The Betrothed CHAPTER 32

As it grew steadily more difficult to meet the painful demands of this tragic situation, the council of decurions passed a resolution on 4 May to appeal to the Governor for help. And on the twenty-second two of their number were sent off to his field headquarters, to lay before him an account of the miserable and straitened circumstances of the city – enormous expenditure, empty coffers, the income of future years mortgaged, taxes for the current period unpaid because of the general poverty, to which many causes contributed, but most of all the damage done by the soldiers. They reminded him that expenditure arising from the plague ought to be met from Crown funds, according to old customs and laws which had never been abrogated, and also according to a special decree of Charles V. They mentioned that during the pestilence of 1576 the Governor, who was then the Marquis of Ayamonte, had not only waived all the taxes payable to the State, but had given the city a subvention of forty thousand scudi from State funds. Finally they made four requests:

That the taxes should be waived, as on the previous occasion.

That the State should make a subvention, as before.

That the Governor should inform the King of the miseries of the city and of the whole province.

That the Governor should grant exemption from any further billeting to the countryside which had already been devastated by the passage of the troops.

The Governor wrote a reply full of condolences and fresh exhortations. He said that he was sorry not to be able to stay in the city and devote all his energies to the relief of its troubles, but hoped that the zeal of the decurions would be enough to provide for everything. This, he said, was a time to spend freely, to use every resource to the full. As for their specific requests, ‘proveeré en el mejor modo que el tiempo y necesidades presentes permitieren’.1 Under these words came a hieroglyph, as clear as his promises, which evidently stood for ‘Ambrogio Spinola’.

The Great Chancellor, Antonio Ferrer wrote to tell him that this answer had been read by the decurions ‘con gran desconsuelo’.2 There were further comings and goings, requests and answers; but I cannot trace that any definite conclusions came of them. Some time later, when the plague was at its height, the Governor transferred his authority to Ferrer by letters patent, being himself obliged, as he wrote, to give all his thought to the war.

That war, we may note, caused the death from pestilence, quite apart from military casualties, of at least one million people in the territories of Lombardy, Venice, Piedmont, Tuscany and a part of Romagna; it made a desert of the places through which the troops passed, let alone those where they fought; it culminated in the capture and the horrifying sack of Mantua; and the upshot of it all was that everybody recognized the new Duke of Mantua, to exclude whom the war had been undertaken in the first place. But it must be added that he was obliged to cede a part of Montferrat, with revenues of fifteen thousand scudi,3 to the Duke of Savoy, and a certain other piece of territory, with revenues of six thousand scudi,3 to Duke Ferrante of Guastalla; and that there was also a very secret separate treaty, whereby the Duke of Savoy ceded Pinerolo to the French. This last agreement was carried out a little later, under other pretexts, with every kind of chicanery.

Together with their first resolution, the decurions passed another – to ask the Cardinal Archbishop for a solemn procession to be organized in which the body of San Carlo4 would be carried through the streets.

The good prelate refused for many reasons. He disapproved of people putting their trust in so arbitrary a means of deliverance, and foresaw that if, as he feared might happen, the result did not correspond with their hopes, that trust would be converted into a cause of scandal.5 He also feared that, ‘if these anointers really existed’, the procession would give them all too much scope for their wickedness; while ‘if there were no such men’, the gathering together of so great a multitude could only spread the contagion, ‘which was a far more real danger.’6 For the fear of the anointers, which had been assuaged for a while, had now come to life again, more widespread and more furious than before.

People had again seen – or imagined, perhaps, this time – patches of unguent on walls, on the gates of public buildings, on the doors of private houses, and on door-knockers. The news of these discoveries passed from mouth to mouth with lightning speed. As often happens when people are very anxious, they were as impressed by what they had heard as if they had seen it. Embittered by the presence of disaster, excited by the immediacy of their danger, they were all the more willing to embrace that pernicious belief; for angry men always wish to inflict punishment. And a man of genius7 has acutely observed on this very point that they prefer to blame disasters on to human wickedness, against which revenge is possible, rather than to attribute them to a factor which can only be met with resignation.

