An Historical Account of the Plague

An historical account of the plague: and other pestilential distempers….. was written by R. Goodwin, Richard Burdekin, published by R. Burdekin in 1832 (Original from Oxford University), digitized for Google books on Apr 19, 2006 and is 78 pages long.

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The information presented below is from the Googles digitized version of “An historical account of the plague.” Its important for modern mankind to understand how plagues have affected our ancestors. Its only through understanding the past, can we plan for the future.


Flag Ok, or Pestilential Fever, is a very malignant, and contagious disease; being a putrid fever of the worst kind, and seldom failing to prove fatal; though it is generally denned a malignant fever.

That the plague is a poison, or rather carries a poison along with it, is acknowledged by all physicians; but of what kind and nature it is, and whence it proceeds, is left in obscurity.

The plague, it is generally believed, seldom or ever originates in Britain, but is imported from abroad, especially from the Levant, Lesser Asia and Egypt where it is very common. Dr. Sydenham, in his works, has remarked that it rarely infects his country oftener than once in forty years, and happily we have been free from it for a much longer period.

Authors are not yet agreed concerning the nature of this dreadful distemper. Some think that insects are the cause of it, in the same way that they are the cause of blights, being brought in swarms from other climates by the wind, when they are taken into the lungs in respiration ; the consequence of which is, that they mix with the blood and juices, and attack and corrode the viscera. Mr. Boyle, on the other hand, thinks it originates from the effluvia or exhalations breathed into the atmosphere from noxious minerals, to which may be added stagnant waters and putrid bodies of every kind.

Gibbon, the historian, thought the plague originated from damp, hot, and stagnating air, and the putrefaction of animal substances, especially locusts.

The Mahometans believe that the plague proceeds from certain spirits, or goblins, armed with bows and arrows, sent by God to punish men for their sins; and that when the wounds are given by specters of a black color, they certainly prove fatal, but not so when the arrows are shot by those that appear white. They therefore take no precaution to guard themselves against it. The wiser professors of this religion, however, at present act otherwise.

An article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, states it as a remarkable fact, that plagues are some times partial, and that they only attack particular animals, or a particular description of persons, avoiding others altogether, or attacking them but slightly. Thus Fernelius informs U3 of a plague, or murrain, in 1514, which affected only cats. Dionysius Halicarnasseus mentions a plague which attacked none but maids; and that which raged in the time of Gentilis, killed scarcely any women, and very few but lusty men. Eotcrus mentions another plague, which assaulted none but the younger sort. Cardan speaks of a plague at Basle with which the Switzers were infected, and the Italians, Germans, or French, exempted: and John Utenhovius takes notice of a dreadful one at Copenhagen, which, though it raged among the Danes, spared the Germans, Dutch, and English, who went with all freedom and without the least danger, to the houses of the infected. During the plague which ravaged Syria, in 1760, it was observed that people of the soundest constitutions were the most liable to it, and that the weak and delicate were either spared or easily cured. It was most fatal to the Moors; and when it attacked them it was generally incurable.

The historical details connected with this very singular disease are highly interesting. The ancients do not appear to have been acquainted with it; but it must be confessed that its origin and early history are involved in much obscurity. For many centuries past it has been endemic on the shores of the Mediterranean; although it has occasionally shown itself in other latitudes.

A modern writer describes this family of dis- eases commonly called plagues or pestilences, as a variety of fevers, with or without eruptions on the skin, which have from time to time, by spreading epidemically,* thinned the ranks of mankind. These fevers appear under different types, or degrees of immediate severity. The inflammatory type, is indicated by a strong pulse and highly excited system; the typhoid, by a weak pulse and great debility. There is an intermediate type, partaking of both these extremes. They have received different names, often educed from some peculiarity in the symptoms of each particular disease; but occasionally suggested by. the caprice or the peculiar views of the author who may have descanted upon them.

Europe, though less favorable than other quarters of the globe to the generating of the elements of contagion in the first instance, or to the intoduction of an epidemic state of the atmosphere, has been frequently visited by pestilential diseases.

Any disease affecting numbers of people in or about the any time and place, if not dependent upon local and limited circumstance!, is called an epidemic.

With this summary view of these awful and mysterious dispensations of Divine Providence, which, it is hoped, every reader will regard with becoming seriousness, his attention is called to the more detailed particulars, as given in the following .historical account.

Thucydides, who was himself infected, gives .us an account of a dreadful plague which happened at Athens about the year before Christ 430, while the Peloponnesians under the command of A rchidamus wasted all her territory abroad; but of these two enemies the plague was by far the most dreadful and severe.

80 A. D. – At the commencement of the Christian aera, one of the most dreadful plagues that perhaps ever was known visited Rome, it was in the reign of Titus, so early as the year 80. There happened to be a fire in that city, which lasted three days and nights successively, this was followed by an awful plague, in which 10,000 persons were buried in one day. * The emperor did all in his power to repair the damages, and assist the distressed, by declaring he would take the whole loss occasioned by the fire upon himself, and left no remedy unat- tempted to abate the malignity of the distemper.

