the description of a disease in the medical work known as the Ebers Papyrus (c.1500 B.C. but believed to be copied from earlier texts) refers to bubonic plague. It occurred to me that if this were the case, or if epidemics had been a feature of Pharaonic Egypt, there should be prayers or invocations, begging for the aid of the gods, and inscriptions recording the event. I could not find any evidence of such texts – which does not mean they do not exist.

This Funerary or Harper’s Song, dating from the time of the Pharoah Horemhab, successor after a brief period, to Tutankhamun, comes from the tomb of the Priest Neferhotep (Theban Tomb No.50). Perhaps because of the religious uncertainty provoked by Tutankhamun’s father Akhenaten, this was a time when songs played by harpers during the funeral rites had begun to question the traditional view of the afterlife. The tomb records three Harper’s Songs: one presenting the classic view, one sceptical and this one, firmly rejecting the current trend towards disbelief in the nature of the world to come.

All ye excellent nobles and gods of the graveyard,

Hearken to the praise-giving for the divine Father,

The worship of the honoured noble’s excellent ba [soul],

Now that he is a god ever-living, exalted in the West;

May they become a remembrance for posterity,

For everyone who comes to pass by.

I have heard those songs that are in the tombs of old,

What they tell in extolling life on earth,

In belittling the land of the dead.

Why is this done to the land of eternity?

The right and just that has no terrors?

Strife is abhorrent to it,

No one girds himself against his fellow;

This land that has no opponent.

All our kinsmen rest in it.

Since the time of the first beginning.

Those to be born to millions of millions,

All of them will come to it;

No one may linger in the land of Egypt,

There is none who does not arrive in it.

As to the time of deeds on earth;

It is the occurrence of a dream;

One says: “Welcome safe and sound”,

To him who reaches the West.

From: Ancient Egyptian Literature vol. II The New Kingdom, Miriam Lichtheim, University of California Press, 1984 pp.115-6.

N.B. In case I have infringed copyright on any occasion, please notify me and I will immediately delete the post.

For those interested in the medical aspect, a translation of the Ebers Papyrus is available on-line at

Seville and the Plague – 1649


The worst epidemic that Seville ever suffered was in 1649, the beginning of a long outbreak of plague, in what appear to have been its bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic forms. The city and the surrounding areas lost between a quarter and half of their inhabitants – estimates range from 60 000 to 150 000 –  and economic and demographic recovery took at least a century. Among many other illustrious dead were the painter Zurbarán and the great sculptor, Martinez Montañés; Murillo survived, but his art was deeply marked by the experience.

There are several contemporary accounts of this plague. The following extracts are taken from an anonymous report, which gives a great deal of information on the part played by the authorities, but especially the church, the religious orders and the confraternities. It describes both their efforts to appease the Deity, since it was considered beyond doubt that the plague was the direct consequence of sin, and the practical measures taken to relieve the sick.

The author, whose work is dated December 7th, 1649, describes the setting up of plague hospitals, the main one being in the Hospital de la Sangre, now known as Cinco Llagas and the seat of the Andalusian Parliament; the burial grounds and the great processions with two of Seville’s most powerful images: the Virgen de los Reyes and Cristo de San Agustín. The latter’s procession took place on July 2nd and, from that moment, according to the chroniclers, the plague began to abate.  The original image was destroyed in the Civil War in 1936, but official homage is still paid in gratitude on July 2nd each year.

The writer also pays touching tribute, by name, to many of the Sevillians, religious and lay, who collaborated in maintaining the city during the Plague, whether by bringing the Sacrament to the dying or giving medical care – most in these two categories died –  or by contributing money, carrying the sick to hospital or the dead to burial, burning contaminated clothes and bedding – at the Torre del Oro and elsewhere – and ensuring the provisioning of the city, in so far as possible.

The most dire misfortune, the most grievous events, a story most full of wretchedness, the despair of a terrible punishment filled with strange happenings, the most severe chastisement, with the greatest occasions for devotion ever recorded by the pen. Behold the sword of the just God stained with men without number. Behold Nineveh, the desolate; Jerusalem, reduced to nothing; and finally, from the map of pomp and splendour, the Christian Babylon has been almost annihilated – Seville destroyed by the epidemic which she has suffered in the year 1649……

Let us begin, then, by tracing the steps by which this grievous plague developed. As I say, the plague hid itself throughout Lent and then when the river overflowed its banks and necessities were lacking, many people died because they had no food. This scourge of hunger increased greatly and the state of the disaster could well be measured, for an egg – this is something really unbelievable – sold for twelve quarters and a chicken for four pieces of eight of silver……Whole neighbourhoods were flooded, especially the Alameda, so that it was necessary to move about by boat….

