The International Community Battles the Typhus Epidemic – Serbia 1914-15

While the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-20 is well known and much discussed, few remember the Typhus Epidemic that preceded it in Serbia. The country had just emerged from the Turkish and Bulgarian wars of 1912 and 1913, before being plunged in 1914 into World War I. Resources were stretched and resistance low, Serbia begged for help and the response of the international community was heroic. The effort to contain the disease was partly humanitarian – the situation in Serbia was beyond horrifying – but also practical: the Serbians were allies and their army was completely paralyzed by disease; there was also fear that the epidemic could spread anywhere that soldiers were fighting in unhygienic conditions. There was an estimated 30%-60% and even 70% mortality, with 150 000 deaths in the first six months.

One remarkable aspect of the international response was the number of women medical personnel, especially from Scotland and England, who answered Serbia’s call. They had been contemptuously rejected by the British military on the western front, but were enthusiastically received in the Balkans and in Italy. The movement was led by Dr Elsie Inglis, who set up 14 Scottish Women’s Hospitals, including four specifically for nursing typhus cases. Some 600 women medical volunteers went out primarily to Serbia, including Dr Elizabeth Ross, who died there. They are not forgotten and in 2015, on the 100th anniversary, a set of stamps commemorating them was issued. 

Sir Thomas Lipton – as in Lipton’s Tea – worked very hard organizing and financing the volunteers and hospitals, and himself visited Serbia in March 2015, endearing himself to the medical missions by living and eating in the same conditions as everyone else. He wrote:

I met on the country roads many victims too weak to crawl to a hospital. Bullock-carts were gathering them up. Often a woman and her children were leading the bullocks, while in the cart the husband and father was raving with fever. Scarcely enough people remain unstricken to dig graves for the dead, whose bodies lie exposed in the cemeteries. The situation is entirely beyond the control of the present force, which imperatively needs all the help it can get – tents, hospitals, doctors, nurses, modern appliances…… and clothing to replace the garments filled with typhus-bearing vermin.……

He goes on to describe the hospital at Ghevgheli, in Northern Macedonia, where Dr James Donnelly of the American Red Cross died, one of the numerous doctors and nurses, many foreign, who had perished in the effort to ameliorate a disastrous situation:

The place is a village in a barren uncultivated country, the hospital an old tobacco factory, formerly belonging to [Sultan] Abdul Hamid. In it were crowded 1400 persons, without blankets or mattresses, or even straw; men lying in the clothes in which they had lived in the trenches for months, clothes swarming with vermin, victims of different diseases – typhus, typhoid, dysentery and smallpox – were herded together. In such a state, Dr Donnelly found the hospital, where he had a force of six American doctors, twelve American nurses and three Serbian doctors. When I visited the hospital, three of the American doctors, the three Serbian doctors, and nine of the nurses were themselves ill. The patients were waited on by Austrian prisoners. The fumes of illness were unbearable. The patients objected to the windows being opened, and Dr Donnelly was forced to break the panes. One of the first things he did on his arrival was to test the water which he found infected. He then improvised boilers of oil drums in which to boil water for use and he built ovens in which to bake the clothes of the patients, since the hospital was not provided with proper sterilizing apparatus. The street cleaning and hospital waiting was done by Austrians, whose numbers were rapidly thinning from typhus and other diseases.

Dr M. Jeanneret-Minkine of the French Mission writes on the dangers, and also the attitudes of the medical community, emphasising, among other points, the enormous importance of sterilizing clothes and bedding – something which he himself studied and refined – as the mortality rate rose from 15% to 50%:

At the end of January, the surgeon of the hospital developed typhus, whilst in the next room his Austrian colleague was becoming convalescent. He however recovered. The same day, a Czech doctor was taken ill and died. Within the next few days, the Superintendent of the hospital, a young physician who worked under my supervision in an improvised hospital, a Polish surgeon whose room I had just moved into, the Chief Administrator of Sanitation, and later, a Roumanian doctor who had taken his wife and children with him to Pirot, became infected. All died one after another. I myself contracted typhus in March.

In short, out of the 13 physicians working in the town when I arrived, 2 were immunised by a  previous attack of typhus, 2 were taken ill at the outbreak of the epidemic and recovered, 8 contracted typhus when the epidemic was at his height, and 6 died within a month. Only one escaped unscathed…..

The civilian population did not suffer much from the epidemic, with the exception of the refugees and those in communication with the hospital. Even the peasant women who, although they should have been forbidden to do so, visited their sick husbands on market days, rarely carried infection to their villages as they were clean and fought the vermin. In the town, at the sight of workmen busy painting names on new coffins, the women outside their doors did not stop weaving and spinning the many coloured tapestries which are the glory of their town. And when a group of Czech prisoners organised a concert at which, after the Russian anthem, the Serbian anthem and the Marseillaise, music by Wagner was played, the hall was crowded.

I have already mentioned the very important part played by fear in the prognosis of typhus exanthematicus, so will not refer to it again. I wish however to say how much I was impressed by the ease with which one became accustomed to the idea of death, even of death without glory, from infectious disease. We watched our group of physicians and hospital employees rapidly diminish; the merry party round the dining room table was reduced to three, but nevertheless remained optimistic. Without any effort we had become used to danger threatening us and faced it, smile on lip and joke ever ready, like soldiers at the front. It is a curious psychological phenomenon that the fact of seeing so many people die, causes one to regard death as a very common event, even when it is a question of one’s own death. Life is very busy and there is an adversary to be fought; the situation may be likened to an exciting game of checkers which absorbs you and makes you forget all the rest. Also one has faith in one’s good star. The reason for that man’s death was no doubt because he was afraid; the one over there was no longer young; that one had over-disinfected himself with alcohol, another was too thin or too fat, etc. One even went so far as to believe that typhus would not be dangerous to one’s self and was almost glad to contract it in order to find out what it is like!

And meanwhile, the epidemic continued its ravages. By the end of February, the number of physicians who had died from typhus in the Serbian reserve hospitals exceeded 100, representing almost a third……

At Uskub [Skopje], I at last saw a hospital free from typhus. It belonged to an English mission, with a well-trained personnel, beds, sufficient quantity of linen, and which above all accepted only a limited number of wounded per room and per doctor.”