167 A.D. – A similar disease to the former raged in all the provinces of the Roman empire, in the reign of M. Aurelius, and was followed by a dreadful famine, by earthquakes, inundations, and other calamities. The Romans believed that ^Esculapius sometime* entered into a serpent, and cured the plague.

430 A.D. – The first plague we read of in England, was about this time, just after the Picts and Scots had made a formidable invasion of the southern part of the island. The plague raged with uncommon fury, and swept away most of those whom the sword and famine had spared. 447.

Another plague broke out, which, in a short time destroyed such a multitude of people, that the living were scarcely sufficient to bury the dead. 583.

The next happened in France, but more particularly at Paris, which they called the plague in the groin, because it appeared in that part. It seemed to burn those who were infected with it, and afflicted them with most intolerable pains, making a scar, in a short time, as if it had been done by an actual cautery. It made dreadful havoc among mankind, and the greatest part died in great pain, with dreadful shrieks and cries.

1043 A.D. -There was a remarkable earthquake in England on the first of March, which was attended with a destruction of man and beaat, and the lightning set several towns and fields of corn on fire, which occasioned such a famine, that one horse-load of wheat was sold for five shillings, a considerable Bum in those days.

1086 – The unseasonable weather and heavy rains, which occured at this period, caused a famine; the consequence of which was a dreadful mortality of men and cattle.

1093 – A famine raged this year, which produced so great a loss of life, that it was with difficulty the living were able to bury the dead.

1247 – On Valentine’s day, there was a violent earthquake in several parts of England, especially in London, and on the Banks of the Thames, which was followed by a plague, insomuch that in September following, there were nine or ten buried every day in the churchyard of St. Peter at St. Alban’s.

1259 -A great pestilence broke out in England, whereof many thousands died, which it was thought wa» occasioned by the famine of the proceeding year, \vhich was so destructive, that many were forced to feed upon horse-flesh, bark of trees, &c., and provision were so scarce that 29,000 people were said to be starved to death for want, in London.

Plagues of the 1300s

1315 – England was again visited with a great famine, so that horses and dogs were euten as common food, and in the prisons the distress was so particularly great, that new offenders as soon as they entered were devoured, and in some instances eaten half alive. The famine continued three years, and ended in so terrible a pestilence, that the living were scarcely able to bury the dead. The cattle .which fed upon the grass, which was said to be corrupted, died; this made their flesh suspected of being unwholesome, for which reason horseflesh was accounted a great delicacy.

1348 – There happened the most dreadful pestilence that ever was known; it was so universal, that there was neither city, town, or house, but what was invaded with it. It began in the kingdom of Kathay, in the year 1346, by an intolerable stench, that arose out of the earth, which extended and was felt above 600 miles through the country, and not only the trees were destroyed, but the very stones themselves did not escape: the air was infected to such a degree, that great numbers of small serpents and other insects fell down from it. From Kathay it took its progress through Asia into Greece, and from thence into Africa, and last of all into Europe, where it made terrible devastations, to the utmost extremity of the north. It reached Florence, which was then the most beautiful city in Italy, though all possible care wa« taken to prevent it, by cleansing it from all filth, forbidding infected persons to enter, and in a solemn manner beseeching the Almighty to avert the impending danger. About the beginning of the said year, it began to discover its dreadful effects ; according to Antoninus, bishop of Florence, the distemper carried off 60,000 people in that city; it seized children of both sexes, with swellings in the groin, or under the armpits, which increasing to the size of an apple, some greater, some less, and from thence they appeared indifferently in other parts of the body; afterwards they were affected with black or blue spots, on the arms, thighs, and other parts, of different sizes, and all these were certain signs of approaching death; for tlie physician’s art, and the virtue of medicines availed nothing. They generally died the third day after these signs appeared, and often without any fever or other accident. If the clothes or things belonging to the infected persons, happened to be touched by any animal, it was certain death; and I myself, (says Boccace,) beheld the clothe? of a poor man, who died of this disease, thrown into the street, which two hogs seized with their teeth, and after they had shaken them a little, they wheeled about once or twice and fell down doiul, as if they had been poisoned.

Schenckius informs us, that when this disease entered any place, for the first two months it was attended with a fever, difficulty of breathing, and spitting of blood. The difficulty of breathing was so great, that the patient was constantly obliged to keep himself in a sitting posture; and could scarcely swallow any thing either solid or liquid ; his cheeks were red and inflamed, and he was troubled with a violent cough, which produced a con- siderable quantity of blood; in three days time it terminated in death. After the expiration of two months, besides the foregoing symptoms, they began to have spots and abscesses, and some did not die till after the expiration of five days. :

In process of time, the fury of the disease began to abate, and the lungs ceased to be affected; but the morbific matter was thrown upon the groin, armpits, and behind the ears, and was not then so mortal.

