Ethiopia – The Swift Arrival and Departure of the Flu Pandemic – 1918

Where can we go from your spirit, full of fear.

And where can we flee from your face, o Creator, death?

We cannot go up to the heights,

We cannot go down to the lowlands,

For there is the plague.*

And Haile Selassie, not yet emperor, wrote in his autobiography:

After this, from the 1st Hedar to the 30th (10th November-9th December), there broke out at Addis Ababa and in all the other provinces of Ethiopia an influenza epidemic, and in the city of Addis Ababa alone more than 10,000 people died. But I, after I had fallen gravely ill, was spared from death by God’s goodness.

Richard Pankhurst, son and grandson of the leaders of the suffragette movement, and a great scholar of Ethiopia, gathered information on the Flu Pandemic from survivors and from accounts by foreign residents, making it the first of the many epidemics in the region to be recorded in any detail, and with a valiant attempt at providing statistics.

Haile Selassie (at the time Ras Täfäri Mäkonen) fell ill on August 27th as part of the first wave of infections, which did not have an exceptionally high death toll and was not initially recognized as part of the global pandemic.

In the autumn, there came a second wave, introduced perhaps from Aden, which spread very rapidly, as people fled to remote areas where they hoped they would be safe. By November it became clear that this was “Spanish influenza” and the situation in Addis Ababa became critical. One witness told Pankhurst:

Just as a brother would walk over the corpse of his brother on a battlefield so nobody troubled to bury the dead by the road- side. They simply walked by. There were no more graves in the churchyards so it was decided that people would be buried by churches that would be built later.

He went on to describe the progress of the disease as “a forest fire spreading in dry grassland.”

By the middle of the month, Gerald Campbell of the British Legation was to write:

With the suddenness approaching that of a volcano the epidemic was upon us. On November 13th we were all proceeding with our work as usual; from November 14th onwards the Gebbi was closed and the Government ceased to exist. Chiefs were either fleeing or hiding in their houses, postal and telegraphic services were suspended, the town was deserted save for funeral parties by day and by thieves by night, three out of our five doctors were dying and the fourth was ill; the Legations had to give up work and set to tending the sick and dying among their communities.

The death toll seemed to be less high among the Europeans than among the Ethiopian and Indian communities, as Campbell told Minister Wilfred Thesiger, father of the explorer, who was away on leave. However, the following day, revising his opinion, he was warning him not to return, adding:

Influenza epidemic widespread especially along railway. Incubation only 24 hours and immediate precautions are essential otherwise results fatal. On Railways precautions are impossible. All work here suspended.

In November, the epidemic reached a climax. According to clinical descriptions and memories of those who recovered, the disease showed the usual symptoms, but with a terrible headache, a cough and, above all, total exhaustion. Those who could rest completely from the onset of the first symptoms tended to survive. Those who did not, developed pneumonia and died.

There were very few doctors, several of whom died from continuing to work while ill, leaving an Indian and Frenchman, of whom Thesiger wrote:

…even when suffering himself from influenza, he refused to give in and continued his work, although, as a doctor, he was fully conscious of the risk he ran. Even when most overworked, Dr. d’Antoine never failed to respond to applications for advice or assistance. . .and his work throughout was beyond praise.

Other members of the community heroically did their best to help, including a Parsi photographer, a Swedish missionary and Major Dodds of the British Legation, who took it upon himself to do what he could for the British Indian and Arab communities and, as a result, was very highly thought of by them. There were, incidentally, no medicines available, beyond alcohol (mainly whisky and cognac) and eucalyptus leaves, the local remedy.

Various witnesses interviewed by Pankhurst describe the complete paralysis of the Ethiopian capital, one of them adding:

We were in a state of desperation. You couldn’t visit friends. You couldn’t get a mule or horse because your servants also were ill, or were afraid of being ill. There was a real panic…..Social life came to an end completely, absolutely.

It is very clear from the accounts that the psychological effects of the epidemic were almost as serious as the disease itself. One problem, mentioned in many other accounts of plagues, (for example Miss Tully’s) was burial arrangements and the lack – or expense – of coffins.  Because of these difficulties, there was great danger of new epidemics, especially cholera. In addition, the effect of bodies being abandoned and eaten by dogs, hyenas and vultures was, obviously, deeply demoralizing.

