The Betrothed CHAPTER 31

The commission of public health had feared that the plague would come to the duchy of Milan with the German troops; and so it did, as is well known. It is also well known that the plague did not stop here, but went on to invade and depopulate a large part of Italy. Following the thread of our story, we must recount the main events of that disaster, as it affected the duchy, that is to say. The duchy, we may add, virtually means the city of Milan itself, for the memoirs of the time deal almost exclusively with the capital – as is nearly always the case in all periods and in all countries, for various reasons, some good and some bad. And to tell the truth, our object in relating this story is not only to set the stage for our characters, but also to give an adequate picture – to the best of our ability and within the limits of our space – of a period in our country’s history which, although famous enough in a general way, is very little known in detail.

Of the many contemporary descriptions, there is not one that gives a clear and orderly account of events by itself, though there is also not one of them that cannot contribute something to such an account. Every one of them leaves out essential facts which others record – this is true even of Ripamonti,1 who is the best of the lot as a gatherer and selector of facts, and even more for the system of observation which he uses – every one of them contains material errors, which can be recognized and corrected with the help of one of the others, or of the few official documents that have come down to us in published or unpublished form. Often one writer gives us the cause of effects which we have already seen floating unconnectedly in the pages of another. All alike show a strange confusion of times and events. Their stage is full of figures who come and go quite haphazardly, with no general pattern to be seen – no pattern even in the details. This is, in fact, a common and striking feature of most of the books of that period, especially those written in the vernacular – at least in Italy. Whether it is the same elsewhere in Europe (as we suspect), only the learned could tell us.

No writer of more recent times has ever attempted to examine and collate those memoirs, or to extract from them a connected series of events which could serve as a history of the plague. And so the popular idea of it has necessarily been very indefinite and somewhat confused. It has been a vague picture of great misfortunes and great mistakes (both of which did indeed occur, on a scale which can hardly be imagined) – a picture based more on opinions than on facts. For those facts were scattered thinly across the pages of the memoir writers, and frequently divorced from the circumstances that gave them their character; there was often no proper reference to the time they happened, and so no feeling of cause and effect, of movement, or of progression.

We ourselves, with great diligence if nothing else, have examined and collated all the printed memoirs and several unpublished ones, and most of the few official documents that have survived; and we have attempted, not to give the material the final form that it deserves, but at least to do something with it which has never been done before. We do not intend to report all the official documents, nor even all the events which are in one way or another worthy of being recorded. Still less do we claim to have made the study of the original reports unnecessary for those who want to have a more perfect understanding of the matter – we are very well aware that documents of that sort, however they may be conceived and put together, still have a vivid force of their own which cannot be transferred to another work. We have merely tried to distinguish and to verify the most widely significant and most indispensable facts, to arrange them in the order in which they happened, as far as their causes and nature will permit, and to observe their interaction. Thus we hope to offer, provisionally and until someone produces a better version, a brief yet connected and authentic account of that great disaster.

Throughout the whole strip of territory where the army had passed, corpses had been found here and there in the houses or on the roads. Soon afterwards people began to fall ill and die in one village or another – sometimes individuals, sometimes whole families – from strange and violent attacks of sickness, with symptoms quite unfamiliar to most of the survivors. But there were a few who had seen them before – the handful of people who could remember the other plague which, fifty-three years earlier, had devastated a large part of Italy, and especially the Duchy of Milan, where it was known at the time, and is in fact still known, as the Plague of San Carlo. Such is the strength of the spirit of true charity! Among all the varied and appalling recollections of a general calamity, it can make the memory of one man stand out, because it inspired that man to thoughts and actions more unforgettable even than the pains people suffered; it can imprint his name on all minds as a symbol of that terrible period, because it led him to appear and intervene in every sort of individual disaster, as guide, helper, example, voluntary victim. It can convert a public catastrophe into a challenging task for such a man, so that it is ever afterwards known by his name, like a victory or a discovery.