‘A subtle, instantaneous, most penetrating poison’ – such were the words that were found sufficient to explain the violence of the disease, and all its most obscure and extraordinary symptoms. That poison was said to be made from toads, from snakes, from the spittle and pus of victims of the plague, from yet worse ingredients – from the most filthy and atrocious materials that a savage and distorted imagination could invent. With the addition of black magic, anything became possible, every objection lost its force, every difficulty vanished. If no results had followed immediately after the first anointings, the reason was obvious – that had been an unsuccessful attempt by poisoners still in their apprenticeship; but now the art had been brought to perfection, and the determination of the criminals to carry out their diabolical plans had hardened. Anyone who might still have maintained that the thing had been a joke, or might have denied the existence of a plot, was regarded as obstinately blind to the facts – if indeed he did not fall under suspicion of being a man with an interest in diverting public attention from the truth, of being an accomplice, an anointer! That word was soon in common use, a resounding word, a word of terror. With such general confidence that anointers did in fact exist, some were bound to be discovered, almost inevitably. Everyone was on the look-out; every act could inspire suspicion. Suspicion soon turned to certainty, and certainty to fury.

In proof of this, Ripamonti quotes two particular cases. He tells us that he chose them not because they were the worst of the daily outbreaks of this sort, but because he personally had the misfortune to be an eye-witness of both of them.

In the church of St Anthony, on a feast-day of some kind, a man of more than eighty years old knelt down to say his prayers; and when he had finished and wanted to sit back on the bench, he dusted it with his cape.

‘That old man is anointing the benches!’ cried several women with one voice. All the people in church (in church, I repeat!) dashed at the old man, seized him by the hair, white as it was, and loaded him with blows and kicks. Some pushing, some pulling, they hustled him to the door. If they spared his life for the moment, it was only so that they could drag him in that battered state to prison, to judgement, to the torture.

‘I saw him as they dragged him along the street,’ says Ripamonti, ‘and heard no more about him afterwards. I do not think that he can have lived more than a few moments longer after I lost sight of him.’

The other case, which happened the following day, was equally strange, but not equally tragic. Three young Frenchmen – a scholar, a painter and an artisan – had come to Italy to study the relics of antiquity, and to look for opportunities of making money. They approached the cathedral, and stood looking attentively at some external feature of the building. A passer-by saw them and stopped. He pointed them out to another man, and then to others as they came up. A crowd formed, observing and watching over the three men, whose clothing, hair and baggage proved them to be foreigners – and, what was worse, Frenchmen. As if to make sure that it was really marble, one of them reached out his hand to touch the stone. That was enough. They were surrounded, seized, beaten up, and driven into custody with a hail of blows. Fortunately the Palace of Justice was not far from the cathedral; and, more fortunately still, they were found innocent and released.

Nor was it only in the city that such things happened. The madness propagated itself as fast as the plague. Any traveller who was found by the peasants off the main road, or who loitered on the road to look around, or who lay down for a rest; any unknown person with anything strange or suspicious about his face or clothing, was an anointer. The first word of his arrival from anyone, even a child, was enough to set bells ringing and crowds gathering. The unhappy stranger would be stoned, or dragged off to prison by the mob. Prison, in fact, was a haven of safety for him, for the moment at least. We have all this on the authority of Ripamonti himself.

The decurions were not discouraged by the refusal of the wise prelate, but kept on repeating their request for a procession, which was loudly backed by the public. Federigo Borromeo resisted a little longer, and tried to dissuade them. This was all that the good sense of one man could do against the spirit of the times and the insistence of the crowd. In that state of opinion people had very confused and contradictory ideas of the nature of the danger, and were quite unable to see the matter in the clear light in which it appears to us now. So it is not difficult to understand how the Archbishop’s excellent reasoning was overcome, even in his own mind, by the bad reasoning of others. Whether there was an element of weakness in his change of mind is a mystery of the human heart which we cannot plumb. But if there is ever a case in which we can blame the head and acquit the heart, it is when we have to judge one of the few men whose whole life is a record of resolute obedience to the dictates of conscience, without any regard for temporal interest whatever. And Federigo Borromeo was certainly one of those few …

The requests for a procession were repeated time and again, and he yielded in the end. He agreed not only that the procession should take place, but also, in response to a general, urgent plea, that the coffin containing the mortal remains of San Carlo should be exposed for eight days afterwards on the great altar of the cathedral.