There are numerous first person accounts of the battle against the epidemic, by American, British, European and Serbian doctors. All praise the extraordinary courage and stoicism of the Serbians. The second text here is from a major work on the subject:

Richard P. Strong, Typhus fever with Particular reference to the Serbian Epidemic, Harvard University Press, 1920

Of considerable interest is the account of a woman who went to Serbia as a nurse, but left to join the army, subsequently writing of her experiences:

Flora Sandes, An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army, London 1916

There is also a book by a couple who went out to work distributing Red Cross stores to the hospitals, in particular the Women’s Hospitals. In spite of the cheerful tone – the book is amusing – the horror that lies behind their experiences is very clear:

Jan and Cora Gordon, Two Vagabonds in Serbia and Montenegro – 1915, London, 1916 (Penguin 1939)

V. Subbotitch (Surgeon Colonel, Serbian Army), A Pandemic of Typhus in Serbia – 1914-15, sheds light on the efforts to halt the spread of the disease, by every means available, including removing all upholstered seats from the trains, because they could not be adequately disinfected.

All these books and papers are available on

The Plague at Athens – 430 B.C.

When the plague, in which some 25% of the population died, struck Athens in 430 B.C., Thucydides, the great historian and general, caught it and recovered. In his major work, The History of the Peloponnesian War, he not only describes the clinical aspects of the disease, but also its social, economic and psychological impact. Numerous efforts have been made to identify it, with typhus and some form of haemorrhagic fever being strong contenders.

In the first days of summer the Lacedaemonians and their allies, with two-thirds of their forces as before, invaded Attica, under the command of Archidamus, son of Zeuxidamus, King of Lacedaemon, and sat down and laid waste the country. Not many days after their arrival in Attica the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places previously in the neighbourhood of Lemnos and elsewhere; but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.

It first began, it is said, in the parts of Ethiopia above Egypt, and thence descended into Egypt and Libya and into most of the King’s country. Suddenly falling upon Athens, it first attacked the population in Piraeus—which was the occasion of their saying that the Peloponnesians had poisoned the reservoirs, there being as yet no wells there—and afterwards appeared in the upper city, when the deaths became much more frequent. All speculation as to its origin and its causes, if causes can be found adequate to produce so great a disturbance, I leave to other writers, whether lay or professional; for myself, I shall simply set down its nature, and explain the symptoms by which perhaps it may be recognized by the student, if it should ever break out again. This I can the better do, as I had the disease myself, and watched its operation in the case of others.

That year then is admitted to have been otherwise unprecedentedly free from sickness; and such few cases as occurred all determined in this. As a rule, however, there was no ostensible cause; but people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhoea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and, even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends.

But while the nature of the distemper was such as to baffle all description, and its attacks almost too grievous for human nature to endure, it was still in the following circumstance that its difference from all ordinary disorders was most clearly shown. All the birds and beasts that prey upon human bodies, either abstained from touching them (though there were many lying unburied), or died after tasting them. In proof of this, it was noticed that birds of this kind actually disappeared; they were not about the bodies, or indeed to be seen at all. But of course the effects which I have mentioned could best be studied in a domestic animal like the dog.

Such then, if we pass over the varieties of particular cases which were many and peculiar, were the general features of the distemper. Meanwhile the town enjoyed an immunity from all the ordinary disorders; or if any case occurred, it ended in this. Some died in neglect, others in the midst of every attention. No remedy was found that could be used as a specific; for what did good in one case, did harm in another. Strong and weak constitutions proved equally incapable of resistance, all alike being swept away, although dieted with the utmost precaution. By far the most terrible feature in the malady was the dejection which ensued when any one felt himself sickening, for the despair into which they instantly fell took away their power of resistance, and left them a much easier prey to the disorder; besides which, there was the awful spectacle of men dying like sheep, through having caught the infection in nursing each other. This caused the greatest mortality. On the one hand, if they were afraid to visit each other, they perished from neglect; indeed many houses were emptied of their inmates for want of a nurse: on the other, if they ventured to do so, death was the consequence. This was especially the case with such as made any pretensions to goodness: honour made them unsparing of themselves in their attendance in their friends’ houses, where even the members of the family were at last worn out by the moans of the dying, and succumbed to the force of the disaster. Yet it was with those who had recovered from the disease that the sick and the dying found most compassion. These knew what it was from experience, and had now no fear for themselves; for the same man was never attacked twice—never at least fatally. And such persons not only received the congratulations of others, but themselves also, in the elation of the moment, half entertained the vain hope that they were for the future safe from any disease whatsoever.

An aggravation of the existing calamity was the influx from the country into the city, and this was especially felt by the new arrivals. As there were no houses to receive them, they had to be lodged at the hot season of the year in stifling cabins, where the mortality raged without restraint. The bodies of dying men lay one upon another, and half-dead creatures reeled about the streets and gathered round all the fountains in their longing for water. The sacred places also in which they had quartered themselves were full of corpses of persons that had died there, just as they were; for as the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane. All the burial rites before in use were entirely upset, and they buried the bodies as best they could. Many from want of the proper appliances, through so many of their friends having died already, had recourse to the most shameless sepultures: sometimes getting the start of those who had raised a pile, they threw their own dead body upon the stranger’s pyre and ignited it; sometimes they tossed the corpse which they were carrying on the top of another that was burning, and so went off.

Nor was this the only form of lawless extravagance which owed its origin to the plague. Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner, and not just as they pleased, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property. So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day. Perseverance in what men called honour was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honourable and useful. Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offences, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.

Such was the nature of the calamity, and heavily did it weigh on the Athenians; death raging within the city and devastation without. Among other things which they remembered in their distress was, very naturally, the following verse which the old men said had long ago been uttered:

   A Dorian war shall come and with it death.

So a dispute arose as to whether dearth and not death had not been the word in the verse; but at the present juncture, it was of course decided in favour of the latter; for the people made their recollection fit in with their sufferings. I fancy, however, that if another Dorian war should ever afterwards come upon us, and a dearth should happen to accompany it, the verse will probably be read accordingly. The oracle also which had been given to the Lacedaemonians was now remembered by those who knew of it. When the god was asked whether they should go to war, he answered that if they put their might into it, victory would be theirs, and that he would himself be with them. With this oracle events were supposed to tally. For the plague broke out as soon as the Peloponnesians invaded Attica, and never entering Peloponnese (not at least to an extent worth noticing), committed its worst ravages at Athens, and next to Athens, at the most populous of the other towns. Such was the history of the plague.