The physician Lodovico Settala had not only seen that earlier plague, but had been one of the most active and courageous of the doctors engaged in combating it – one of the most highly regarded too, though he was still very young at that time. And now, much alarmed at the prospect of a new outbreak, he was on the alert for news about it. On 20 October he reported to the commission of public health that the pestilence had undoubtedly broken out in the village of Chiuso – a remote hamlet in the district of Lecco, right on the border with Bergamo. But the commissioners failed to reach any decision on that date, as we learn from the Ragguaglio, of Tadino.2

Next, similar reports came in from Lecco itself and from Bellano; and then the commissioners did take a decision, though only to send off a representative, who was to pick up a doctor at Como and go on with him to visit the places indicated. But both of them, to quote Tadino, 3 ‘either through Ignorance or some other Cause, did let an old ignorant Barber of Bellano persuade them that such maladies were not the Plague’, but rather in some places the normal result of autumnal vapours from the marshes, and in others the effects of the privations and torments caused by the passage of the German troops. This reassuring message was taken back to the commission, and seems to have set their minds at rest.

But as more and more news of deaths continually came in from various places, two delegates were sent out to make the necessary observations and provisions. One was Tadino himself, and the other a judge from the commission. When they arrived, the disease was already so widespread that the proofs of it were plain to see, and there was no need to search for them. They travelled through the territory of Lecco, through Valsassina, along the banks of Lake Como, and the districts known as Monte di Brianza and Gera d’Adda; and everywhere they found barricades across the entrances to villages, or villages that were almost completely deserted, their inhabitants having run away and set up tents in the surrounding fields, or wandered further from home.

‘And they seemed to us like so many Savages,’ says Tadino, ‘one with a sprig of Mint in his hand, one with Rue, and one with Rosemary; and another with a flask of Vinegar.’

The delegates inquired about the number of deaths, which was horrifying. They examined the sick and the dead, and everywhere found the hideous and terrible marks of the plague. They immediately reported the sinister news to the commission, which received their letters on 30 October, and forthwith set to work, to quote Tadino again, ‘to draw up the Orders to exclude from the City all those who came from Places where the Contagion had manifested itself; and, while the Proclamation was prepared, they gave some brief advance Instructions to the Watch on the Gates.’

Meanwhile the delegates quickly took the measures that seemed best to them at the time, and returned to Milan, unhappily conscious that what they had done could not possibly cure or even halt an affliction which had already gone so far and spread so widely.

They reached Milan on 14 November, and reported to the commission, both verbally and again in writing. They were then delegated to attend upon the Governor and tell him how things stood. They went to the palace and reported back to the commission: that the Governor had been deeply grieved at the news, and shown himself keenly sensible of the situation, but that he was occupied with the weightier affairs of war: sed belli graviores esse curas.4 So Ripamonti tells us, after going through the records of the commission and talking to Tadino, the special envoy to the Governor. As the reader may recall, it was the second time Tadino had carried out an errand with this object, and with the same result. Two or three days later, on 18 November, the Governor issued a proclamation, in which he decreed public festivities for the birth of Prince Carlos, the firstborn son of King Philip IV, oblivious or uncaring of the danger of a great public gathering in those circumstances – just as if the times had been normal, and no one had mentioned the plague to him at all.

This Governor, as we mentioned before, was the famous Ambrogio Spinola, who had been sent to Milan to get the war going again on the proper lines and to correct the mistakes of Don Gonzalo, and, incidentally, to administer the territory. We may, incidentally, here record the fact that he died a few months later in that same war which meant so much to him; and he died not of wounds received on the field of battle, but in bed, of sorrow and distress, at the reproofs, injustices and general ill-treatment that had been heaped on him by those whom he served. 5 Historians deplore his fate, and blame the ingratitude of his employers; they describe his military and political exploits with great care, and praise his foresight, vigour and constancy. They might also inquire what use he made of all his good qualities at the time when the plague was threatening, and actually invading, a country and a people that had been placed in his care, or rather in his power.

