IT is to be hoped, that with all that modern science has done towards the better ordering of our sanitary arrangements and the scientific treatment of the refuse of the cities, we, in this country, may never again experience such a devastating scourge as the plague which swept over this land in earlier centuries.
Even now in India, China and other countries the mortalities from these awful visitations exceed anything we can imagine in our comparative security.
There, despite organized relief, the death roll from plague and its fearsome companion famine, wiped out in the affected districts hundreds of thousands of human lives, and we cannot pretend to have dealt with the subject of death without consideration of the provisions made in such calamities to dispose of great numbers of bodies mown down like corn under the sickle.
The Indian famine commission of 1898 reported that in the year 1877 no less than five million of the natives perished, and that during the forty years between 1860 and 1900, no less then ten widespread famines devastated India.
In the progress of the human race, as scattered tribes became nations herding together in communities, for one reason or another, they became subject to periodical ravages of plague in various forms, fostered by uncleanliness, which claims a full measure of the natural increase of the population.
Far exceeding all visitations of the kind in Europe, stands out the Black Death of the fourteenth century and the Great Plague of the seventeenth century.
The Black Death which appeared in London in 1348, started in China and rapidly spread from country to country, leaving an appalling devastation in its wake.
Green says, "Of the three or four millions who then formed the population of England, more than one half were swept away in its repeated visitations."
The Black Death left its mark on all phases of national life for a hundred and fifty years.
Whilst no accurate estimate could be expected, the total death-roll is probably not over-estimated as having claimed twenty millions of victims.
In attempting to relieve the most urgent necessities of the sick, the great religious institutions, which in the Middle Ages represented sanctuary, shelter and such medical care as they could offer to the people, were quickly overwhelmed and rendered powerless by the losses which they themselves sustained by infection, when tending the bodily and spiritual needs of the sick and dying.
The reader who may wish to learn more of this matter will study the great authority on the subject, Dr. Gasquet.
The outstanding feature of the Black Death was the great rapidity with which it spread, proving fatal to every kind of life that it touched.
It was brought to this country by traders at the ports of the eastern shores of the Black Sea. It spread along the trade routes from Bagdad to the southern ports of Asiatic Turkey. So sudden and violent was its attack, that the victims unhesitatingly abandoned all hopes of recovery at the first symptoms of the disease, thus rendering themselves unfitted to fight against the sickness.
There is an old story which so well illustrates the effects of the terror it caused, that it is worth recalling.
A pilgrim making his way to Bagdad was overtaken on his journey by a grisly figure. "Who are you?" asked the pilgrim. "I am the Plague," was the response, "and I am going to Bagdad to kill a thousand people." On his return journey the pilgrim overtook the spectre and stopping him said: "Why did you tell me that you were only going to kill a thousand people in Bagdad, whereas I found ten thousand of your victims in the city?" "I spoke truly," said the Plague, "I killed but one thousand, the remainder died from fright."
However, our present interest is not in the slaying, but in slain. Dr. Gasquet, speaking of the ravages of the Black Death, says, "There was no time for Christian burial. The corpse was hurried to the nearest church , where it was consigned to the tomb without the least attempt at ceremony.
Consecrated ground was quickly filled to overflowing, and it became necessary to dig trenches into which the bodies were placed in hundreds, layer upon layer, with but a little earth sprinkled in between till the pit was full to the top. Where the Charter House now stands in London more than fifty thousand corpses are said to have been buried. The same wholesale interments were found all that it was possible to give in other countries also.
"Help us!" they cry in Pisa, "to bear the body to the pit so that we in our turn may deserve to find someone to carry us."
Di Tura at Sienna, a contemporary chronicler, writes: "And I, Agniolo di Tura, carried with my own hands my five little sons to the pit, and what I did many others did likewise." So great was the labour of burying the dead, little wonder that fear seized the stoutest hearts, and the people dreading infection ran into the houses as the corpses were carried past. No outside help could be had for love or money.
The "passing bell" tolled continuously that the clerk and the sexton might gain their fees, rather than to urge the living to pray for the dead, and perhaps they might be excused, with food at famine prices and all sources of supply cut off.
As the churchyards were filled new cemeteries were hastily consecrated. In all this stress of circumstances it should be noted that no thought was given to the cremation of bodies; surely proof enough that the practice was repugnant to the people, who even in such circumstances as these refused to adopt the pagan practice as being against the usage of the Christian Church.
The historian Stowe gives the following picture of London in these dark times.
"The pestilence increased so sore that from want of room in churchyards to bury the dead of the city and suburbs, one John Corey, clerk, purchased of Nicholas Prior of The Holy Trinity, Aldgage, one 'loft' of ground near unto East Smithfield for the burial of those that died, with condition that it might be called the 'Churchyard of The Holy Trinity,' which ground he caused by the aid of divers devout citizens to be enclosed by a wall of stone. Robert Elsing, son of William Elsing, gave £5 thereunto, and the same was dedicated by Ralph Stratford, Bishop of London, where innumerable bodies of the dead were afterwards buried, and a chapel built in the same place to the honour of God."
From the same source we gather that the said Bishop of London "bought a piece of land called 'No-man's-land,' which he enclosed by a wall of brick and dedicated to the burial of the dead, building thereon a proper chapel which is now (1598) enlarged and made a dwelling-house, and the burying plot is become a fair garden retaining the old name of Pardon Churchyard."
