I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni

Chapter 32

THE DIFFICULTY of providing for the mournful exigencies of the times becoming daily greater, it was resolved, on the 4th of May, in the Council of the Decurioni, to have recourse for aid and favour to the governor; and accordingly, on the 22nd, two members of that body were despatched to the camp, who represented to him the sufferings and poverty of the city: the enormous expenditure, the treasury exhausted and involved in debt, its future revenue in pledge, and the current taxes unpaid, by reason of the general impoverishment, produced by so many causes, and especially by the havoc of the military; they submitted to his consideration that, according to laws and customs, which had never been repealed, and by a special decree of Charles V., the expenses of the pestilence ought to be defrayed from the king’s exchequer: that, in the plague of 1576, the governor, the Marquis of Ayamonte, had not indeed remitted all the taxes of the Chamber, but had relieved the city with forty thousand scudi from that same Chamber; and, finally, they demanded four things:— that, as once before already, the taxes should not be exacted; that the Chamber should grant some supplies of money; that the governor should acquaint the king with the misery of the city and the territory; and that the duchy should be exempted from again quartering the military, as it had been already wasted and destroyed by the former troops. Spinola gave in reply condolences and fresh exhortations: he said he was sorry he did not happen to be in the city, that he might use all his endeavours for its relief; but he hoped that all would be compensated for by the zeal of these gentlemen: that this was the time to expend without parsimony, and to do all they could by every means: and as to the express demands, he would provide for them in the best way the times and existing necessities would allow. Nor was there any further result: there were, indeed, more journeys to and fro, new requisitions and replies; but I do not find that they came to any more determinate conclusions. Some time later, when the plague was at its greatest height, the governor thought fit to transfer his authority, by letters patent, to the High Chancellor Ferrer, he having, as he said, to attend to the war.

Together with this resolution, the Decurioni had also taken another, to request the Cardinal Archbishop to appoint a solemn procession, bearing through the city the body of San Carlo. The good prelate refused, for many reasons. This confidence in an arbitrary measure displeased him; and he feared that if the effect should not correspond to it, which he had also reason to fear, confidence would be converted into offense.1 He feared further, that, if indeed there were poisoners about, the procession would afford too convenient opportunities for crime; if there were not, such a concourse of itself should not fail to disseminate the contagion more widely: a danger far more real.2 For the suppressed suspicions of poisonous ointments had, meanwhile, revived more generally and more violently than ever.

People had again seen, or this time they fancied they had seen anointed walls, entrances to public buildings, doors of private houses, and knockers. The news of these discoveries flew from mouth to mouth; and, as it happens even more than usually in great prepossessions, the report produced the same effect that the sight of it would have done. The minds of the populace, ever more and more embittered by the actual presence of suffering, and irritated by the pertinacity of the danger, embraced this belief the more willingly; for anger burns to execute its revenge, and, as a very worthy man acutely observes on this same subject,3 would rather attribute evils to human wickedness, upon which it might vent its tormenting energies, than acknowledge them from a source which leaves no other remedy than resignation. A subtle, instantaneous, exceedingly penetrating poison, were words more than enough to explain the virulence, and all other most mysterious and unusual accompaniments of the contagion. It was said that this venom was composed of toads, of serpents, of saliva and matter from infected persons, of worse still, of everything, in short, that wild and perverse fancy could invent which was foul and atrocious. To these was added witchcraft, by which any effect became possible, every objection lost its force, every difficulty was resolved. If the anticipated effects had not immediately followed upon the first anointing, the reason was now clear — it had been the imperfect attempt of novices in the art of sorcery; now it was more matured, and the wills of the perpetrators were more bent upon their infernal project. Now, had any one still maintained that it had been a mere trick, had any one still denied the existence of a conspiracy, he would have passed for a deluded or obstinate person; if, indeed, he would not have fallen under the suspicion of being interested in diverting public scrutiny from the truth, of being an accomplice, a poisoner. The term very soon became common, solemn, tremendous. With such a persuasion, that poisoners there were, some must almost infallibly be discovered: all eyes were on the look-out; every act might excite jealousy; and jealousy easily became certainty, and certainty fury.