But there is one thing which must temper our amazement at his conduct, though not our condemnation of it, and that is the behaviour of the population itself, which can only cause us a further and even stronger astonishment. The people of Milan were still untouched by the contagion, which they had the best of reasons to fear. The villages that were so tragically afflicted formed a rough semi-circle around the city, no more than eighteen or twenty miles distant from it at certain points; and when news of their troubles began to come in anyone might suppose that there would be a general stir of disquiet, a clamour for precautions of some kind (whatever their real value) to be taken – or, at the very least, an ineffective but widespread apprehension. But one of the few points about which all the memoirs of the time agree is that there was nothing of the kind. The famine of the previous year, the cruelties inflicted by the soldiers, and the general distress of mind that followed these things, seemed to everybody to be more than enough to account for the deaths. Anyone who mentioned the danger of the pestilence, whether in the streets, the shops or in private houses – anyone who even mentioned the word ‘plague’ – was greeted with incredulous mockery or angry contempt. The same disbelief, or rather blind obstinacy, prevailed among the senators, the decurions and all the magistrates.

We learn that as soon as Cardinal Federigo Borromeo heard of the first cases of the contagion, he sent out a pastoral letter to the parish priests, instructing them, among other things, to impress on the people as often as possible the importance of reporting all cases of the kind, and the strict obligation to hand in any infected or suspect personal effects for destruction.6 This too may be counted among his more unusual and praiseworthy actions.

The commission of health begged and pleaded for cooperation, but with little or no result. And in the commission itself far too little sense of urgency was shown. As Tadino several times remarks, and as appears still more clearly from the whole context of his story, it was the two doctors who realized the seriousness and the imminence of the danger, and proceeded to stir up their fellow-members, who then had to stir up the other authorities.

We have already noted how half-hearted the commissioners had been over taking action, or even gathering information, when the pestilence was first reported. Here is yet another portentous example of their dilatoriness – though it may have been forced on them by the obstructive attitude of the higher magistrates. The proclamation restricting entry to the city, which was the subject of a resolution by the commission on 30 October, was not finally drafted until the twenty-third of the following month, and not published until the twenty-ninth. By then the plague had entered Milan.

Tadino and Ripamonti both thought it important to record the name of the man who first introduced it into the city, with other details of the person concerned and the circumstances. In any discussion of the origins of a vast calamity, where the dead, far from being distinguished by name, can only be reckoned up approximately by the round thousand, a strange curiosity often arises to know the names of the first few victims, if they are recorded in documents that have survived. This unusual distinction, this grisly precedence, seems to confer a fateful and memorable quality on those names, and on associated details which would otherwise be even less significant.

Both of our historians blame an Italian soldier in the service of Spain, but they do not agree about much else – not even about his name. Tadino says that it was one Pietro Antonio Lovato, from the garrison of Lecco, while Ripamonti says that it was one Pier Paolo Locati, from the garrison of Chiavenna. They also disagree about the date on which he entered Milan, the first putting it at 22 October, and the second exactly one month later. Neither of these dates can be accepted, however, for both of them are inconsistent with other and much better established facts. And yet Ripamonti was writing on the instructions of the council of decurions, and must have had ample means of obtaining the necessary information; and Tadino, from the nature of his employment, was in a better position than anyone to get facts of this sort right.

In any case other information is available which seems to us far more accurate, as we mentioned above, and it indicates that the real date must have been before the publication of the proclamation restricting entry into the city; and if required we could also prove almost conclusively that it was in the first few days of the same month. But the reader will undoubtedly excuse us from doing so.

Be that as it may, the unhappy, doom-laden soldier entered the city carrying a great bundle of clothing which he had bought or stolen from the German troops. He went to stay with relations in the East Gate quarter, near the Capuchin monastery. He fell sick almost as soon as he arrived, and was taken to the hospital. A bubonic swelling was discovered in one of his armpits, which made the doctors suspect the truth; and four days later he died.

The commission of health isolated his family, and confined them to their house. The soldier’s clothes and the bed on which he had lain at the hospital were burned. Two nursing orderlies who had been looking after him, and a good friar who had given him spiritual comfort, also fell sick a day or two later, all three of them with the plague. In the hospital the nature of the disease had been suspected from the outset, and special precautions had been taken, so that there were no more cases there.