The plague was commonly said to have been brought to Triana by some gypsies with clothing* from Cadiz, but it is not for me to establish whether this being the place is a legitimate conclusion and well-founded. They all died and those of the house that concealed them paid for their wicked greed with their lives. This part of the city became infected and from there the spark flew to the heart of Seville and, finding plenty to feed its rage, the violence of its fury increased, so that the disaster could no longer be hidden…..

The Hospital [de la Sangre] was organized in such a way that, there were distributed among the 18 new wards, where there had never been patients before, 300 sick in some, in others 200 and in others 50, depending on the capacity of each, men and women being separated. Supplies and provisions, medicines and everything that was needed both for the sick and for the healthy who cared for them were kept in rooms well away for the area of contagion and were handed out in turn…..

There were three convalescent hospitals, one for women in the Hospital de San Lazaro, where there were normally 600 recuperating and two others for men, each with a capacity of 300; these were known one as S.Sebastian and the other as San Miguel…..

The fact is well known and I cannot deny my admiration as a just tribute to the pious generosity of the people of Seville. Scarcely had the plague revealed its face when Catholic liberality competed with the ardent charity of the noble citizens, who laboured most stubbornly. One man gave 12 beds for the sick ward, together with 600 ducats, and maintained them throughout the plague. The Illustrious Brothers of the House of Mercy gave 50 beds, with everything needful for them, and similarly maintained them until the Hospital closed and, not stopping there, they provided 1000 sets of clothes for the convalescent. Others, even if they could not imitate this level of open-handedness, moved by generous compassion, gave 20 beds, others eight, others four, others one, all lamenting that their wealth and possibilities did not match their desire to help……

Every day, on the steps [of the churches], there would be 200 and sometimes as many as 300 bodies and in the Church of El Salvador, there were usually a hundred…. And throughout the city, neither in the churches, nor in the cemeteries, was there a handbreadth of space unoccupied.

The unbearable stench led to the churches being closed and the Blessed Sacrament carried to some suitable place or nearby monastery. For the lack of anywhere to bury the dead, who were dying so fast and, in such numbers, the city authorities ordered that six enormous cemeteries should be created in different parts of town and that they should be duly consecrated…..

They were as follows: one above Colon, outside the Puerta Real; Another in the Alamilla, outside the Puerta de la Barqueta; another outside the Puerta de Macarena; another outside the Puerta de Triana, beside the Convent of N. Señora del Populo; another outside the Puerta del Ossario and another, which was as large as all the others put together, in San Sebastian**, beyond the Puerta de Xerez…..

Of the vast number of dead, I will repeat that which Marcus Aurelius said of another plague which Italy suffered in his day, as is recorded in the histories: that it was easier to count those who remained alive than to describe the number of the dead. The most certain opinion is that there 200 000 dead and in Seville alone 150 000 and this is confirmed by many doctors who followed the flight from the contagion. Great numbers of people left the city and fled to the countryside or their estates, so much so that the Sierra Morena became almost populated…

And so there was a heart-breaking lack of people left in the city and in the streets that usually served for the populace’s traffic and trade, not so much as a single person was to be seen. There was only a great quantity of clothes and things which the neighbours had thrown away. The few who were out and about showed in their faces the horror of death. It was mainly women of good family who were in the streets by day and by night, since the rest of the household was dead, seeking medicines, doctors or apothecaries for their husbands and children. But it was difficult to obtain any help in their search, for as regards medicines, the apothecaries were mostly dead, and although numerous people sought their aid, only twelve doctors were still alive and even fewer surgeons….

The quantity of goods that have been burned is immense: linens, precious paintings, delicate fabrics, cloths, hangings, gold, silver, silks and other jewels that pay homage, as it were, to the home; something indescribable and with a value to match the Indies. In this way and through this diligence, they purified the houses and made many vast bonfires, and in the streets, as in the houses, with cypress, laurel and rosemary and other scented herbs, they did much to protect the common health.

*The transmission of the plague in used clothes is mentioned over and over again in contemporary sources, both European and Middle Eastern, although the specific association with fleas was not known. Since the trade in used clothing was largely the prerogative of the Jewish community and of gypsies, this was one reason why they were so often accused of spreading the plague. Another source suggests that these clothes came to Cadiz from Algeria. A century later Miss Tully (see earlier post) is much concerned that the Jewish community in Tripoli were collecting and sending large quantities of clothing from plague-stricken households to Europe and tries to send a warning that they should on no account be accepted.

** All these places are still recognisable, although the gates were unfortunately torn down in the 19th c. Prado San Sebastian is now one of the bus stations of Seville and until 1972 was the site of the famous April Fair.

The text has been edited by Francisco Morales Padron in Memorias de Sevilla , but unfortunately I had no access to a copy and this rather rough translation is taken from the scan of the original publication available at

A Litany in Time of Plague – Thomas Nashe 1592

Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss;

This world uncertain is;

Fond are life’s lustful joys;

Death proves them all but toys;

None from his darts can fly;

I am sick, I must die.

    Lord, have mercy on us!