After this, in the year 1349, Walter Mannering, "in respect of a plague and infection, purchased thirteen acres and a rood of adjoining the said 'No-man's-land,' and lying in a place called 'Spittle Croft' because it belonged to St. Bartholomew's Hospital." "Since then," he continued, "in this plot of ground (also consecrated by the Bishop of London) there were (in that year) more than fifty thousand persons buried, as I have read in the Charters of Edward III."
It will be noted that the good bishop at least played his part in the great drama; and how careful he was even in such difficult times to see the cemeteries enclosed with "walls of brick or stone" (no light matter), and duly consecrated in accordance with Christian custom.
Little attempt seems to have been made to stay the course of the Black Death, and it may well be supposed that to bury its victims was as much as could be coped with, but Collier mentions the following curious incident.
"A set of enthusiasts called Flagellants came from Hungary and passed through the country, lashing themselves till the blood ran down their shoulders that the plague might be stayed." As to what effect this self-imposed penance had he leaves us uninstructed.
Between the visitation of the Black Plague in the fourteenth century, and the "Great Plague" of the seventeenth century, a "sweating sickness" ravished England in the year 1551. It was peculiar inasmuch as it seemed to select its victims exclusively from the natives of these Isles.
Froude, writing of that visitation, remarks: "If it broke out in a foreign town it picked out the English residents with undeviating accuracy. The sufferers were generally men between thirty and forty years of age, and the stouter and healthier they were the more readily they caught the infection.
"The symptoms were a sudden perspiration accompanied by faintness and drowsiness. Those who were taken with full stomachs died immediately, and those who caught cold 'shivered into dissolution in a few hours.'
"The disease produced on the victim an intense desire to sleep, which, if yielded to, quickly proved fatal. So rapid was the disorder that of seven householders who supped together in the City of London, six before morning were corpses."
The cure advocated for this strange malady seems rather at variance with the necessity of keeping awake. The sufferer was advised "to keep close in a moderate air," and to drink "posset ale and such-like" for thirty hours, when the patient was supposed to be out of danger.
"It was a terrible time," says Stowe; "men lost their friends by the sweat." in London alone, eight hundred men died in one week in July.
In the seventeenth century no less than four plagues swept over the country. When we realize the comparatively spare population compared with our own times, the following death toll is simply appalling:
1603 ... 30,578
1625 ... 35,417
1636 ... 10,400
1665 ... 68,596
or a total sacrifice of 144,991 lives.
As these figures will show, the mortality of the "Great Plague," as it was called, far exceeded them all.
The authorities seem to have learned little from these repeated experiences.
By a remarkable dispensation of Providence, a year later, the fire of London burnt out the foulness which had so long accumulated. Every sort of filthiness had soaked into the very foundations of the houses, which, together with the churchyards into which bodies had been hastily packed away in thousands, were cleansed and purified by the intensity of the heat. That goods placed for safe storage by the merchants in the crypts of the churches should have been destroyed indicates the thorough way in which the great conflagration did its work.
At the first alarm of the plague the rich merchants of London fled to the country districts to avoid infection, leaving their poorer brethren to face the coming storm.
Some sort of organization seems to have existed with a view to stamping out the epidemic, for the city was divided into districts each with nurses, watchers and gravediggers.
The women who tended the sick carried a red staff in their hands that those whom they met might avoid them. The infected houses were marked with a cross and a prayer--a cry to Heaven when nothing more could be expected of material assistance. The warning cry "bring out your dead" and the rumble of the "dead-carts" disturbed the stillness of the night, all too short for the collection of the bodies from the streets and houses.
Besant also quotes the following regulations, drawn up by the City Fathers in their hopeless efforts to stay the ravages of the plague.
"That burial of the dead by this visitation be at most convenient hours always, either before sunrise or before sunsetting, with the privity of the churchwardens or constable, and not otherwise, and that no neighbours or friends be suffered to accompany the corpse to church, or to enter the house visited, upon pain of having his house shut up or be imprisoned, and that no corpse dying of infection shall be buried, or remain in any church in time of common prayer, sermon, or lecture; and that no children be suffered at time of burial of any corpse in any church, churchyard, or burying place, to come near the corpse, coffin or grave, and that all the graves be at least six feet deep; and further, all public assemblies at other burials are to be forborne during the continuance of the visitation." The regulations further enjoined that the houses which the plague had visited were to be marked with a red cross on the middle of the door one foot in length, and the words "Lord have mercy on us" to be also inscribed.
"Yes, when the crosses were chalked on the door,
(Yes, when the terrible 'death-cart' rolled),
Excellent courage our Fathers bore,
Excellent hearts had our Fathers of old."
In view of the regulation that none might follow to the grave, the corpse was hurried out of the house at night, wrapped in any sort of an improvised shroud, to be committed to the pits, with, or more likely without, a muttered prayer from the labourer already accustomed to the sickening sight of wholesale slaughter.
Liberal libations of beer and tobacco and good pay were the only consolations of a sorely tried official, who, from force of circumstances, or some sense of duty, was pressed into this service.
Whatever the efforts made it was certainly not science that finally overcame a national calamity which, nurtured in a hot-bed of filth, would, once it had started, have sorely taxed our most earnest efforts to-day.
All that we have to remind us of this last of a series of plagues is the old burial grounds, over the entrance to which may be seen the sculptured representation of skull and cross-bones distinguishing the sites of the plague cemeteries.
In the Brompton Road, once far removed from habitation, a row of empty houses stood for many years, which none would occupy. They were built on the spot where many thousands of victims of the plague lay buried.