In 1629, a plague arose in the city of Milan. It began with rumors, isolated cases, bodies found here and there through the countryside. Investigators from the city began encountering villages that had barred their entrances to outsiders, and others that were deserted. It would not be long before the plague reached Milan itself. Records indicate the dead each day numbered five hundred, then fifteen hundred, then, by some counts, thirty-five hundred each day. In the several months it took the plague to run its course, some estimate that the population of Milan plummeted from 250,000 to 64,000.
Epidemics are disturbing, there is no doubt. But there are several things about the Plague of Milan that strike unusual resonance with a modern student of history and make it a particularly terrifying drama.
The first thing that makes watching the events unfold so chilling is that we are able to watch the progression with painful detail. Milan in the 1600s possessed a bureaucracy easily recognizable to the modern eye, complete with paper trails, government departments of health, and attempts at quarantine. A thorough picture is painted by journals and personal records written by officials, combined with early historical accounts, even if it is a picture where the lens of accuracy is still not highly refined.
The modern trappings of government serve to highlight all the more the painfully adolescent understanding of medicine at the time. Even the seemingly simple concept of washing hands to prevent the spread of disease is a relatively recent medical advance, still wrestling with credibility when Dr. Semmelweis first advocated it in the mid 1800's. It was even later than that when Alexandre Yersin, a Swiss medical student, determined how the plague was transmitted and what caused it. Back in Milan in 1630, then, their grasp of what was causing the massive wave of destruction was limited, the paper trails providing a window into the government's terrifying inability to stop the spread of death.
The next point of interest revolves around a peculiar event, and interpretations thereof.
On an April morning in 1630, in the unease building with the increasing number of dead as the plague's sweep through the city gained momentum, reports began pouring in "that many doors and walls were stained with a curious daub, as if a sponge, saturated with the thick matter from the pustules and sores of the sick had been pressed against them." (Summers, 561.)
The reaction in 1630 was violent. The act caused panic and was attributed to devil worshippers trying to spread the disease. People who acted suspiciously were mobbed and beaten, or turned over to the authorities who often had them put to death. These rumored evildoers who diseased their fellow men to please demons were called the "Untori", the annointers. Cardinal Borromeo, whose unpublished account is one of the most important sources of historical information about the event, was of the opinion that many of the Untori rumors were the result of hysteria. Yet he also asserted that not all of them were exaggerated, and that there were a number of instances of prayer books being wiped with "unquents" with the intent of causing disease in the clergy and churchgoers.
There seems little question among historians that the smearing of a pus-like fluid occurred in public and religious places. The Untori existed. But who were they?
In the 1630's, it seemed fairly obvious they were devil worshipers and should be burned at the stake. Writing from the vastly more advanced early 1900's, Alessandro Manzoni leaned toward an interpretation of the Untori as pranksters; students playing a joke, most likely. A more modern perspective still, in the early 2000's, it is hard to see the Untori as anything other than terrorists. Not political activists, but early cousins of the misguided Muslim suicide-bomber who blows himself up at a security checkpoint filled mostly with Muslim children, or the equally misguided American who drives a rented truck full of fertilizer and racing fuel up to public buildings and detonates the contents.
Whether or not the substance would have caused actual disease is incidental. At the time, both the perpetrators and the victims assumed it would. In the 1600s, it was a simple matter to understand the desire to kill hundreds or thousands of innocent people -- they called the tendency "evil" and attributed it to trafficking with evil spirits. In the 1900s, Manzoni seems to have difficulty imagining people who would do such a thing, and suggests "that it had been done in joke, in frolic". A hundred years later have given us yet more medical advances, particularly in psychology, and a perspective on pathological behaviors of humans as well as disease organisms. Given our current state of affairs, it's just as easy to draw parallels between senseless acts of terrorist violence and the strange affair of the Untori, as it was for the people in the 1630s to see the devil's hand in it.
As readily as some dismiss the devil worship, who is to say which of the three explanations best captures the truth of the matter? The only thing that can be said with certainty is that for a tragedy that happened 400 years ago, the Plague of Milan's themes of government wrestling with epidemic control and social issues are horrifyingly easy to relate to today.
- Manzoni, Alessandro. I promessi sposi. http://ercoleguidi.altervista.org/manzoni/psch_31_1.htm
- New Mexico State University, http://www.nmsu.edu/~honors/untori.html
- Summers, Montague. The Geography of Witchcraft, The Citadel Press, New Jersey, 1965. pp 560-562.
- Josephi Ripamontii, canonici scalensis, chronistae urbis Mediolani, De peste quae fuit anno 1630, Libri V. Mediolani, 1640, apud Malatestas.
- Plaugue causes: http://www.emedicinehealth.com/articles/8757-2.asp