Ripamonti relates two instances, informing us that he had selected them, not as the most outrageous among the many which daily occurred, but because, unhappily, he could speak of both as an eyewitness.4

In the church of Sant’ Antonio, on the day of I know not what solemnity, an old man, more than eighty years of age, was observed, after kneeling in prayer, to sit down, first, however, dusting the bench with his cloak. “That old man is anointing the benches!’ exclaimed with one voice some women, who witnessed the act. The people who happened to be in church, (in church!) fell upon the old man; they tore his gray locks, heaped upon him blows and kicks, and dragged him out half dead, to convey him to prison, to the judges, to torture. ‘I beheld him dragged along in this way,’ says Ripamonti, ‘nor could I learn anything further about his end; but, indeed, I think he could not have survived many moments.’

The other instance, which occurred the following day, was equally strange, but not equally fatal. Three French youths, in company, one a scholar, one a painter, and the third a mechanic, who had come to see Italy, to study its antiquities, and to try and make money, had approached I know not exactly what part of the exterior of the cathedral, and stood attentively surveying it. One, two, or more passers-by, stopped, and formed a little group, to contemplate and keep their eye on these visitors, whom their costume, their headdress, and their wallets, proclaimed to be strangers, and, what was worse, Frenchmen. As if to assure themselves that it was marble, they stretched out their hands to touch it. This was enough. They were surrounded, seized, tormented, and urged by blows to prison. Fortunately, the hall of justice was not far from the cathedral, and by still greater good fortune, they were found innocent, and set at liberty.

Nor did such things happen only in the city; the frenzy had spread like the contagion. The traveller who was met by peasants out of the highway, or on the public road was seen loitering and amusing himself, or stretched upon the ground to rest; the stranger in whom they fancied they saw something singular and suspicious in countenance or dress — these were poisoners; at the first report of whomsoever it might be — at the cry of a child — the alarm was given, and the people flocked together; the unhappy victims were pelted with stones, or, if taken, were violently dragged to prison. And the prison, up to a certain period, became a haven of safety.5

But the Decurioni, not discouraged by the refusal of the judicious prelate, continued to repeat their entreaties, which were noisily seconded by the popular vote. The Bishop persevered for some time, and endeavoured to dissuade them: so much and no more could the discretion of one man do against the judgment of the times, and the pertinacity of the many. In this state of opinion, with the idea of danger, confused as it was at that period, disputed, and very far from possessing the evidence which we have for it, it will not be difficult to comprehend how his good reasons might, even in his own mind, be overcome by the bad ones of others. Whether, besides, in his subsequent concession, a feebleness of will had or had not any share, is a mystery of the human heart. Cer-tainly if, in any case, it be possible to attribute error wholly to the intellect, and to relieve the conscience of responsibility, it is when one treats of those rare persons, (and, assuredly, the Cardinal was of the number), throughout whose whole life is seen a resolute obedience to conscience, without regard to temporal interests of any kind. On the repetition of the entreaties, then, he yielded, gave his consent to the procession, and further, to the desire, the general eagerness, that the urn which contained the relics of San Carlo should afterwards remain exposed for eight days to the public concourse, on the high altar of the cathedral.

I do not find that the Board of Health, or the other authorities, made any opposition or remonstrance of any kind. The above-named Board merely ordered some precautions, which, without obviating the danger, indicated their apprehension of it. They gave more strict regulations about the admission of persons into the city, and to insure the execution of them, kept all the gates shut: as also, in order to exclude from the concourse, as far as possible, the infected and suspected, they caused the doors of the condemned houses to be nailed up; which, so far as the bare assertion of a writer — and a writer of those times — is to be valued in such matters, amounted to about five hundred.6