The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides (431 B.C.) tr. Richard Crawley, 1866-74, Book II, Ch 7.With many thanks to four classicist friends – London, Rome and Seville – who suggested it. I had been going to leave it out as too well known, but they are right: Thucydides’ account, after Homer’ is, in all senses, the locus classicus

Cambridge and the Plague

A friend kindly reminded me that his college, Trinity Hall (1350), as well as Gonville Hall (1348), Corpus Christi (1352) and Clare Hall (1359), were founded in a large part to remedy the terrible lack of clergy, nearly half of whom had died in the Black Death. Although I could not find a first person account on-line – libraries and archives currently being closed – I wanted to write something about the plague in my home town, so the following material is to a considerable extent taken from an excellent article by Raymond Williamson, The Plague in Cambridge, a paper read on May 3rd, 1956 to the Cambridge History of Medicine Society.

The plague entered England in 1348 and persisted intermittently until about 1666. The south east of England – then a very wealthy part of the country –  including Cambridge, was particularly badly affected. No-one knew the reason for the plague: there were a number of theories and over the centuries a considerable body of medical literature evolved. It was generally considered to be caused by bad or corrupt air, in the case of Cambridge, rising from the fens, or by corruption in general. It was because of this that Henry VI did not come to lay the foundation stone of King’s College Chapel:

….we had disposed to be there in our owne person. Nevertheless for aier and ye Pestilence that have long regned in our said Universite, we come not there at this time….

The second theory was supported by the filth of Cambridge and the absolute inability of the Council, down the centuries, to get to grips with rubbish collection. In fact, this is probably correct. Gorge-rising descriptions of the state of the streets and water courses – especially the river and the King’s Ditch, a defence work that curved in an arc roughly from behind St Botolph’s to join the Cam beyond the Round Church – suggest that the town must have been overrun with rats, although the connection was not, of course, then known.

The original charter of the town granted by Henry III in 1267, made provision that:

“…the town should be cleansed from dirt and filth and kept clean, and that the water-course should be opened and kept open as of old time it was used, so that the filth might run off.”

The battle seems to have been a hopeless one. In 1330, the University complained to the Mayor and the equivalent of the Town Council about the appalling dirt, and complaints escalated after 1348. In the Black Death, it was the densely populated area around Castle Hill which had the worst mortality rate, leaving it virtually abandoned afterwards. Three years later, the University was lamenting the terrible difficulty of getting food and other necessities because of the disappearance of so many trades and restrictions on movement.

 In 1502, 266 people had to answer charges of major abuses of public hygiene. This figure included not only butchers dumping filth, guts, entrails and blood in the streets or the water courses, but also the President of Michael House (opposite Caius College).

The Vice-Chancellor, writing in 1574, speculated that the water courses were a factor, since the disease was more prevalent in their vicinity and produced a map and a plan for dealing with the problem, adding: “I do greatly desire to see this thinge brought to passe which hath been so longe tyme wished for of many” It did not come into effect, however, for another 40 years and part of the water for flushing out the system was used in the fountain in of the Market Place, known as Hobson’s Conduit, now on the corner of Lensfield Road.

In the last great plague epidemic around 1666, it was the densely populated area in the parish of Great St Andrew’s (present-day Grand Arcade) that was the most affected and it was repeatedly noted in Cambridge, as elsewhere, that although the well-to-do were far from exempt, the highest mortality rates lay among the poor.

Numerous efforts were made to control, as well as prevent outbreaks. Unsure of exactly how the disease spread, the authorities tried to prevent people moving about the country. Road blocks were set up, travellers checked for signs of disease and, insofar as possible, those coming from affected parts of the country refused admission. Even letters were suspect and if sent at all, had to be carefully fumigated. A Mr Mead of Christ’s College wrote in July, 1625:

‘It grows very dangerus on both sides to continue an Intercourse of Letters: not knowing what hands they passe through before they come to those to whom they are sent. Our Hobson and the rest should have been forbidden this week, but that the message came too late.”

Hobson being, of course the famous carrier and origin of the expression “Hobson’s Choice.”

Among other efforts at prevention were street fires, something recommended by Hippocrates c.400 B.C., believed to purify the air, and they were lit regularly, with buckets of water provided in case they got out of hand. And, of course, there was social distancing.

The market was moved to Butt Green on the outskirts, public assemblies of all kinds were forbidden and people were not allowed to attend any church but the one in their own parish. In some churches the windows were even taken out to provide better ventilation.

As regards those who fell ill, the Vice-Chancellor of the University wrote as follows:

“For the present state of the town the sickness is much scattered, but we follow your lordships counsel to keep the sound from the sick; to which purpose we have built nere 40 booths in a remote place upon our commons, whether we forthwith remove those that are infected, where we have placed a German physician who visits them day and night and he ministers to them: besides constables we have certain ambulatory officers who walk the streets night and day to keep our people from needless conversing, and to bring us notice of all disorders, through God’s great mercy the number of those who die weekly is not great to the total number of the inhabitants. Thirty one hath been the highest number in a week and that but once. This late tempestuous rainy weather hath scattered it into some places and they die fast, so that I fear an increase this week.”

Plague huts to isolate those who had fallen ill or were suspected of showing symptoms, were set up originally on Midsummer Common and, at a later date, in the area of Coldham’s Lane.

In Cambridge, the plague had additional social consequences. As soon as mortality rates began to rise, all schools and the university closed, because of the prohibition on assemblies and, for their own safety, the majority of the scholars moved out to the countryside. This resulted in such great distress for the poorer inhabitants of the town, who worked for or were supported by the University, that in the terrible outbreak of 1630, King Charles I wrote as follows, accompanying the letter with a donation:

 …the distressed inhabitants of our said Towne of Cambridge are left in great mysery and decay: for the universitie, fearing the rage there of have broken up and left their colledges, and the number of poore people in the said towne beinge very great: and many of them aged and impotent and such as whilest the schollars continued there had much reliefe by means of them, now the colledges being left are like to famish and many others of our said poore subjects who heretofore lived by their commerce and trafique as well with the schollers as with the country, and maintained themselves and families in good sort and did help and releeve others, are nowe by this grievous visitacion brought into great want, and their trading with the Countrey being now (out of a kind of necessity) wholly forborne they also are forced to crave reliefe so as the whole number that perceive reliefe and maintenance are about 2,800 persons (besides those that are visited with the plague) the charge whereof doth and will amount to 150l [£150 = c.£20 000 today] a week, at the least, which charge the university and towne are noe ways able to disburse, there being not above seaven score persons at the most of the said inhabitants that are able any longer to contribute towards their releife; theire states being much weakened by the daily taxacions already laid upon them for the meaintenance of the visited persons and other poore people….