Rich men, trust not in wealth,

Gold cannot buy you health;

Physic himself must fade.

All things to end are made,

The plague full swift goes by;

I am sick, I must die.

    Lord, have mercy on us!


Beauty is but a flower

Which wrinkles will devour;

Brightness falls from the air;

Queens have died young and fair;

Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.

I am sick, I must die.

    Lord, have mercy on us!


Strength stoops unto the grave,

Worms feed on Hector brave;

Swords may not fight with fate,

Earth still holds open her gate.

“Come, come!” the bells do cry.

I am sick, I must die.

    Lord, have mercy on us!


Wit with his wantonness

Tasteth death’s bitterness;

Hell’s executioner

Hath no ears for to hear

What vain art can reply.

I am sick, I must die.

    Lord, have mercy on us!


Haste, therefore, each degree,

To welcome destiny;

Heaven is our heritage,

Earth but a player’s stage;

Mount we unto the sky.

I am sick, I must die.

    Lord, have mercy on us!

From the play Summer’s Last Will and Testament.

John of Burgundy: Advice for Avoiding the Black Death – 1365

Not surprisingly, a vast number of treatises on the plague, in many tongues, were written in response to the Black Death. One of the earliest was by John of Burgundy, of whom almost nothing is known. It was translated into various languages and widely diffused.

The following short section offers advice and, because of the belief that the disease was caused by bad air, perfumes – some Arabic texts maintain that violets were especially efficacious – and fumigation were standard prophylactics. Well into the 20th century, judges at the Old Bailey, carried posies of sweet smelling flowers and herbs, originally to ward off  “gaol fever” – typhus.

Concerning Prevention

First, you should avoid over-indulgence in food and drink, and also avid baths and everything which might rarefy the body and open the pores, for the pores are the doorways through which poisonous air can enter, piercing the heart and corrupting the life force. Above all sexual intercourse should be avoided. You should eat little or no fruit, unless it is sour, and should consume easily-digested food and spiced wine diluted with water. Avoid mead and everything made with honey, and season food with strong vinegar. In cold or rainy weather you should light fires in your chamber and in foggy or windy weather you should inhale aromatics every morning before leaving home: ambergris, musk, rosemary and similar things if you are rich; zedoary, cloves, nutmeg, mace and similar things if you are poor. Also once or twice a week you should take a dose of good theriac the size of a bean. And carry in the hand a ball of ambergris or other suitable aromatic. Later, on going to bed, shut the windows and burn juniper branches, so that the smoke and scent fills the room. Or put four live coals in an earthenware vessel and sprinkle a little of the following powder on them and inhale the smoke through the mouth and nostrils before going to sleep: take white frankincense, labdanum, storax, calaminth, and wood of aloes and grind them to a very fine powder. And do this as often as a foetid or bad odour can be detected in the air, and especially when the weather if foggy or the air tainted, and it can protect against the epidemic.

If, however, the epidemic occurs during hot weather it becomes necessary to adopt another regimen, and to eat cold things rather than hot and also to eat more sparingly than in cold weather. You should drink more than you eat, and take white wine with water. You should also use large amounts of vinegar and verjuice in preparing food, but be spring with hot substances such as pepper, galingale or grains of paradise. Before leaving home in the morning smell roses, violets, lilies, white and red sandalwood, musk or camphor if the weather is misty or the air quality bad. Take theriac sparingly in hot weather, and not at all unless you are a phlegmatic or of a cold complexion. Sanguines and cholerics should not take theriac at all in hot weather but should take pomegranates, oranges, lemons, or quinces, or an electuary made of the three types of sandalwood, or a cold electuary or similar. You should use cucumbers, fennel, borage, bugloss and spinach, and avoid garlic, onions, leeks and everything else which generates excessive heat, such as pepper or grains of paradise, although ginger, cinnamon, saffron, cumin and other temperate substances can be used.  And if you should become extremely thirsty because of the hot weather, then drink cold water mixed with vinegar or barleywater regularly, for this is particularly beneficial to people of a cold and dry complexion and to thin people, and thirst should never be tolerated at such times.

If you should feel a motion of the blood like a fluttering or prickling, let blood flow from the nearest vein on the same side of the body, and the floor of the room in which you are lying should be sprinkled two or three times a day with cold water and vinegar, or with rosewater if you can afford it. The pills of Rasis*, if taken once a week, are an outstanding preventative and work for all complexions and in all seasons, but Avicenna and others recommend that they should be taken on a full stomach. They loosen the bowels a little, but the corrupt humours are expelled gradually. They should be made as follows: take Socotra aloes, saffron, myrrh and blend them in a syrup of fumitory. Anyone who adopts this regimen can be preserved, with God’s help, from pestilence caused by corruption of the air.

The Black Death, translated and edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester, 1994, pp. 186-8

*Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (c. 854-925 A.D.) was a Persian scholar and a very important figure in the history of medicine.

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