The disease spread rapidly throughout the region – to the Highlands, to Eritrea, to Somaliland and on in the directions of Kenya and the Sudan, where it caused the death of Sayid Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, leader of the Dervish Movement: known to the British as the Mad Mullah – a translation of the epithet given him by the Somalis wadaad waal. It then burnt itself out with extraordinary rapidity, vanishing as swiftly as it came.

One informant Aläqa Kenia, attributed this to supernatural intervention, claiming that the acute mortality ended on the feast of St. Mary, November 29th and the few available statistics, mostly from records kept by the Swedish missionaries and the various Legations largely bear this out.

I remember one evening there was terrific shooting all over Addis Abäba from about eight o’clock until until midnight, and the people said they were shooting to disturb the evil spirits …..those days if shooting started it spread all over the place….you wouldn’t believe it, but the situation was much better…..The people thought they were shooting at the Devil.

On December 3rd, Mrs Thesiger had telegraphed Sir Reginald Wingate, Governor of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan to warn her husband again not to return, but the very next day, she could correct her message – the epidemic was abating.

By the middle of December, the epidemic was effectively over and Abel, another informant, recalls:

I remember my servants came and said you could get bread – that was perhaps three or four days after the shooting – and then vegetables came. It took about a week, perhaps a fortnight, until life became more or less normal, for the shops to open, until you could get aspirin, etc.

The local consensus, supported by Ras Täfäri, seems to have been that the epidemic was a punishment for the sins of the people and its sudden ending was simply thanks to the intervention of “Our Lady, Mary”.

This material is almost entirely taken from the excellent article by Richard Pankhurst, The Hedar Bëseïa of 1918, Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (July 1975), pp. 103-13

* A qené or improvised poem in Ge’ez from M. M. Moreno, Raccolta di Qené, Roma, 1935, pp. 40-1.

Many thanks to Ralph and Sarah Lee for suggesting this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mao Tse-tung bids Farewell to the God of Plague

July 1, 1958

When I read in the Renmin Ribao of June 30, 1958 that schistosomiasis had been wiped out in Yukiang County, thoughts thronged my mind and I could not sleep. In the warm morning breeze next day, as sunlight falls on my window, I look towards the distant southern sky and in my happiness pen the following lines.


So many green streams and blue hills, but to what avail?

This tiny creature left even Hua To powerless!

Hundreds of villages choked with weeds, men wasted away;

Thousands of homes deserted, ghosts chanted mournfully.

Motionless, by earth I travel eighty thousand li a day,

Surveying the sky I see a myriad Milky Ways from afar.

Should the Cowherd ask tidings of the God of Plague,

Say the same griefs flow down the stream of time.


The spring wind blows amid profuse willow wands,

Six hundred million in this land all equal Yao and Shun.

Crimson rain swirls in waves under our will,

Green mountains turn to bridges at our wish.

Gleaming mattocks fall on the Five Ridges heaven-high;

Mighty arms move to rock the earth round the Triple River.

We ask the God of Plague: “Where are you bound ?”

Paper barges aflame and candle-light illuminate the sky.

–to the tune of Lu shih poems

Poems from the Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung

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

Mao Tse-tung was determined to wipe out Schistosomiasis or Bilharzia, a debilitating parasitic disease, which affected or threatened millions of Chinese working on the land.

Renmin Ribao – The People’s Daily

Hua To was a famous Chinese physician of the Han Dynasty, credited with being the first to use anaesthetics.

The Cowherd in the poem is one of a pair of stars in Far Eastern mythology, set on either side of the Milky Way, but perhaps also refers to the role of cattle in the transmission of the disease.

Yao and Shun were two of the emperors referred to as the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors (3rd millennium B.C.), considered as the founding ancestors of Chinese civilization.

Five Ridges and Triple River is used to represent the whole of China.

The god, or gods, of plague, Wen Shen, were often driven were away in a ceremony that involved the burning of a boat, still practised notably in Taiwan.

Lu shih poems – a classical form of Chinese verse.

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.