I cannot trace that the commission of health or anyone else made any sort of protest or opposition. The commissioners merely ordered a few extra precautions, which showed some apprehension of the consequences, while doing very little to avert them. They laid down stricter rules to control entry into the city, and closed the gates to ensure compliance. They also tried to exclude victims and suspected victims of the pestilence from the procession, as far as possible, by nailing up the doors of the houses affected by isolation orders. There were five hundred such houses, if we can trust the unsupported word of one writer8 – and a seventeenth-century writer at that.

Three days were spent in preparations. At dawn on 11 June, which was the appointed day, the procession set out from the cathedral. In front went a long file of the common people, mostly women, with their faces covered by heavy shawls; many of them barefoot and clad in sackcloth. Then came the guilds, each preceded by its own banner; then the confraternities in clothes of various styles and colours; then the orders of friars and the secular clergy, every man bearing the insignia of his rank, and carrying a candle or a torch in his hand. In the centre of the procession, amid the brightness of more closely serried lights, amid a louder singing of hymns, under a richly embroidered canopy, came the coffin, carried by four canons, dressed in their most splendid robes, who were relieved at set intervals. The body of the venerable saint could be seen through the glass sides of the coffin, clad in magnificent episcopal robes, its skull crowned with a mitre. Amid all its disfigurement and decay, traces could still be seen of the saint’s original noble appearance, as it had been recorded in pictures and could still be remembered by the few who had seen him and honoured him in life.

Behind the relics of the dead shepherd (to quote Ripamonti, who is our principal source for this description), and nearest to him in person as in merit, blood and dignity, came the Archbishop Federigo Borromeo. Then followed the rest of the clergy; then the magistrates in their most stately robes; then the nobles, some dressed in their most magnificent clothes as a solemn gesture of respect to religion, while others wore black as a sign of penitence, or went barefoot, in capes with the hoods pulled down over their faces. All of them bore torches. The procession ended as it had begun, with a long, confused train of the common people.

The whole route was decked out as if for a festival. The rich had brought out their most precious belongings. The fronts of the poorer houses had been decorated by their wealthier neighbours, or at the public expense. Here leafy branches took the place of decorations; there they hung above them. Pictures, placards, mottoes hung everywhere. Vases, antiquities and rarities of all kinds stood on the window-sills, and there were lights on every side. From many of the windows sick people who were in quarantine looked out at the procession, and accompanied it with their prayers. The other streets were silent and deserted, except for a few heads sticking out of the windows, listening to the shifting murmur of the crowd. There were others, including some nuns, who had climbed on to the roofs in the hope of catching a distant glimpse of the coffin, the cortège, or some other part of the procession.

The procession passed through every quarter of the city. The principal streets of Milan end, as they reach the outer parts of the city, in crossroads, or rather little squares, then still known by the ancient name of ‘carrobi’, which now only one of them retains. At each of them the procession halted, and the coffin was set down beside the cross which San Carlo had caused to be erected in every one of these spaces during the previous pestilence. (Some of them are still standing today.) It was after midday when they returned to the cathedral.

A presumptuous confidence that the procession had put an end to the plague – in many cases a fanatical certainty that it was so – reigned everywhere the following day; and that very day the death-rate increased in every part of the city, and in every social class, to such an excessive level, with such a sudden jump, that no one could fail to see that its cause, or at least its occasion, lay in the procession itself.

But see what astonishing and lamentable powers a universal prejudice can wield! The majority did not attribute that disastrous effect to the gathering together of so great a multitude for such a long time, nor to the tremendous increase in chance contacts that resulted. They attributed it to the facility that the anointers must have found on that occasion to practice their nefarious art on the grand scale. It was said that they had mingled with the crowd and infected with their unguent every person that they could reach.