But the soldier had sown the seeds of destruction outside the hospital, and it was not long before they began to germinate. The first to go down was the owner of the house where he had stayed, a lute-player of the name of Carlo Colonna. Then all the tenants in that house were moved to the lazaretto, on the orders of the commission of health, and most of them were taken ill. Several of them died shortly afterwards, and there could be no doubt that their trouble had been an infectious one.

The infection that had already been distributed by those victims – not to mention their clothing and other belongings, which their relations, tenants or servants had concealed from the commission’s investigations and saved from its bonfires – was reinforced by the fresh infections that kept on coming into Milan because of defects in the regulations, of the slackness with which they were administered, or of the skill with which they were evaded. It wound its way slowly and secretly through the city for the rest of the year and the first few months of 1630. From time to time, now in this quarter and now in that, the contagion would choose its victim, and someone would die. The rarity of the cases itself diverted most minds from the truth, and progressively strengthened the public’s stupid, fatal belief that there was no plague in Milan, and never had been. Many doctors, echoing the voice of the people (but hardly, in this case, the voice of God), ridiculed the sinister prophecies and gloomy warnings of the minority. They had various names of ordinary diseases ready to describe all the instances of plague that they were called on to treat, whatever signs or symptoms they might exhibit.

When the news of these cases reached the ears of the committee of health at all, it did so belatedly, and in an uncertain form. The fear of quarantine and of the lazaretto sharpened everybody’s wits. Cases of sickness were not reported, and the grave-diggers and their superintendents were bribed. Even the subordinate officers of the commission, delegated by that body itself to inspect the corpses, could be paid to make false declarations.

Whenever it did succeed in discovering a case, the commission of health isolated houses, had their contents burned, and sent off whole families to the lazaretto – and so it is easy to imagine what angry complaints arose against it from the public at large, ‘from Nobles, from Merchants, and from the common People’, in the words of Tadino; since all of them were convinced that these were mere unreasoning and pointless acts of harassment. The main odium fell on the two doctors – Tadino and Senator Settala, the son of the Chief Physician – and it reached the point where they could not cross the squares of the city without being assailed with curses, or even stones. The situation of those two men during the next few months was certainly strange, and worthy of record, as they saw a terrible catastrophe coming nearer and nearer and did everything they could to avert it; and at the same time encountered obstacles where they looked for help, became the butt of popular indignation and were regarded as enemies of their country – ‘pro patriae hostibus in the words of Ripamonti.

A share of that odium fell on certain other doctors who were also convinced that this really was the plague, and consequently suggested precautions and tried to convince everyone else of the appalling truth. The more discreet of their fellow-citizens accused them of nothing more than credulity and obstinacy; the others regarded it as a blatant imposture, a conspiracy designed to make capital out of the fears of the public.

The Chief Physician Lodovico Settala was then nearly eighty years old. He had been professor of medicine at the University of Pavia, and then of moral philosophy at Milan; he was the author of many books which enjoyed a very high reputation at that time; he had been offered chairs at many other universities – Ingolstadt, Pisa, Bologna and Padua – and had refused them all; his authority stood very high among the men of that period. His life inspired no less respect than his learning, and he was loved as well as admired, because of the charity he showed in treating and otherwise helping the poor. There was indeed one thing about him which from our point of view must qualify and diminish the respect to which his merits entitle him, though it can only have strengthened the general admiration for him in those days – namely, the fact that the poor man shared many of the commonest and most lamentable prejudices of his period. He was ahead of his contemporaries; but he had not opened up a real gap between himself and them, which is what generally leads to trouble and loses a man the authority he has won in other ways. And yet the very great authority which he then enjoyed was not enough to overcome the views of the vulgar herd, as the poets call it, though stage prologues prefer the term ‘gentle public’. In fact it was not enough to protect him from the hatred and the insults of that section of the public which passes most rapidly and lightly from unfavourable opinions to hostile demonstrations and actions.