Three days were spent in preparations; and on the 11th of June, which was the day fixed, the procession started by early dawn from the cathedral. A long file of people led the way, chiefly women, their faces covered with ample silken veils, and many of them barefoot, and clothed in sackcloth. Then followed bands of artificers, preceded by their several banners, the different fraternities, in habits of various shades and colours; then came the brotherhoods of monks, then the secular clergy, each with the insignia of his rank, and bearing a lighted wax taper. In the centre, amidst the brilliancy of still more numerous torches, and the louder tones of the chanting, came the coffin, under a rich canopy, supported alternately by four canons, most pompously attired. Through the crystal sides appeared the venerated corpse, the limbs enveloped in splendid pontifical robes, and the skull covered with a mitre; and under the mutilated and decomposed features, some traces might still be distinguished of his former countenance, such as it was represented in pictures, and as some remembered seeing and honouring it during his life. Behind the mortal remains of the deceased pastor, (says Ripamonti,7 from which we chiefly have taken this description), and near him in person, as well as in merit, blood, and dignity, came the Archbishop Federigo. Then followed the rest of the clergy, and close behind them the magistrates, in their best robes of office; after them the nobility, some sumptuously apparelled, as for a solemn celebration of worship, others in token of humiliation, clothed in mourning, or walking barefoot, covered with sackcloth, and the hoods drawn over their faces, all bearing large torches. A mingled crowd of people brought up the rear.

The whole street was decked out as at a festival; the rich had brought out their most showy decorations; the fronts of the poorer houses were ornamented by their wealthier neighbours, or at the public expense; here and there, instead of ornaments, or over the ornaments themselves, were leafy branches of trees; everywhere were suspended pictures, mottoes, and emblematical devices; on the window-ledges were displayed vases, curiosities of antiquity, and valuable ornaments; and in every direction were torches. At many of these windows the sick, who were put under sequestration, beheld the pomp, and mingled their prayers with those of the passengers. The other streets were silent and deserted, save where some few listened at the windows to the floating murmur in the distance; while others, and among these even nuns might be seen, mounted on the roofs, perchance they might be able to distinguish afar off the coffin, the retinue — in short, something.

The procession passed through all quarters of the city; at each of the crossways, or small squares, which terminate the principal streets in the suburbs, and which then preserved the ancient name of carrobii, now reduced to only one, they made a halt, depositing the coffin near the cross which had been erected in every one by San Carlo, during the preceding pestilence, some of which are still standing; so that they returned not to the cathedral till considerably past midday.

But lo! the day following, just while the presumptuous confidence, nay, in many, the fanatical assurance prevailed, that the procession must have cut short the progress of the plague, the mortality increased in every class, in every part of the city, to such a degree, and with so sudden a leap, that there was scarcely any one who did not behold in the very procession itself, the cause and occasion of this fearful increase. But, oh wonderful and melancholy force of popular prejudices! the greater number did not attribute this effect to so great and so prolonged a crowding together of persons, nor to the infinite multiplication of fortuitous contact, but rather to the facilities afforded to the poisoners of executing their iniquitous designs on a large scale. It was said that, mixing in the crowd, they had infected with their ointment everybody they had encountered. But as this appeared neither a sufficient nor appropriate means for producing so vast a mortality, which extended itself to every rank; as, apparently, it had not been possible, even for an eye the most watchful, and the most quick-sighted from suspicion, to detect any unctuous matter, or spots of any kind, during the march, recourse was had for the explanation of the fact to that other fabrication, already ancient, and received at that time into the common scientific learning of Europe, of magical and venomous powders; it was said that these powders, scattered along the streets and chiefly at the places of halting, had clung to the trains of the dresses, and still more to the feet of those who had that day, in great numbers, gone about barefoot. ‘That very day, therefore, of the procession,’ says a contemporary writer,8 ‘saw piety contending with iniquity, perfidy with sincerity, and loss with acquisition.’ It was, on the contrary, poor human sense contending with the phantoms it had itself created.