After 1666, Cambridge was spared further visitations of bubonic plague, but cholera and other diseases persisted, as well as complaints about the state of the water courses, cleaning of the streets and rubbish collection.

With many thanks to John Pollard for reminding me of the role of the plague in the foundation of various colleges and to Jane Cowan for the photograph of the Cam today.

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

Pushkin in Quarantine at Boldino 1830 A.D.

In the autumn of 1830, Alexander Pushkin was at Boldino, the family estate near Nizhny Novgorod, for the funeral of an uncle, when he was forced into quarantine on account of the cholera epidemic spreading from the south. Forced to put off his wedding to the ravishing Natalia Goncharova, those three months were, nevertheless, perhaps the most productive period of his life, during which he finished Eugene Onegin and wrote what he called Four Little Tragedies, as well as a number of poems.

Allow me, fellow countrymen,

At this time of spiritual torment

To offer you, from where I am imprisoned,

Congratulations on the great festival of spring.


Everything passes, everything grows still;

Sorrows and anxieties fade away.

One again, the ways will become smooth,

And the garden, as before, will be in flower.


We will call upon the power of learning

to sweep away disease with firmness

And in these days of dire tribulation,

As one family we will survive.


We will become purer and wiser

And not yield to darkness and to fear.

Raising up each other’s spirits,

We will become closer and more kind.


And at the festive table

Once again rejoice in life

And on this day, may the Supreme One

Send a little joy to every home.

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

Позвольте, жители страны,

В часы душевного мученья

Поздравить вас из заточенья

С великим праздником весны!


Всё утрясётся, всё пройдёт,

Уйдут печали и тревоги,

Вновь станут гладкими дороги

И сад, как прежде, зацветёт.


На помощь разум призовём,

Сметём болезнь силой знаний

И дни тяжёлых испытаний

Одной семьёй переживём.


Мы станем чище и мудрей,

Не сдавшись мраку и испугу,

Воспрянем духом и друг другу

Мы станем ближе и добрей.


И пусть за праздничным столом

Мы вновь порадуемся жизни,

Пусть в этот день пощлёт Всевышний

Кусочек счастья в каждый дом!

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

Pushkin was critical, however, of the government’s handling of the epidemic and he wrote in a letter the following year:

“Quarantine brought manufacturing and cargo traffic to a halt, ruined contractors and carriers, ended the revenues of peasants and landowners, and nearly caused riots in 16 provinces.”

With many thanks to Maria Valdimirovna Stanyukovich for the Russian text.

A Redeemed Slave Waits to Go Home – 1742 A.D.


Maria ter Meteelen was a working class Dutch woman, captured by corsairs out of one of the North African pirate strongholds and, like so many thousands of European travellers, enslaved.

The Plague at Meknès

Meanwhile the plague broke out on the 13th of June in the year 1742. Every day it killed 100 people or more. The King went into the countryside with his army [and stayed] under the tent which they set up there and he forbade anyone of his army and the Christians who were there with him to go into the town. But these last went there in secret. The people were not free with the result that the plague was very grave, but what is most remarkable is that we Christians traded daily with the Moors and every day we were obliged to cross the town to buy food and we lived in the heart of the town. Jews and Moors were our suppliers; now they died of plague, but not one of us Christians fell ill. I had permission to go to the palace with my servant, a Jewish woman, and when I was thus crossing the town, the Moors asked whether the plague was raging among us too. I said no. Then they asked me what to do to avoid it. I said we had no advice to give them, but it depended on what God sent us and for which they praised His glory. But then some among them said that we unbelievers and so Muly Magomet [Muhammad] and He [God] did not know us, but he did know them, and therefore Magomet had sent them these hardships on earth.

Our Christians were very sad and distressed, for they were afraid of catching the plague and dying; I, on the other hand, was full of courage and I firmly hoped to be freed by the end of the year, which caused several of them to jeer at me……

Maria ter Meetelen kept her spirits up by reading the Bible and her optimism proved to be well-founded.

A fortnight later, a messenger arrived from Tangiers with a letter from the merchant Don Louis Buttelaar, bringing us the pleasant news that Captain Lambregt, a captain of their High Lordships, had ransomed the [Dutch] slaves that were in Tangiers from the Bashi and he had made an agreement that the slaves who were with the King should be delivered to him within six weeks. I was alone in my tavern when the messenger arrived. I took the letter, but did not open it because it was addressed to the whole Dutch community, but I began to shout and cry without stopping;

“Freedom! Freedom!”

After a period of preparations and farewells, they set out.

Tétuan and the Plague

At last towards evening, we arrived at Tétuan, which is still two hours distant from the sea. We lodged in the house of the English Consul where we stayed for another three months and five days, for lack of a boat; none came because the death rate was so high. But when we got there, there was no doubt about the plague and the day on which the King freed us, in the town on Meknès, the dead had numbered twenty-four thousand and at present there are still fifty or sixty each day. And during our journey, we had passed by various villages and market towns wiped out by death.  And about fifteen days before the arrival of our rescuer, the plague reappeared in the town, which made us fear that no one would come to deliver the Christians.

On the 5th of April in the year 1743, a ship came into harbour. The Consul and Don Louis Buttelaar, under whose supervision we found ourselves, headed there at once and when they arrived, they found that it was an English ship, sent here from Gibraltar to learn what the situation in the country was and to make an agreement, because Gibraltar was provisioned from Tangiers and Tétuan. The war between England and Spain meant that the arrival of foodstuffs at Gibraltar from there had been blocked and the plague raging among the Turks was also a reason why life there had become terribly dear and one could get nothing for one’s money. That was why this ship had been sent and it brought us news that a Dutch warship had left the roads to come and see whether the slaves from Mèknes had arrived. This English ship, having learned that the plague was still raging, immediately set out to sea for Gibraltar and meeting the Dutch ship, hailed it and said that the slaves were waiting for it and that they had already spent three months there, but that the plague was still there. But the Dutch captain answered that in spite of the plague he would nevertheless act in such a way as to obtain the slaves and he continued to set sail for harbour.

We, however, on seeing that the ship was putting out to sea, felt the greatest dismay imaginable and were filled with the fear that we would be returned again to slavery, for we could not establish what ship it was and we thought it had gone because of the plague raging in the country.  However, we were comforted by the return of the Consul and the other gentleman, who gave us accurate information.