But this did not seem a sufficient or appropriate reason for so vast a mortality, so widely diffused in every class of society. Nor does it seem to have been possible even for the eye of fear (so intent to see yet so apt to see wrongly) to detect any unguents, or indeed marks of any kind, on the walls or elsewhere on this occasion. In order to explain the event recourse was had to another legend, which was no longer new at that time and was generally accepted in all Europe as a fact. This was the legend of maleficent and poisonous powders. It was said that powders of this kind had been scattered along the roads, and especially at the stopping-places, and that they had been picked up by the trains of people’s clothes, and also by their feet – all the more so since large numbers had gone through the streets barefoot on that day.

‘So on the very day of the procession,’ says a contemporary writer,9 ‘pity could be seen in battle with cruelty, perfidy with sincerity, and loss with gain.’ But it was really only the poor minds of men in battle with the phantoms they had raised up themselves.

From that day forward the infection raged on ever more terribly. Soon there was hardly a house untouched; soon the population of the lazaretto rose from two thousand to twelve thousand, according to Somaglia, whom we have already quoted. Later, according to almost all our authorities, it rose to sixteen thousand. On 4 July, as we see from another letter addressed to the Governor by those responsible for the public health, the daily death-roll rose above five hundred. Later on, at the height of the plague, it reached 1,200 or 1,500, according to the most commonly accepted figure; or 3,500, if we prefer to believe Tadino. He also states that, ‘from inquiries made with all diligence’ after the pestilence, it was found that the population of Milan had shrunk from 250,000 to little more than 64,000. Ripamonti says that the previous population had been only 200,000 and that 140,000 deaths were recorded in the city registers, apart from those which remained unnoted. Others give higher or lower totals, but on flimsier grounds.

We can imagine the distress of the decurions, whose shoulders had to bear the responsibility of providing for the needs of the city, of doing what could be done to mitigate the effects of so great a disaster. Every day replacements and reinforcements had to be found for public servants of various kinds, such as monatti, apparitori and commissari.

The monatti were employed on the most unpleasant and dangerous of the duties arising from the plague. They collected corpses from houses and streets, and from the lazaretto, carted them to the graveyards, and buried them; they carried or led the sick to the lazaretto, and kept them in order. They burnt or purified infected or suspect belongings. The word monatti comes from the Greek ‘monos’, according to Ripamonti; Gaspare Bugatti, in a description of the previous plague, derives it from the Latin ‘monere’, though at the same time he hesitantly, yet more plausibly, suggests that it may after all be a German word, since most of the men were enrolled in the Grisons or in other parts of Switzerland. And in fact it might quite conceivably be a truncated form of the word ‘monathlich’, or monthly; for no one could know how long these men’s services would be needed, and so it seems probable that the agreements under which they were employed would only have been for one month at a time.

The special task of the apparitori was to walk in front of the carts, ringing a bell to warn passers-by to keep out of the way.

The commissari were in charge of both the categories mentioned above, and came under the immediate orders of the commission of health.

The lazaretto had to be kept supplied with doctors, surgeons, medicines, food and all the equipment of a hospital. More accommodation had to be found and got ready for the fresh crowds of the sick who arrived every day. So huts of wood and straw were set up in the courtyard of the lazaretto; and a new lazaretto, consisting entirely of huts, was also created; it was surrounded by a simple fence, and had a capacity of four thousand persons. As this was not enough, the construction of two further establishments was decreed, and the work was begun; but the means to complete them were lacking and they were never finished. As the community’s needs grew more desperate, the supply of the materials, the men and the courage required to deal with them dwindled away.

It was not only that the achievement constantly lagged behind what had been planned and ordered, not only that many cases of need were covered by provisions that were inadequate even in theory – things reached the extreme of impotence and despair where many types of case, including some of the most urgent and most pitiful had no provisions made for them whatever. A large number of babies were dying of neglect after their mothers had died of the plague. The commission of health proposed that a special home should be set up for those babies, and for destitute mothers-to-be; but they could get nothing done.