From that day, the contagion continued to rage with increasing violence; in a little while, there was scarcely a house left untouched; and the population of the Lazzaretto, according to Somaglia, above quoted, amounted to from two to twelve thousand. In the course of time, according to almost all reports, it reached sixteen thousand. On the fourth of July, as I find in another letter from the conservators of health to the Governor, the daily mortality exceeded five hundred. Still later, when the plague was at its height, it reached, and for some time remained at, twelve or fifteen hundred, according to the most common computation; and if we may credit Tadino,9 it sometimes even exceeded three thousand five hundred.

It may be imagined what must now have been the difficulties of the Decurioni, upon whom was laid the burden of providing for the public necessities, and repairing what was still reparable in such a calamity. They were obliged every day to replace, every day to augment, public officers of numerous kinds: Monatti, by which denomination (even then at Milan of ancient date, and uncertain origin,) were designated those who were devoted to the most painful and dangerous services of a pestilence, viz. taking corpses from the houses, out of the streets, and from the Lazzaretto, transporting them on carts to the graves, and burying them; carrying or conducting the sick to the Lazzaretto, overlooking them there, and burning and cleansing infected or suspected goods: Apparitori,10 whose special office it was to precede the carts, warning passengers, by the sound of a little bell, to retire: and Commissarii, who superintended both the other classes, under the immediate orders of the Board of Health. The Council had also to keep the Lazzaretto furnished with physicians, surgeons, medicines, food, and all the other necessaries of an infirmary; and to provide and prepare new quarters for the newly arising needs. For this purpose, they had cabins of wood and straw hastily constructed, in the unoccupied space within the Lazzaretto; and another Lazzaretto was erected, also of thatched cabins, with an enclosure of boards, capable of containing four thousand persons. These not being sufficient, two others were decreed; they even began to build them, but, from the deficiency of means of every kind, they remained uncompleted. Means, men, and courage failed, in proportion as the necessity for them increased. And not only did the execution fall so far short of the projects and decrees — not only were many too clearly acknowledged necessities deficiently provided for, even in words, but they arrived at such a pitch of impotency and desperation, that many of the most deplorable and urgent cases were left without succour of any kind. A great number of infants, for example, died of absolute neglect, their mothers having been carried off by the pestilence. The Board of Health proposed that a place of refuge should be founded for these, and for destitute, lying-in women, that something might be done for them, but they could obtain nothing. ‘The Decurioni of the Citie,’ says Tadino, ‘were no less to be pityed, who found themselves harassed and oppressed by the Soldierie without any Bounds or Regarde whatsoever, as well as those in the unfortunate Duchy, seeing that they could get no Help or Prouision from the Gouernor, because it happened to be a Tyme of War, and they must needs treat the Soldierie well.’11 So important was the taking of Casale! so glorious appeared the fame of victory, independent of the cause, of the object for which they contended!

So, also, an ample but solitary grave which had been dug near the Lazzaretto being completely filled with corpses; and fresh bodies, which became day by day more numerous, remaining therefore in every direction unburied, the magistrates, after having in vain sought for hands to execute the melancholy task, were compelled to acknowledge that they knew not what course to pursue. Nor was it easy to conjecture what would be the end, had not extraordinary relief been afforded. The President of the Board of Health solicited it almost in despair, and with tears in his eyes, from those two excellent friars who presided at the Lazzaretto; and Father Michele pledged himself to clear the city of dead bodies in the course of four days. At the expiration of eight days he had not only provided for the immediate necessity, but for that also which the most ominous foresight could have anticipated for the future. With a friar for his companion, and with officers granted him for this purpose by the President, he set off out of the city in search of peasants; and partly by the authority of the Board of Health, partly by the influence of his habit and his words, he succeeded in collecting two hundred, whom he distributed in three separate places, to dig the ample graves. He then despatched monatti from the Lazzaretto to collect the dead, and on the day appointed his promise was fulfilled.