This plague visited London in the beginning of November, in 1348, and continued till 1357. It made its first appearance in England, in the seaport towns of Dorsetshire, and destroyed almost all the inhabitants; from thence it passed into

Devonshire and Somersetshire, as far as Bristol, and although the inhabitants in Gloucestershire used every precaution, and cut off all communication, particularly with the city, yet it soon entered their capital, and extended the devastation to Oxford, London, &c., spreading itself all over England, and made such a dreadful havoc among the people, that scarcely one in ten of all ranks and degrees was left alive, and when the churchyards were not sufficient to receive the dead, there were certain fields appointed for that purpose. It was at this time,- that Walter Mayny, Lord of Mayny, born at Cambray, who served in the wars, with the Duke of Lancaster, bought a piece of ground, called Spittle Croft, without the bars of West- Smithfield, and caused it to be enclosed and consecrated for the burial of the dead; and in the year following, there were no less than 50,000 persons buried therein, as appears from authentic accounts. The same gentleman built a chapel on the said ground, in memory thereof, and afterwards converted it into a monastery 5 for monks of the Chartreux order, which is now vulgarly called the Charter-House.

1361 – There began another plague, called the second pestilence, in which Henry, Duke of Lancaster, died, as also Reginald Lord Cobham, Walter Fitz- warring, two eminent men, and the bishops of Worcester, London, Ely, Lincoln, and Chiches- ter. In France it raged seven or eight years at intervals. All sorts of persons, without destinction, were attacked both in town and country. There died of it this year, nine cardinals, and seventy prelates, at the Pope’s court, and more than 30,000 people in Paris.

1369 – This disease returned, and was called the third pestilence, of which among others died Blanch, Duchess of Lancaster.

1379 – There happened so great a mortality in the North of England, as never had been known before; which the Scotch taking the advantage of, ravaged those parts, and killed such as were »ick of the plague, and not able to defend themselves, and drove most that remained out of the conntry.

1390 – A contagious distemper began in the northern parts of the kingdom; and, in a short time, 1100 persona died in the city of York.

1391 – In July, this year, the sun appeared red through certain dusky clouds, and gave but little light from noon till sun-set. This continued much in the same manner for six weeks following, and at the same time there was a great mortality in Norfolk, occasioned by the plague, and in many other parts, insomuch that it resembled the great pestilence; and in the city of York, it was very fatal, 11,000 persons died.

Plagues of the 1400s

1407 – In the summer time, the air was so corrupted, and so great a plague ensued, that the same had not been seen for many years; in London it soon destroyed 30,000 persons, and the mortality was so great in country villages among farmers and husbandmen, that many entire families died of it, and the houses were left desolate.

1427 – Craike, the historian, informs us, there was a great plague at Dantzic.

1478 – Towards the latter end of September, there was a great pestilence, not only in London, but in several parts of the kingdom. It lasted about fourteen months, in which space of time, there died a prodigious number of people in London and other places. Baker says, that a year or two before this, there was so great a pestilence, that it swept away more people in four months than the wars had done in fifteen years, c

1485 – In about the beginning of August, the disease called the sweating sickness began, and continued till the end of October. Sennertus says, that this distemper was very common in England for forty years successively; physicians and historians, who lived in or near those times affirm, that it had intervals, for in the space of sixty-six years it made only four returns, viz. in 1506, 1517, 1528, and 1551, seldom raging above six months, and some times terminating in three, and was always preceded by a very wet season. Its malignity was so great, that when it invaded any place it seized upon five or six hundred persons at a time, . and of these scarcely one in a hundred escaped.

Sennertus gives us a compendious description of this disease, which is agreeable to what other authors have said about it. Those who were taken ill had neither carbuncles nor spots, but lost their strength all of a sudden, and fainted away; they had great anxiety of mind a pain in the head, a quick, swift, unequal pulse, and a very great palpitation of the heart; they fell into a constant and copious sweat, which did not terminate before the disease, that lasted twenty-four hours; and those who did not encourage the sweating, nor made use of cordials, and who impatient of heat, exposed themselves to the cold air, died suddenly within twenty-four hours. But after the nature of the disease was known, so that the patients promoted the sweating, and fortified themselves with cordials, the mortality was not so great.

As to the cure, Polydore Virgil, treats of it with great accuracy ; for after long observation, and many experiments of what was hurtful or helpful to this distemper, they at length hit upon a re medy, which might be easily made use of every one, as follows: if any one fell into a sweat, in the day-time, they immediately went to bed with their clothes on; if they were taken in the night, they kept themselves still and quiet, till the expiration of twenty-four hours; means beingtaken to keep up the regular continuance of the sweat.

There is something very remarkable recorded about this distemper, which is, that it pursued the English into foreign countries, and invaded none but them.

Schenckius relates a very singular story of one that would uot submit to the usual method of cure, and in order to avoid it, ran away and hid himself in an oven, from whence the bread had been lately drawn; the heat of which throwing him into a plentiful sweat, he at length crept out with the usual signs of recovery.