‘Nevertheless’, says Tadino,10 ‘you could not but feel Pity for the Decurions of Milan, who were afflicted, brought to Sorrow and injured by the Soldiery, that knew no law nor restraint; still less in the other parts of the unhappy Duchy, seeing that no Provision or Help could be had from the Governor; except for Messages that a War was being waged and that the Troops must be well cared for.’

Such was the importance of taking Casale! So fair is the praise that victory wins, irrespective of the cause or the objects for which we fight!

Near the lazaretto a large communal grave had been dug – but only one. When it was full of bodies, the corpses of the newly dead began to remain unburied, not only in the lazaretto, but everywhere in the city, and there were more of them every day than the day before. The magistrates searched in vain for labour to employ on the dismal task, and were finally reduced to a declaration that they did not know what to do next. It is hard to see what could have happened, if help had not come from a most unexpected quarter. The president of the commission of health, in despair, with tears in his eyes, went to see the two good friars who were in charge of the lazaretto. Father Michele undertook to have the city cleared of corpses in four days, and in eight days to have enough graves dug to take care not only of present requirements, but of the worst disaster that could be foreseen for the future. Accompanied by another friar, and by some representatives of the commission of health, who were appointed by the president, he went out into the country to look for peasants. Partly with the authority of the commission, and partly with that of his cloth and his own eloquence, he recruited two hundred of them, and got them to dig three huge communal graves. Then he sent out the monatti who were in the lazaretto to gather in the dead; and his promise was fulfilled on the appointed day.

At one stage the lazaretto was left without any doctors. Slowly and with difficulty, with promises of great rewards and high honours, some replacements were found, but not nearly as many as were needed. Several times the place nearly ran out of food, so that there was ground for fear that people would die there of hunger as well as disease. More than once, when no one knew which way to turn to find desperately needed provisions, abundant supplies suddenly appeared as a gift of private charity. For in the midst of the general confusion, and the stupor and indifference for others which so often results from continual fear for one’s own safety, there were still people whose hearts were always alive to charity, and others whose hearts were awakened to charity by the loss of all mortal happiness. Of those whose duty it was to supervise and provide for others, many died and many fled; but there were always some whose health and courage held out, so that they stayed at their posts. There were others who were moved by pity to take on duties which were not their responsibility, and to discharge them most nobly.

The most general, prompt and constant response to the harsh requirements of the situation came from the clergy. Both in the lazarettos and in the city itself, their succour never failed. They were to be found wherever there was suffering. They were always in the midst of the sick and the dying, even when they were sick or dying themselves. They did their utmost to provide temporal as well as spiritual help; they offered every service that the circumstances might require. In the city itself more than sixty parish priests died of the infection – about eight out of every nine of them.

Federigo Borromeo, as was to be expected of him, gave encouragement and example to everyone. When nearly all the members of his archepiscopal household had died, he was urged by his relations, by the highest magistrates, and by the princes of neighbouring territories to seek refuge from the danger in some country estate. But he rejected that advice, and resisted all pressure, with the same spirit in which he had written to his parish priests: ‘Be ready to leave this mortal life rather than to abandon this our family, these our children. Go out with love towards the pestilence, as if towards your reward, towards a new life, when there is a chance of gaining a soul for Christ.’11

He was scrupulous in observing those precautions which would not interfere with the carrying out of his duties, and issued instructions and rules on this subject to his clergy. Yet he cared nothing for danger, and there was no sign that he was even aware of it when it stood between him and an opportunity to do good. He insisted that his door should always be open to anyone who needed him, and not only to the clergy – although he was ever ready to praise and regulate the zeal of the priests, to urge on any of them who might be lukewarm about their duties, to send replacements for those who had died. He visited the lazarettos, to console the sick and to put fresh heart into the staff; he hastened through the streets of the city to bring help to the poor wretches who were quarantined in their own houses, stopping at their doors or under their windows to listen to their lamentations, and to give them words of consolation and courage in return. He sought out the pestilence and lived in its midst; so that he himself was amazed, at the end of it all, to find himself unscathed.