On one occasion, the Lazzaretto was left destitute of physicians; and it was only by offers of large salaries and honours, with much labour, and considerable delay, that they could procure them; and even then their number was far from sufficient for the need. It was often so reduced in provisions as to raise fears that the inmates would actually have to die of starvation; and more than once, while they were trying every method of raising money or supplies, with scarcely a hope of procuring them — not to say of procuring them in time — abundant assistance would most opportunely be afforded by the unexpected gift of some charitable private individual; for, in the midst of the common stupefaction and indifference to others, arising from continual apprehensions for themselves, there were yet hearts ever awake to the call of charity, and others in whom charity first sprang up on the failure of all earthly pleasures; as, in the destruction and flight of many whose duty it was to superintend and provide, there were others, ever healthy in body and unshaken in courage, who were always at their posts; while some there even were who, urged by compassion, assumed, and perseveringly sustained, cares to which their office did not call them.

The most general and most willing fidelity to the trying duties of the times, was conspicuously evinced by the clergy. In the Lazzarettoes, and throughout the city, their assistance never failed; where suffering was, there were they; they were always to be seen mingled with and interspersed among the faint and dying — faint and dying sometimes themselves. Together with spiritual succours, they were lavish, as far as they could be, of temporal ones, and freely rendered whatever services happened to be required. More than sixty parish-priests, in the city alone, died of the contagion; about eight out of every nine.

Federigo, as was to be expected from him, gave to all encouragement and example. Having seen almost the whole of his archiepiscopal household perish around him, solicited by relatives, by the first magistrates, and by the neighbouring princes, to withdraw from danger to some solitary country-seat, he rejected this counsel and entreaties in the spirit with which he wrote to his clergy: ‘Be ready to abandon this mortal life, rather than the family, the children, committed to us; go forward into the plague, as to life, as to a reward, when there is one soul to be won to Christ.’12 He neglected no precautions which did not impede him in his duty; on which point he also gave instructions and regulations to his clergy; and, at the same time, he minded not, nor appeared to observe, danger, where it was necessary to encounter it, in order to do good. Without speaking of the ecclesiastics, whom he was constantly with, to commend and regulate their zeal, to arouse such as were lukewarm in the work, and to send them to the posts where others had perished, it was his wish that there should always be free access for any one who had need of him. He visited the Lazzarettoes, to administer consolation to the sick, and encouragement to the attendants; he traversed the city, carrying relief to the poor creatures sequestrated in their houses, stopping at the doors and under the windows to listen to their lamentations, and to offer in exchange words of comfort and encouragement. In short, he threw himself into, and lived in the midst of the pestilence, and was himself astonished, at the end, that he had come out uninjured.

Thus, in public calamities and in long-continued disturbances of settled habits, of whatever kind, there may always be beheld an augmentation, a sublimation of virtue; but, alas! there is never wanting, at the same time, an augmentation, far more general in most cases, of crime. This occasion was remarkable for it. The villains, whom the pestilence spared and did not terrify, found in the common confusion, and in the relaxation of all public authority, a new opportunity of activity, together with new assurances of impunity; nay, the administration of public authority itself came, in a great measure, to be lodged in the hands of the worst among them. Generally speaking, none devoted themselves to the offices of monatti and apparitori but men over whom the attractions of rapine and license had more influence than the terror of contagion, or any natural object of horror.

The strictest orders were laid upon these people; the severest penalties threatened to them; stations were assigned them; and commissaries, as we have said, placed over them: over both, again, magistrates and nobles were appointed in every district, with authority to enforce good government summarily on every opportunity. Such a state of things went on and took effect up to a certain period; but, with the increase of deaths and desolation, and the terror of the survivors, these officers came to be, as it were, exempted from all supervision; they constituted themselves, the monatti especially, arbiters of everything. They entered the houses like masters, like enemies; and, not to mention their plunder, and how they treated the unhappy creatures reduced by the plague to pass through such hands, they laid them — these infected and guilty hands — on the healthy — children, parents, husbands, wives, threatening to drag them to the Lazzaretto, unless they redeemed themselves, or were redeemed, with money. At other times they set a price upon their services, refusing to carry away bodies already corrupted, for less than so many scudi. It was believed (and between the credulity of one party and the wickedness of the other, belief and disbelief are equally uncertain), it was believed, and Tadino asserts it,13 that both monatti and apparitori purposely let fall from their carts infected clothes, in order to propagate and keep up the pestilence, which had become to them a means of living, a kingdom, a festival. Other wretches, feigning to be monatti, and carrying little bells tied to their feet, as these officers were required to do, to distinguish themselves and to give warning of their approach, introduced themselves into houses, and there exercised all kinds of tyranny. Some of these, open and void of inhabitants, or inhabited only by a feeble or dying creature, were entered by thieves in search of booty, with impunity; others were surprised and invaded by bailiffs, who there committed robberies and excesses of every description.