That day seemed as long as a year to us, but the night seemed even longer, for the Consul had brought us the good news that our rescuer was about to arrive. On the following day, in the morning, he was already in the roads and the Consul and Don Luis Buttelaar hastened there at once and went on board. But they did not agree on the rations for us, nor on the repayment of the expenses of the journey, nor on the gifts for the King and his envoy, and there was also the fact that not all the slaves were actually there and, on top of everything else, there was the cost of our board and lodging for three months, so that the Captain had a great deal of trouble settling all this and so it was not until 11th April that the matter was finally arranged and we could go on board with great joy.

This passage is taken from “The Curious and Amazing Adventures of Maria ter Meetelen, Twelve Years a Slave” (1731-43), translated by Caroline Stone and Karen Johnson, Hardinge Simpole, 2010, pp.116-9 and 123-4.

There is No One Left – India c.1910


The opening chapter of The Secret Garden is not a first person account. Frances Hodgson Burnett was never in India, although at the time the book was written from 1905 and published in 1910-11, Asia was in the middle of the 6th cholera pandemic and she would have had easy access to detailed information.

I had added it because, reading The Secret Garden, aged seven or eight, was the first time I had heard of an epidemic and I was fascinated. My Nannie was brisk: “Don’t be silly, darling. We don’t have epidemics here (rural Suffolk).” My Grandfather, much of whose working life had been spent in India, was more informative and I learned of the efforts made to stamp out malaria and provide clean drinking water to avert cholera and typhoid. Interest in the subject has remained.

The book begins with Mary, an unwanted and consequently disagreeable child, waking in her parents’ bungalow:

One frightfully hot morning, when she was about nine years old, she awakened feeling very cross, and she became crosser still when she saw that the servant who stood by her bedside was not her Ayah.

“Why did you come?” she said to the strange woman. “I will not let you stay. Send my Ayah to me.”

The woman looked frightened, but she only stammered that the Ayah could not come and when Mary threw herself into a passion and beat and kicked her, she looked only more frightened and repeated that it was not possible for the Ayah to come to Missie Sahib.

There was something mysterious in the air that morning. Nothing was done in its regular order and several of the native servants seemed missing, while those whom Mary saw slunk or hurried about with ashy and scared faces. But no one would tell her anything and her Ayah did not come. She was actually left alone as the morning went on, and at last she wandered out into the garden and began to play by herself under a tree near the veranda. She pretended that she was making a flower-bed, and she stuck big scarlet hibiscus blossoms into little heaps of earth, all the time growing more and more angry and muttering to herself the things she would say and the names she would call Saidie when she returned.

“Pig! Pig! Daughter of Pigs!” she said, because to call a native a pig is the worst insult of all.

She was grinding her teeth and saying this over and over again when she heard her mother come out on the veranda with some one. She was with a fair young man and they stood talking together in low strange voices. Mary knew the fair young man who looked like a boy. She had heard that he was a very young officer who had just come from England. The child stared at him, but she stared most at her mother. She always did this when she had a chance to see her, because the Mem Sahib—Mary used to call her that oftener than anything else—was such a tall, slim, pretty person and wore such lovely clothes. Her hair was like curly silk and she had a delicate little nose which seemed to be disdaining things, and she had large laughing eyes. All her clothes were thin and floating, and Mary said they were “full of lace.” They looked fuller of lace than ever this morning, but her eyes were not laughing at all. They were large and scared and lifted imploringly to the fair boy officer’s face.

“Is it so very bad? Oh, is it?” Mary heard her say.

“Awfully,” the young man answered in a trembling voice. “Awfully, Mrs. Lennox. You ought to have gone to the hills two weeks ago.”

The Mem Sahib wrung her hands.

Oh, I know I ought!” she cried. “I only stayed to go to that silly dinner party. What a fool I was!”

At that very moment such a loud sound of wailing broke out from the servants’ quarters that she clutched the young man’s arm, and Mary stood shivering from head to foot. The wailing grew wilder and wilder. “What is it? What is it?” Mrs. Lennox gasped.

“Some one has died,” answered the boy officer. “You did not say it had broken out among your servants.”

“I did not know!” the Mem Sahib cried. “Come with me! Come with me!” and she turned and ran into the house.

After that, appalling things happened, and the mysteriousness of the morning was explained to Mary. The cholera had broken out in its most fatal form and people were dying like flies. The Ayah had been taken ill in the night, and it was because she had just died that the servants had wailed in the huts. Before the next day three other servants were dead and others had run away in terror. There was panic on every side, and dying people in all the bungalows.

During the confusion and bewilderment of the second day Mary hid herself in the nursery and was forgotten by everyone. Nobody thought of her, nobody wanted her, and strange things happened of which she knew nothing. Mary alternately cried and slept through the hours. She only knew that people were ill and that she heard mysterious and frightening sounds. Once she crept into the dining-room and found it empty, though a partly finished meal was on the table and chairs and plates looked as if they had been hastily pushed back when the diners rose suddenly for some reason. The child ate some fruit and biscuits, and being thirsty she drank a glass of wine which stood nearly filled. It was sweet, and she did not know how strong it was. Very soon it made her intensely drowsy, and she went back to her nursery and shut herself in again, frightened by cries she heard in the huts and by the hurrying sound of feet. The wine made her so sleepy that she could scarcely keep her eyes open and she lay down on her bed and knew nothing more for a long time.

Many things happened during the hours in which she slept so heavily, but she was not disturbed by the wails and the sound of things being carried in and out of the bungalow.

When she awakened she lay and stared at the wall. The house was perfectly still. She had never known it to be so silent before. She heard neither voices nor footsteps, and wondered if everybody had got well of the cholera and all the trouble was over. She wondered also who would take care of her now her Ayah was dead. There would be a new Ayah, and perhaps she would know some new stories. Mary had been rather tired of the old ones. She did not cry because her nurse had died. She was not an affectionate child and had never cared much for any one. The noise and hurrying about and wailing over the cholera had frightened her, and she had been angry because no one seemed to remember that she was alive. Everyone was too panic-stricken to think of a little girl no one was fond of. When people had the cholera it seemed that they remembered nothing but themselves. But if everyone had got well again, surely some one would remember and come to look for her.

But no one came, and as she lay waiting the house seemed to grow more and more silent. She heard something rustling on the matting and when she looked down she saw a little snake gliding along and watching her with eyes like jewels. She was not frightened, because he was a harmless little thing who would not hurt her and he seemed in a hurry to get out of the room. He slipped under the door as she watched him.

“How queer and quiet it is,” she said. “It sounds as if there were no one in the bungalow but me and the snake.”