One day, when he went out in his chair to visit his patients, a crowd began to gather round him, shouting that he was the ringleader of those who wanted there to be a plague at all costs, and that he was the one who was terrifying the whole city, with that scowl of his, and that great ugly beard – and all to improve business for the doctors. The crowd quickly grew larger and angrier, and the chairmen realized the seriousness of the situation, and took him into the house of some friends of his, which was luckily not far away. This was his reward for having judged things correctly, spoken the truth, and tried to save many thousands of people from the plague. On another occasion he gave a truly lamentable professional opinion, which contributed to the result of a poor unfortunate woman being tortured, torn with red-hot tongs, and burnt alive as a witch, because her master suffered from strange pains in his stomach and a former employer had fallen passionately in love with her;7 and then, no doubt, he won fresh praise from the people as a man of learning, and also, repugnant as the thought may now appear, fresh renown as a public benefactor.

But towards the end of March the cases of illness and the deaths began to grow much commoner, first of all in the East Gate quarter and then throughout the city. There were strange attacks of spasm, palpitation, lethargy and delirium, accompanied by those sinister livid patches and bubonic swellings. Death was swift and violent, sometimes striking unexpectedly, without any previous symptoms of illness. The doctors who were opposed to the idea that this was the plague were unwilling to admit the truth of a view which they had ridiculed, but still had to find a name for this supposedly new disease, which was now too common and too well known to do without one. So they christened it ‘the malign fever’, or ‘the pestilent fever’ – a wretched evasion, in fact a mere fraudulent play on words. And yet it did great harm; for, while admitting half the truth, it still concealed the fact which it was most important for everyone to believe and understand, namely that the disease was transmitted by contact.

Like men awakened from a deep sleep, the higher magistrates began to give a little attention to the representations and proposals of the committee of health, to give force to its regulations, and to carry out the isolation of infected houses, and the quarantine arrangements it had recommended. The commission kept on asking for more money, to supply the rapidly growing daily expenses of the lazaretto, and all the other services. It applied for these funds to the council of decurions, pending a decision whether they were rightly chargeable to the city or to the Crown. (This decision, so far as we know, was never taken, except on a de facto basis.) The Great Chancellor was also pressing the decurions for money, on the orders of the Governor, who had gone off to renew the siege of the unfortunate town of Casale. The senate was also pressing them, both to see to the proper provisioning of the city, before the contagion spread further and caused the neighbouring states to break off all commerce with Milan, and to see to some means of maintaining the large part of the population that had lost its work.

The decurions tried to raise money by loans and taxes. Of what they were able to collect, some went to the commission of health, some to the poor, and some was spent on grain. They were able to supply a part of what was needed. And this was only the beginning …

In the lazaretto, where the total population rose every day, despite the daily toll of deaths, there was the further difficult problem of maintaining the necessary services and the necessary discipline, of keeping the different categories of inmates properly separated – of preserving, or rather of creating, the orderly administration decreed by the commission of health. From the very beginning there had been much confusion in the lazaretto, both because of the disorderly character of many of the inmates and because of carelessness or connivance on the part of the staff. The commission of health and the decurions, not knowing where to turn, finally thought of applying to the Capuchins. They appealed to the Father Commissary of the province – then performing the duties of the Provincial, who had died not long before – and asked him to provide them with someone capable of taking on the government of that unhappy realm. For the post of superintendent, the Commissary recommended one Father Felice Casati, a man of mature age, who enjoyed a high reputation for charity, diligence, and both gentleness and strength of character – a reputation which the event showed to be fully deserved. To accompany him and serve under him, the Commissary recommended one Father Michele Pozzobonelli, a man who was still young, but of a grave and severe aspect, which reflected his character.