Together with the wickedness, the folly of the people increased: every prevailing error received more or less additional force from the stupefaction and agitation of their minds, and was more widely and more precipitately applied: while every one served to strengthen and aggravate that special mania about poisonings, which, in its effects and ebullitions, was often, as we have seen, itself another crime. The image of this supposed danger beset and tortured the minds of the people far more than the real and existing danger.

‘And while,’ says Ripamonti, ‘corpses, scattered here and there, or lying in heaps, ever before the eyes and surrounding the steps of the living, made the whole city like one immense sepulchre, a still more appalling symptom, a more intense deformity, was their mutual animosity, their licentiousness, and their extravagant sus-picions. . . . Not only did they mistrust a friend, a guest; but those names which are the bonds of human affection, husband and wife, father and son, brother and brother, were words of terror, and, dreadful and infamous to tell! the domestic board, the nuptial bed, were dreaded as lurking-places, as receptacles of poison.’14

The imaginary vastness and strangeness of the plot distracted people’s understandings, and subverted every reason for reciprocal confidence. Besides ambition and cupidity, which were at first supposed to be the motives of the poisoners, they fancied, they even believed at length, that there was something of diabolical, voluptuous delight in this anointing — an attraction predominating over the will. The ravings of the sick, who accused themselves of what they had apprehended from others, were considered as revelations, and rendered anything, so to say, credible of any one. And it would have far greater weight even than words, if it happened that delirious patients kept practising those manœuvres which it was imagined must be employed by the poisoners: a thing at once very probable, and tending to give better grounds for the popular persuasion and the assertions of numerous writers. In the same way, during the long and mournful period of judicial investigation on the subject of witchcraft, the confessions and those not always extorted of the accused, served not a little to promote and uphold the prevailing opinion on this matter; for when an opinion obtains a prolonged and extensive sway, it is expressed in every manner, tries every outlet, and runs through every degree of persuasion; and it is difficult for all, or very many, to believe for a length of time that something extraordinary is being done, without some one coming forward who believes that he has done it.

Among the stories which this mania about poisoning gave rise to, one deserves to be mentioned for the credit it acquired, and the extended dissemination it met with. It was related, not, however, by everybody in the same way (for that would be too remarkable a privilege for stories), but nearly so, that such a person, on such a day, had seen a carriage and six standing in the Square of the Cathedral, containing some great personage with a large suite, of lordly aspect, but dark and sunburnt, with fiery eyes, hair standing on end, and a threatening expression about the mouth. The spectator, invited to enter the equipage, complied; and after taking a turn or two, stopped and dismounted at the gate of a palace, where, entering with the rest, he beheld horrors and delights, deserts and gardens, caverns and halls; and in these were phantoms seated in council. Lastly, huge chests of money were shown to him, and he was told that he might take as much as he liked, if, at the same time, he would accept a little vessel of unctuous matter, and go about, anointing with it, through the city. Having refused to agree to the terms, he instantly found himself in the place whence he had been taken.

This story, generally believed there by the people, and, according to Ripamonti, not sufficiently ridiculed by many learned men,15 travelled through the whole of Italy, and even further: an engraving of it was made in Germany; and the electoral Archbishop of Mayence wrote to Cardinal Federigo, to ask what he must believe of the wonderful prodigies related at Milan, and received for answer that they were mere dreams.