Almost the next minute she heard footsteps in the compound, and then on the veranda. They were men’s footsteps, and the men entered the bungalow and talked in low voices. No one went to meet or speak to them and they seemed to open doors and look into rooms. “What desolation!” she heard one voice say. “That pretty, pretty woman! I suppose the child, too. I heard there was a child, though no one ever saw her.”

Mary was standing in the middle of the nursery when they opened the door a few minutes later. She looked an ugly, cross little thing and was frowning because she was beginning to be hungry and feel disgracefully neglected. The first man who came in was a large officer she had once seen talking to her father. He looked tired and troubled, but when he saw her he was so startled that he almost jumped back.

“Barney!” he cried out. “There is a child here! A child alone! In a place like this! Mercy on us, who is she!”

“I am Mary Lennox,” the little girl said, drawing herself up stiffly. She thought the man was very rude to call her father’s bungalow “A place like this!” “I fell asleep when everyone had the cholera and I have only just wakened up. Why does nobody come?”

“It is the child no one ever saw!” exclaimed the man, turning to his companions. “She has actually been forgotten!”

“Why was I forgotten?” Mary said, stamping her foot. “Why does nobody come?”

The young man whose name was Barney looked at her very sadly. Mary even thought she saw him wink his eyes as if to wink tears away.

“Poor little kid!” he said. “There is nobody left to come.”

It was in that strange and sudden way that Mary found out that she had neither father nor mother left; that they had died and been carried away in the night, and that the few native servants who had not died also had left the house as quickly as they could get out of it, none of them even remembering that there was a Missie Sahib. That was why the place was so quiet. It was true that there was no one in the bungalow but herself and the little rustling snake.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, New York and London, 1910-11

Antiphon for Use in Time of Plague 1430 A.D.


After the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, Charles d’Orléans was captured by Henry V and spent some 25 years in prison, hoping to be ransomed. He was a fine poet and at that time became very close to various English Franciscans. This Antiphon, probably composed for the nuns of St Clare at Coimbra, appears for the first time in The Book of Hours of Charles d’Orléans, dated 1430.

The Franciscans were very active in times of plague, as the Sicilian, Michele da Piazza, writes in his Chronicle:

“The Franciscan and Dominican brothers, as well as those of other Orders, went voluntarily to the houses of the sick, heard their confessions and gave them penitences and they themselves died in such great numbers that their monasteries were deserted….”

It is because of their activity that this Antiphon for use in time of plague is found in manuscripts from Coimbra to Prague.

Stella caeli extirpavit,

quae lactavit Dominum,

mortis pestem quam plantavit,

primus parens hominum.

Ipsa stella nunc dignetur

sidera compescere,

quorum bella plebem caedunt

dirae mala ulcere.

O piissima Maris Stella,

 a peste succurre nobis.

Audi nos, Domina,

nam Filius tuus nihil negans te honorat.

Salva nos, Jesu.

pro quibus Virgo mater te orat.


Star of Heaven.

whose milk fed our Lord,

drive out this mortal plague

brought by the first parents of mankind.

May that same star

grant heaven be restrained

that now, with dread and awful wounds,

afflicts the populus.

O most merciful Star of the Sea,

save us from the plague.

Hear us, Lady, for your Son

nothing can deny to those who honour you.

Save us, Jesu,

for whom your Virgin Mother prays.


For fuller information see

Many thanks to Christina Linares for the contribution.

Procopius Describes the Plague of Justinian 541-2 A.D.


Procopius was the principal Byzantine historian of the 6th century and in his History of the Wars, he describes the great plague, believed to have been the first historically recorded epidemic of Yersinia pestis in Europe. Besides a very high death toll, it had massive political and economic consequences, and recurred at intervals until 750 A.D., after which there were no more European plague pandemics until the 14th century.

DURING these times there was a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated. Now in the case of all other scourges sent from heaven some explanation of a cause might be given by daring men, such as the many theories propounded by those who are clever in these matters; for they love to conjure up causes which are absolutely incomprehensible to man, and to fabricate outlandish theories of natural philosophy knowing well that they are saying nothing sound but considering it sufficient for them, if they completely deceive by their argument some of those whom they meet and persuade them to their view. But for this calamity it is quite impossible either to express in words or to conceive in thought any explanation, except indeed to refer it to God. For it did not come in a part of the world nor upon certain men, nor did it confine itself to any season of the year, so that from such circumstances it might be possible to find subtle explanations of a cause, but it embraced the entire world, and blighted the lives of all men, though differing from one another in the most marked degree, respecting neither sex nor age.

For much as men differ with regard to places in which they live, or in the law of their daily life, or in natural bent, or in active pursuits, or in whatever else man differs from man, in the case of this disease alone the difference availed naught. And it attacked some in the summer season, others in the winter, and still others at the other times of the year. Now let each one express his own judgment concerning the matter, both sophist and astrologer, but as for me, I shall proceed to tell where this disease originated and the manner in which it destroyed men.

It started from the Egyptians who dwell in Pelusium. Then it divided and moved in one direction towards Alexandria and the rest of Egypt, and in the other direction it came to Palestine on the borders of Egypt; and from there it spread over the whole world, always moving forward and travelling at times favorable to it. For it seemed to move by fixed arrangement, and to tarry for a specified time in each country, casting its blight slightingly upon none, but spreading in either direction right out to the ends of the world, as if fearing lest some corner of the earth might escape it. For it left neither island nor cave nor mountain ridge which had human inhabitants; and if it had passed by any land, either not affecting the men there or touching them in indifferent fashion, still at a later time it came back; then those who dwelt round about this land, whom formerly it had afflicted most sorely, it did not touch at all, but it did not remove from the place in question until it had given up its just and proper tale of dead, so as to correspond exactly to the number destroyed at the earlier time among those who dwelt round about. And this disease always took its start from the coast, and from there went up to the interior.