The proposal was most gladly accepted, and the two fathers entered the lazaretto on 30 March. The President of the commission of health took them round the building, as if to let them take possession. Then he called together the orderlies and the staff of all ranks and announced to them that Father Felice was now in charge of the place, with the fullest authority over everybody there. As the numbers in that unhappy place continued to grow, other Capuchins arrived, to serve there as superintendents, confessors, administrators, nurses, cooks, distributors of clothing, washermen, and in any other capacity required. Father Felice was always on the move, by day and by night, walking round the arcades and the rooms and the vast internal space with busy speed; sometimes carrying a staff, sometimes with his hair-shirt as his only badge of office. He inspired and controlled everything; he calmed riots, solved disputes, threatened, punished, reproved and comforted; he dried the tears of others and shed tears of his own. He caught the plague at the beginning of his ministry, recovered from it, and went back to his duties with renewed vigour. Most of his colleagues in the lazaretto died there with uncomplaining cheerfulness.

This strange dictatorship was certainly a most extraordinary device for the magistrates to adopt – as extraordinary as that calamitous emergency, as the times themselves. Those in possession of such vital authority could think of nothing better to do than to hand it over to someone else, and could find no one for the purpose but members of an institution for which the exercise of power was an alien concept. Even if we knew nothing else about the history of the period, that fact would be enough to serve as proof of a primitive and ill-organized society – indeed as a good example of such a society at work. But it is also a good example of the strength and ability which the spirit of true charity can confer on men in any walk of life and in any period, when we see how stoutly the Capuchins bore that burden. There was beauty in their acceptance of the task, for no other reason than because there was no one else who would take it on, with no other object but that of serving their fellow-men, and without any hope in this world but that of a death which few men would envy, though it could truly be called enviable. There was beauty, too, in the way that the task was offered to them, solely because it was difficult and dangerous, and they were thought to have the energy and calm courage which are so necessary and so rare on such occasions. And so the great-heartedness and the good works of those friars are worthy of remembrance, admiration, affection and that special gratitude which is due as of right to great services to humanity – all the more so to those who do not expect it as a reward.

‘For if those Fathers had not been there’, says Tadino, ‘the whole City would surely have been destroyed; for it was truly miraculous to see how many things in how short a space of Time they did for the public Benefit; and how, without any Help, save very little, from the City, they were able with their Industry and Wisdom to maintain so many Thousands of poor Folk in the Lazaretto.’

The number of people who found shelter there during the seven months that Father Felice was in charge was about 50,000, according to Ripamonti, who truly remarks that he would have had to give the good father just as much space if he had been writing a book about the most noble passages in the history of Milan, rather than about its greatest miseries.

The obstinate reluctance of the public to admit that there was a plague naturally began to weaken and fade away, as the disease spread more and more widely by an obvious process of infection through contact; especially when the scourge, after some time of being confined to the poor, began to strike at men of more note. The most famous of these certainly deserves special mention here; for it was the Chief Physician Settala. Did they at least admit that the poor old man had been right from the beginning? We cannot say; but he and his wife, two sons, and seven of his servants fell sick of the plague. He himself and one of his sons recovered; the rest died.

‘Such Cases occurring in great Houses gave the Nobles and the Plebeians cause to think,’ says Tadino. ‘The incredulous Physicians and the rash and ignorant Populace began to tighten their lips, grit their teeth, and raise their eyebrows.’

But when obstinate folly is finally overcome its evasions and contortions – its dying acts of revenge, so to speak – are often of such a kind that we can only wish it had held out to the end, unconquered and unshaken, against the evidence and the facts. And this was a case in point. The men who had fought so long and so resolutely against the view that a seed of disease had from the beginning been near at hand, or in their very midst, which could multiply and spread by natural means to cause a disaster – those men were no longer able to deny that the disease was in fact spreading through the city. But they could not admit that it was due to natural causes without also admitting that they had completely misled the public and done great harm thereby. This disposed them to find some other reason, and to accept any explanation of the sort that might offer itself.

Unhappily one was ready to hand among the ideas and traditions that were common at the time, not only in Italy but throughout Europe. Poisonous arts, diabolical operations, conspiracies of people bent on spreading the plague by contagious venoms or by black magic … Similar theories had been maintained and believed in many previous pestilences; and not least in the same city of Milan, during the epidemic of half a century earlier.