Of equal value, if not exactly of the same nature, were the dreams of the learned; and equally disastrous were they in their effects. Most of them saw the announcement at once and cause of their troubles, in a comet which appeared in the year 1628, and in a conjunction of Saturn with Jupiter; ‘the aforesaide Conjunction,’ writes Tadino, ‘inclining so clearlie over this Yeare 1630, that every Bodie could understand it. Mortales parat morbos, miranda videntur.’16 This prediction, fabricated I know not when nor by whom, was upon the tongue, as Ripamonti informs us,17 of everybody who was able to utter it. Another comet, which unexpectedly appeared in the June of the very year of the pestilence, was looked upon as a fresh warning, as an evident proof, indeed, of the anointing. They ransacked books, and found only in too great abundance examples of pestilence produced, as they said, by human efforts; they quoted Livy, Tacitus, Dionysius, Homer, and Ovid, and the numberless other ancients who have related or alluded to similar events; and of modern writers they had a still greater abundance. They cited a hundred other authors, who have treated theoretically, or incidentally spoken, of poisons, sorceries, unctions, and powders; Cesalpino was quoted, Cardano, Grevino, Salio, Pareo, Schenchio, Zachia, and finally that fatal Delrio, who, if the renown of authors were in proportion to the good or evil produced by their works, would assuredly be one of the most eminent; that Delrio, whose Disquisitions on Magic (a digest of all that men, up to his time, had wildly devised on this subject), received as the most authoritative and irrefragable text-book, was, for more than a century, the rule and powerful impulse of legal, horrible, and uninterrupted murders.

From the inventions of the illiterate vulgar, educated people borrowed what they could accommodate to their ideas; from the inventions of the educated the vulgar borrowed what they could understand, and as they best could; and of all, an undigested, barbarous jumble was formed of public irrationality.

But that which still further excites our surprise is to see the physicians, those physicians, I say, who from the beginning had believed in the plague, and especially Tadino, who had predicted it, beheld it enter, and kept his eye, so to say, on its progress; who had affirmed and published that it was the plague, and was propagated by contact, and that if no opposition were made to it, it would become a general infection — to see him, I say, draw a certain argument from these very consequences, for poisonous and magical unctions: to behold him, who in Carlo Colonna, the second that died in Milan, had marked delirium as an accompaniment of the malady, afterwards adduce in proof of unctions and a diabolical plot an incident such as this:— two witnesses deposed to having heard one of their friends, under the influence of the contagion, relate how some persons came one night into his room, to proffer him health and riches, if he would anoint the houses in the vicinity, and how, on his repeated refusal, they had taken their departure, and left in their stead a wolf under the bed, and three great cats upon it, ‘which remained there till break of day.’18 Had such a method of drawing conclusions been confined to one individual, it might have been attributed to his own extreme simplicity and want of common sense, and it would not have been worth our while to mention it; but, as it was received by many, it is a specimen of the human mind; and may serve to show how a well-regulated and reasonable train of ideas may be disordered by another train of ideas thrown directly across it. In other respects this Tadino was one of the most renowned men of his time at Milan.

Two illustrious and highly deserving writers have asserted that Cardinal Federigo entertained some doubt about these poisonings.19 We would gladly give still more complete commendation to the memory of this excellent and benevolent man, and represent the good prelate in this, as in many other things, distinguished from the multitude of his contemporaries; but we are constrained, instead, to remark in him another example of the powerful influence of public opinion, even on the most exalted minds. It is evidence — from the way, at least, in which Ripamonti relates his thoughts on the subject — that from the beginning he had some doubts about it; and throughout he always considered that credulity, ignorance, fear, and a wish to excuse their long negligence in guarding against the contagion, had a considerable share in this opinion: that there was a good deal of exaggeration in it; but at the same time something of truth. There is a small work on this pestilence, written by his own hand, preserved in the Ambrosian Library; and the following is one among many instances where such a sentiment is expressed:—‘On the method of compounding and spreading such poisonous ointments many and various things are reported, some of which we consider as true, while others appear to us entirely imaginary.’20