And in the second year it reached Byzantium in the middle of spring, where it happened that I was staying at that time. And it came as follows. Apparitions of supernatural beings in human guise of every description were seen by many persons, and those who encountered them thought that they were struck by the man they had met in this or that part of the body, as it havened, and immediately upon seeing this apparition they were seized also by the disease. Now at first those who met these creatures tried to turn them aside by uttering the holiest of names and exorcising them in other ways as well as each one could, but they accomplished absolutely nothing, for even in the sanctuaries where the most of them fled for refuge they were dying constantly. But later on they were unwilling even to give heed to their friends when they called to them, and they shut themselves up in their rooms and pretended that they did not hear, although their doors were being beaten down, fearing, obviously, that he who was calling was one of those demons. But in the case of some the pestilence did not come on in this way, but they saw a vision in a dream and seemed to suffer the very same thing at the hands of the creature who stood over them, or else to hear a voice foretelling to them that they were written down in the number of those who were to die. But with the majority it came about that they were seized by the disease without becoming aware of what was coming either through a waking vision or a dream. And they were taken in the following manner. They had a sudden fever, some when just roused from sleep, others while walking about, and others while otherwise engaged, without any regard to what they were doing. And the body showed no change from its previous color, nor was it hot as might be expected when attacked by a fever, nor indeed did any inflammation set in, but the fever was of such a languid sort from its commencement and up till evening that neither to the sick themselves nor to a physician who touched them would it afford any suspicion of danger. It was natural, therefore, that not one of those who had contracted the disease expected to die from it. But on the same day in some cases, in others on the following day, and in the rest not many days later, a bubonic swelling developed; and this took place not only in the particular part of the body which is called boubon, that is, “below the abdomen,” but also inside the armpit, and in some cases also beside the ears, and at different points on the thighs.

Up to this point, then, everything went in about the same way with all who had taken the disease. But from then on very marked differences developed; and I am unable to say whether the cause of this diversity of symptoms was to be found in the difference in bodies, or in the fact that it followed the wish of Him who brought the disease into the world. For there ensued with some a deep coma, with others a violent delirium, and in either case they suffered the characteristic symptoms of the disease. For those who were under the spell of the coma forgot all those who were familiar to them and seemed to lie sleeping constantly. And if anyone cared for them, they would eat without waking, but some also were neglected, and these would die directly through lack of sustenance. But those who were seized with delirium suffered from insomnia and were victims of a distorted imagination; for they suspected that men were coming upon them to destroy them, and they would become excited and rush off in flight, crying out at the top of their voices. And those who were attending them were in a state of constant exhaustion and had a most difficult time of it throughout. For this reason everybody pitied them no less than the sufferers, not because they were threatened by the pestilence in going near it (for neither physicians nor other persons were found to contract this malady through contact with the sick or with the dead, for many who were constantly engaged either in burying or in attending those in no way connected with them held out in the performance of this service beyond all expectation, while with many others the disease came on without warning and they died straightway); but they pitied them because of the great hardships which they were undergoing. For when the patients fell from their beds and lay rolling upon the floor, they kept putting them back in place, and when they were struggling to rush headlong out of their houses, they would force them back by shoving and pulling against them. And when water chanced to be near, they wished to fall into it, not so much because of a desire for drink (for the most of them rushed into the sea), but the cause was to be found chiefly in the diseased state of their minds. They had also great difficulty in the matter of eating, for they could not easily take food. And many perished through lack of any man to care for them, for they were either overcome by hunger, or threw themselves down from a height. And in those cases where neither coma nor delirium came on, the bubonic swelling became mortified and the sufferer, no longer able to endure the pain, died. And one would suppose that in all cases the same thing would have been true, but since they were not at all in their senses, some were quite unable to feel the pain; for owing to the troubled condition of their minds they lost all sense of feeling.

Now some of the physicians who were at a loss because the symptoms were not understood, supposing that the disease centred in the bubonic swellings, decided to investigate the bodies of the dead. And upon opening some of the swellings, they found a strange sort of carbuncle that had grown inside them. Death came in some cases immediately, in others after many days; and with some the body broke out with black pustules about as large as a lentil and these did not survive even one day, but all succumbed immediately. With many also a vomiting of blood ensued without visible cause and straightway brought death. Moreover I am able to declare this, that the most illustrious physicians predicted that many would die, who unexpectedly escaped entirely from suffering shortly afterwards, and that they declared that many would be saved, who were destined to be carried off almost immediately. So it was that in this disease there was no cause which came within the province of human reasoning; for in all cases the issue tended to be something unaccountable. For example, while some were helped by battling, others were harmed in no less degree. And of those who received no care many died, but others, contrary to reason, were saved. And again, methods of treatment showed different results with different patients. Indeed the whole matter may be stated thus, that no device was discovered by man to save himself, so that either by taking precautions he should not suffer, or that when the malady had assailed him he should get the better of it; but suffering came without warning and recovery was due to no external cause. And in the case of women who were pregnant death could be certainly foreseen if they were taken with the disease. For some died through miscarriage, but others perished immediately at the time of birth with the infants they bore. However, they say that three women in confinement survived though their children perished, and that one woman died at the very time of childbirth but that the child was born and survived.

Now in those cases where the swelling rose to an unusual size and a discharge of pus had set in, it came about that they escaped from the disease and survived, for clearly the acute condition of the carbuncle had found relief in this direction, and this proved to be in general an indication of returning health; but in cases where the swelling preserved its former appearance there ensued those troubles which I have just mentioned. And with some of them it came about that the thigh was withered, in which case, though the swelling was there, it did not develop the least suppuration. With others who survived the tongue did not remain unaffected, and they lived on either lisping or speaking incoherently and with difficulty.

Now the disease in Byzantium ran a course of four months, and its greatest virulence lasted about three. And at first the deaths were a little more than the normal, then the mortality rose still higher, and afterwards the tale of dead reached five thousand each day, and again it even came to ten thousand and still more than that. Now in the beginning each man attended to the burial of the dead of his own house, and these they threw even into the tombs of others, either escaping detection or using violence; but afterwards confusion and disorder everywhere became complete. For slaves remained destitute of masters, and men who in former times were very prosperous were deprived of the service of their domestics who were either sick or dead, and many houses became completely destitute of human inhabitants. For this reason it came about that some of the notable men of the city because of the universal destitution remained unburied for many days.

And it fell to the lot of the emperor, as was natural, to make provision for the trouble. He therefore detailed soldiers from the palace and distributed money, commanding Theodorus to take charge of this work; this man held the position of announcer of imperial messages, always announcing to the emperor the petitions of his clients, and declaring to them in turn whatever his wish was. In the Latin tongue the Romans designate this office by the term Referendarius. So those who had not as yet fallen into complete destitution in their domestic affairs attended individually to the burial of those connected with them. But Theodorus, by giving out the emperor’s money and by making further expenditures from his own purse, kept burying the bodies which were not cared for. And when it came about that all the tombs which had existed previously were filled with the dead, then they dug up all the places about the city one after the other, laid the dead there, each one as he could, and departed; but later on those who were making these trenches, no longer able to keep up with the number of the dying, mounted the towers of the fortifications in Sycae [Galata], and tearing off the roofs threw the bodies there in complete disorder; and they piled them up just as each one happened to fall, and filled practically all the towers with corpses, and then covered them again with their roofs. As a result of this an evil stench pervaded the city and distressed the inhabitants still more, and especially whenever the wind blew fresh from that quarter.