It should be added that a despatch signed by King Philip IV had reached the Governor the year before, warning him that four Frenchmen had escaped from Madrid who were wanted there on suspicion of having used poisonous unguents to spread the plague. The Governor was instructed to be on the alert, in case they appeared in Milan. He communicated the despatch to the senate and to the commission of health, and no one seems to have paid very much attention to it at the time; but now that the plague had broken out, and been recognized as such, memories of that message may have reinforced certain vague suspicions that monstrous treachery was at work – may indeed have been their first cause.

But it was two other events, one caused by blind, uncontrolled panic and the other by a strange impulse of spite, which converted those vague thoughts of a hypothetical outrage into a fear which for many people would soon become a certainty – the fear of a real outrage, of an actual plot.

In the cathedral, on the evening of 17 May, some men thought they saw someone anointing the screen that separated the men’s section of the congregation from the women’s. That very night, they had the partition and the benches attached to it carried out of the building. The president of the commission of health, with four experts, quickly came to see; and when they inspected the partition, the benches and the holy water stoups, they could find nothing to support the ill-informed suspicion of an attempted poisoning. But as a sop to the imaginary terrors of others, rather to exceed in caution than compelled of necessity, they decreed that the partition should be washed down, as a wholly adequate measure.

But the sight of that mass of woodwork had a very frightening effect on the crowd, which is always so apt to take a physical object for a logical argument. It was generally said and believed that all the benches in the cathedral had been anointed, all the inner walls and even the bell-ropes. Nor was this a mere passing rumour, for all the contemporary memoirs which mention the story speak of it with equal certainty; and so do some others that were written a number of years later. We ourselves should have had to guess at the truth of the matter, if it had not been recorded in a letter from the commission of health to the Governor. This document, from which the words printed above in italics are quoted, is preserved in the archive known by the name of San Fedele, where we found it.

The following morning another sight, stranger still and more significant, struck the eyes and minds of the citizens. In every part of the city doors and walls were extensively marked with a strange sort of yellowish or whitish filth, which seemed to have been daubed on with a sponge. It may have been a silly trick, meant only to produce more general and noisier fears; or it may have been a wicked plot, meant to make the public chaos even worse than it was; or there may have been some other explanation about which we know nothing. But the story is so widely confirmed, that we can only regard the theory of a strange illusion of the many as even more improbable than a strange action by the few. Such an action would not, in any case, have been either the first or the last of its kind.

When he comes to the subject of these alleged anointings, Ripamonti often mocks at the credulity of the public, and still more often deplores it; but he confirms that he saw this daubing of the walls himself, and describes it.8 In the letter quoted above, the gentlemen of the commission of health also describe it in much the same terms as Ripamonti. They speak of various inspections, and of tests carried out with the material on dogs, without any ill-effect. They add that, in their opinion, ‘this outrage did proceed rather from insolence, than from any intention to harm’, which shows that they were still cool-headed enough to prevent them from seeing things that were not there.

When the other contemporary memoirs tell the story, they too imply that in the beginning many people thought that the daubing had been done for a foolhardy joke. They do not speak of anyone denying the fact that it occurred – as they surely would if anyone had really done so, if only to tax him with extravagant folly.

(It does not seem to me to be out of place to put together and report these little-known details of a famous outbreak of public madness, for the most interesting and instructive aspect that we can study, when considering human errors – especially those of the crowd – is their mode of progression, the shapes they take on and the methods they adopt to obtain entry into the minds of men and dominate them.)

The city had been agitated before, but now it was in utter turmoil. The owners of houses went around with torches of straw, burning off the patches of unguent; passers-by halted to watch in fear and trembling. Foreigners were suspect as such; and as they were easily recognizable by their dress in those days, they were often arrested in the streets by the people and taken to the police. All were examined and interrogated, accused, accusers and witnesses alike. No one was found guilty, for the minds of men were still capable of entertaining reasonable doubt, of looking at facts and understanding them.