Some there were who, to the very last, and ever afterwards, thought that it was all imagination; and we learn this, not from themselves, for no one had ever sufficient hardihood to expose to the public an opinion so opposed to that of the public; but from those writers who deride it, or rebuke it, or confute it, as the prejudice of a few, an error which no one had ever dared to make the subject of open dispute, but which nevertheless existed; and we learnt it, too, from one who had derived it from tradition. ‘I have met with sensible and well-informed people in Milan,’ says the good Muratori in the above-quoted passage, ‘who had received trustworthy accounts from their ancestors, and who were by no means persuaded of the truth of the facts concerning these poisonous ointments.’ It seems there was a secret outlet for truth, some remaining domestic confidence; good sense still existed; but it was kept concealed, for fear of the popular sense.

The magistrates, reduced in number daily, and disheartened and perplexed in everything, turned all their little vigilance, so to say, all the little resolution of which they were any longer capable, in search of these poisoners. And too easily did they think they had found them.

The judicial sentences which followed in consequence were not, certainly, the first of such a nature; nor, indeed, can they be considered as uncommon in the history of jurisprudence. For, to say nothing of antiquity, and to mention only some instances in times more nearly approaching those of which we are treating, in Palermo, in 1526; in Geneva, in 1530, afterwards in 1545, and again in 1574; in Casale Monferrato, in 1536; in Padua, in 1555; in Turin, in 1599; and again in Turin, this same year 1630; here one, there many unhappy creatures were tried, and condemned to punishments the most atrocious, as guilty of having propagated the plague by means of powders, ointments, witchcraft, or all these together. But the affair of the so-called annointings at Milan, as it was, perhaps, the longest remembered and the most widely talked of, so, perhaps, it is the most worthy of observation; or, to speak more exactly, there is further room to make observations upon it, from the remaining existence of more circumstantial and more extensive documents. And although a writer we have, not long ago, commended,21 has employed himself on them, yet, his object having been, not so much to give the history, properly speaking, as to extract thence political suggestions, for a still more worthy and important purpose, it seemed to us that the history of the plague might form the subject of a new work. But it is not a matter to be passed over in a few words; and to treat it with the copiousness it deserves would carry us too far beyond our limits. Besides, after we should have paused upon all these incidents, the reader would certainly no longer care to know those that remain in our narrative. Reserving, therefore, for another publication the account of the former, we will, at length, return to our characters, not to leave them again till we reach the end.

1 Memoirs of successive Remarkable Events in Milan about the time of the Plague, in the year 1630, &c., compiled by D. Pio la Croce, Milan, 1730. It is evidently taken from an unpublished writing of an author who lived at the time of the pestilence; if indeed it be not a simple edition, rather than a new compilation.

2 ‘Si unguenta scelerata et unctores in urbe essent . . . Si non essent . . . Certiusque adeo malum.’—Ripamonti, p. 185.

3 P. Verri. Observations on Torture: Italian Writers on Modern Political Economy, vol. xvii. p. 205.

4 Page 96.

5 Page 96.

6 Alleviation of the State of Milan, &c., by C. G. Cavatio della Somaglia. Milan, 1653, p. 248.

7 Pages 62–66.

8 Agostino Lampugnano: Of the Pestilence that happened in Milan, in the year 1630. Milan, 1634, p. 44.

9 Pages 115–117.

10 A bailiff of the meanest kind.

11 Page 117.

12 Ripamonti, p. 164.

13 Page 102.

14 Page 81.

15 Page 77.

16 Page 56.

17 Page 273.

18 Pp. 123, 124.

19 Muratori, on the Treatment of the Pestilence, Modena, 1714, p. 117. P. Verri, in the treatise before quoted, p. 261.

20 ‘Unguenta vero hæc aiebant componi conficique multifariam, fraudisque vias esse complures: quarum sane fraudum et artium, aliis quidem assentimur, alias vero fictas fuisse commentitiasque arbitramur.’— De Peste quæ, Mediolani, anno 1630, magnam stragem edidit. cap. v.

21 P. Verri, work before mentioned.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:10