At that time all the customary rites of burial were overlooked. For the dead were not carried out escorted by a procession in the customary manner, nor were the usual chants sung over them, but it was sufficient if one carried on his shoulders the body of one of the dead to the parts of the city which bordered on the sea and flung him down; and there the corpses would be thrown upon skiffs in a heap, to be conveyed wherever it might chance. At that time, too, those of the population who had formerly been members of the factions laid aside their mutual enmity and in common they attended to the burial rites of the dead, and they carried with their own hands the bodies of those who were no connections of theirs and buried them. Nay, more, those who in times past used to take delight in devoting themselves to pursuits both shameful and base, shook off the unrighteousness of their daily lives and practiced the duties of religion with diligence, not so much because they had learned wisdom at last nor because they had become all of a sudden lovers of virtue, as it were—for when qualities have become fixed in men by nature or by the training of a long period of time, it is impossible for them to lay them aside thus lightly, except, indeed, some divine influence for good has breathed upon them—but then all, so to speak, being thoroughly terrified by the things which were happening, and supposing that they would die immediately, did, as was natural, learn respectability for a season by sheer necessity. Therefore as soon as they were rid of the disease and were saved, and already supposed that they were in security, since the curse had moved on to other peoples, then they turned sharply about and reverted once more to their baseness of hearts and now, more than before, they make a display of the inconsistency of their conduct, altogether surpassing themselves in villainy and in lawlessness of every sort. For one could insist emphatically without falsehood that this disease, whether by chance or by some providence, chose out with exactitude the worst men and let them go free. But these things were displayed to the world in later times.

During that time it seemed no easy thing to see any man in the streets of Byzantium, but all who had the good fortune to be in health were sitting in their houses, either attending the sick or mourning the dead. And if one did succeed in meeting a man going out, he was carrying one of the dead. And work of every description ceased, and all the trades were abandoned by the artisans, and all other work as well, such as each had in hand. Indeed in a city which was simply abounding in all good things starvation almost absolute was running riot. Certainly it seemed a difficult and very notable thing to have a sufficiency of bread or of anything else; so that with some of the sick it appeared that the end of life came about sooner than it should have come by reason of the lack of the necessities of life.

And, to put all in a word, it was not possible to see a single man in Byzantium clad in the chlamys, and especially when the emperor became ill (for he too had a swelling of the groin), but in a city which held dominion over the whole Roman empire every man was wearing clothes befitting private station and remaining quietly at home. Such was the course of the pestilence in the Roman empire at large as well as in Byzantium. And it fell also upon the land of the Persians and visited all the other barbarians besides.

Procopius, History of the Wars, tr. H. B. Dewing, Harvard University Press, 1914, Vol. I, pp. 451-473.

No Tax Relief

Procopius adds in The Secret History:

When pestilence swept through the whole known world and notably the Roman Empire, wiping out most of the farming community and of necessity leaving a trail of desolation in its wake, Justinian showed no mercy towards the ruined freeholders. Even then, he did not refrain from demanding the annual tax, not only the amount at which he assessed each individual, but also the amount for which his deceased neighbors were liable.

A Letter from Scott Fitzgerald Quarantined in 1920 in the South of France During the Spanish Influenza Outbreak

Dearest Rosemary,

It was a limpid, dreary day, hung as in a basket from a single dull star. I thank you for your letter. Ouside I perceive what may be a collection of fallen leaves tussling against a trash can. It rings like jazz to my ears. The streets are that empty. It seems as though the bulk of the city has retreated to their quarters, rightfully so. At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t. He is much the denier, that one. Why, he considers the virus just influenza. I’m curious of his sources.

The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin. and lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us.

You should see the square, oh, it is terrible. I weep for the damned eventualities this future brings. The long afternoons rolling forward slowly on the ever-slick bottomless highball. Z says it’s no excuse to drink, but I just can’t seem to steady my hand. In the distance, from my brooding perch, the shoreline is cloaked in a dull haze where I can discern an unremitting penance that has been heading this way for a long, long while. And yet, amongst the cracked cloudline of an evening’s cast, I focus on a single strain of light, calling me forth to believe in a better tomorrow.

Faithfully yours,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

With many thanks to Hayley Pienaar for contributing this.

And, as always, if I have infringed copyright, please tell me and I will take down the page immediately.

Ibn Khaldun on the Black Death


The Black Death reached Tunis is 1348, when Ibn Khaldun was 17. In it he lost both parents and several teachers to whom he was very close. He lived through a period, as Albert Hourani puts it: “Full of reminders of the fragility of human effort”. His experiences led him to create a new and original philosophy of history, his central theme being why nations rise to power and what causes their decline, set forth in his Introduction to a Universal History, The Muqaddimah.

Plague Undermines Civilization

Civilization both in the East and the West was visited by a destructive plague which devastated nations and caused populations to vanish. It swallowed up many of the good things of civilization and wiped them out. It overtook the dynasties at the time of their senility, when they had reached the limit of their duration. It lessened their power and curtailed their influence. It weakened their authority. Their situation approached the point of annihilation and dissolution. Civilization decreased with the decrease of mankind. Cities and buildings were laid waste, roads and way signs were obliterated, settlements and mansions became empty, and dynasties and tribes grew weak. The entire inhabited world changed. The East, it seems, was similarly visited, though in accordance with and in proportion to [the East’s more affluent] civilization. It was as if the voice of existence in the world had called out for oblivion and restriction, and the world responded to its call.

tr. Rosenthal

On Air Pollution and the Plague

The commonest cause of epidemics is the pollution of the air resulting from a denser population which fills it with corruption and dense moisture…. That is why we mentioned, elsewhere, the wisdom of leaving open empty spaces in built-up areas, in order that the winds may circulate, carrying away all the corruption produced in the air by animals and bringing in its place fresh, clean air. And this is why the death rate is highest in populous cities, such as Cairo in the East and Fez in the West.”

tr. Issawi

Translations are from Franz Rosenthal’s three-volume translation, The Muqaddimah, second edition 1967, Princeton University and from Charles Issawi’s  An Arab Philosophy of History: Selections from the Prolegomena of Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332–1406), revised edition 1987, Darwin Press. The Muqaddimah is also available on line at . There is a non-academic article on Ibn Khaldun at