The commission of health published a proclamation promising rewards and protection in return for information leading to the conviction of the author or authors of the outrage. ‘Since it in no wise seems proper to us’, said those gentlemen in the letter we have quoted before, which was dated 21 May but was evidently written on the nineteenth, which was the date affixed to the proclamation, ‘that this crime should remain unpunished, especially in times of such danger and suspicion as the present, we have today, to console and pacify the people, and to establish the facts, made public a proclamation that …’ – etc. But the proclamation itself contains no hint – no clear hint, at least – of that most reasonable and comforting theory which they had put forward for the benefit of the Governor. This omission is evidence both of insane prejudices in the public mind and of a dangerous respect for those prejudices on the part of the commissioners, which must be strongly condemned in view of its disastrous potentialities.

While the commission investigated, many members of the public had already reached their own conclusions – as happens sometimes. Of those who believed that the daubed material was really a poisonous unguent, some held that it was an act of revenge by Don Gonzalo Fernandez of Cordova for the insults he had suffered at the time of his departure; some that it was a trick of Cardinal Richelieu to depopulate Milan, and so to make himself master of it without difficulty; while others again, for no known reason, held that the Count of Collalto, or Wallenstein, was to blame, or this or that member of the Milanese nobility. There were also those, as we have already mentioned, who saw nothing in the whole affair except a silly joke, which they attributed to schoolboys, or to the gentry, or to army officers who were bored with besieging Casale.

No universal infection in fact followed, no general slaughter of the population such as must have been feared; and this was probably why the initial panic quietened down, and the whole thing was forgotten – or appeared to be forgotten.

There were also still people who did not believe that there was a plague at all. Both in the lazaretto and in the city there were some cases of recovery, and ‘it was asserted by the Plebeians, and also by many prejudiced Doctors, that this could not truly be the Plague, or All would have died’.9 (The final arguments of an opinion defeated by the evidence always have a certain curious interest.)

To remove all doubts on this point, the commission of health hit on a method suited to the needs of the occasion, a visual method such as might be demanded or suggested by the spirit of the times. It was the custom of the citizens of Milan, on one of the Pentecost feast-days, to flock to the Cemetery of St Gregory, to pray for the souls of those who had died in the previous plague and were buried there. Taking the opportunity to combine devotion, amusement and spectacle, everyone went there in all the finery he could muster. On that very day, among the other victims of the plague, a whole family had died. At the time of day when the crowd was at its thickest, in the midst of the throng of carriages, riders and people on foot, the corpses of that family were carried, by order of the commission of health, to the same cemetery. They were borne naked on a cart, so that the crowd could see the manifest signs of the plague on their bodies. Cries of disgust and terror arose wherever the cart passed; a long murmur followed in its wake, and another went before it. There was more belief in the existence of the plague after that; but in any case it was winning credence more and more every day by its own efforts, and that particular reunion must have done a considerable amount to spread it still further.

In the beginning, then, there had been no plague, no pestilence, none at all, not on any account. The very words had been forbidden.

Next came the talk of ‘pestilent fever’ – the idea being admitted indirectly, in adjectival form.

Then it was ‘not a real pestilence’ – that is to say, it was a pestilence, but only in a certain sense; not a true pestilence, but something for which it was difficult to find another name.

Last of all, it became a pestilence without any doubt or argument – but now a new idea was attached to it, the idea of poisoning and witchcraft, and this corrupted and confused the sense conveyed by the dreaded word which could now no longer be suppressed.

I do not think that it is necessary to be deeply versed in the history of words and ideas to see that many of them have followed a route similar to that just described. Fortunately, however, there are not many words of comparable type; not many that are of such importance, or that win acceptance at such a price, or that have accessory ideas of such a kind tacked on to them. But in small and great matters alike, it would often be possible to avoid travelling that long and tortuous route, if people would only follow a method which has been recommended to them for long enough – the method of observing, listening, comparing and thinking before they begin to talk.

But talking – just talking, by itself – is so much more easy than any of the other activities mentioned, or all of them put together, that we human beings in general deserve a little indulgence in this matter.