In any public misfortune, in any long disturbance of whatever may be the normal order of things, we always find a growth, a heightening of human virtue; but unfortunately it is always accompanied by an increase in human wickedness, which is commonly far more widespread. And so it was this time. Criminals who neither suffered nor feared the effects of the plague found fresh scope for their activities, and a new confidence of impunity at the same time, in the general confusion and the universal slackening of the forces of order. In fact the powers of law and order often fell into the hands of the worst of those criminals. The tasks of the monatti and apparitori attracted in the main those men for whom the allurements of robbery and licence were stronger than the terror of infection, stronger than all natural feelings of revulsion. Strict rules with severe penalties were drawn up for their guidance, their areas of activity were carefully defined, and commissari were appointed to control them, as we mentioned previously; and in every quarter of the city magistrates and nobles were appointed as delegates to exercise a higher supervision, with authority to deal in summary fashion with anything affecting public order. This system continued to operate effectively for a certain length of time. But as the numbers of those who died, ran away or lost their heads increased from day to day, the lower officials reached the stage of having no one to control them. The monatti, in particular, assumed absolute powers. They entered people’s homes as masters – or as enemies. We need not ask what robberies they committed, or how they treated the poor wretches whom disease betrayed into their hands. But those infected, villainous hands were also laid on the healthy, on the patients’ children, parents, wives or husbands, who were threatened with transportation to the lazaretto if they did not ransom themselves, or get someone else to ransom them, with large sums of money. On other occasions the monatti would demand payment for their legitimate services, refusing to take away putrefying corpses until they had received so many scudi for each one.

There were other stories, which it seems equally unsafe to believe or to reject, in view of the frivolity of some and the wickedness of others. It was said, and even Tadino asserts it as a fact, that the monatti and apparitori used to drop infected clothes off the carts on purpose, in order to maintain and spread the pestilence, which had become their livelihood, their domain, their pride and joy.

The monatti wore a small bell attached to one ankle, as a badge of office and as a warning of their approach. Various other wretches adopted this as a disguise, with which they obtained entry into people’s houses to commit all sorts of crime.

Houses that had been left unlocked and unoccupied, or inhabited only by the desperately sick or the dying, were freely invaded and robbed by bands of thieves; others were unexpectedly attacked by members of the police force, who were doing the same, or even worse.

With the increase in general wickedness came an increase in public folly. The absurd beliefs which had previously dominated men’s thoughts to a greater or less extent now acquired extraordinary power from the universal turmoil and agitation, and were able to produce quicker and more far-reaching results than before. All those effects contributed to the growth and to the reinforcement of that special fear of anointers – a fear which, as we have already seen, often amounted to a special form of wickedness in its own right, if we judge by the ways in which it expressed itself and by its results. The idea of that imaginary peril obsessed and tortured men’s minds far more than the real danger with which they were surrounded. To quote Ripamonti again:

‘While the corpses scattered or heaped up in the streets were constantly before our eyes or under our feet, making the whole city one vast charnel house, there was something yet uglier and more sinister to be seen in this mutual savagery, these unbridled and monstrous suspicions … It was not only neighbours, friends or guests who inspired these fears; for those names which are the very links of human affection, the names of husband and wife, of father and son, of brother and brother, became words of terror. Horribly and unworthy of humanity as it may seem, the family dining-table and the marriage bed were feared as ambushes, as lurking places for poison.’12

The outlandish nature and the vast scale of the supposed conspiracy clouded all judgements, and corrupted every source of mutual trust. At first it was supposed that the alleged anointers were motivated solely by ambition and greed. But later it was imagined and believed that there was a fiendish delight in the act of anointing, the attractions of which could dominate the wills of men. The ravings of the sick, some of whom accused themselves of committing the crime they had feared to suffer from others, had the effect of revelation, and made it possible for anyone to believe anything.

And the actions of the sick may well have been even more convincing than their words, if it happened in some cases that delirious victims of the plague themselves went through the motions which their poor imaginations had attributed to the anointers. Such a development seems to be probable in itself, and also to provide a better explanation of the general belief in anointers, which was reaffirmed by so many authors.

In the same way, during the long and tragic story of prosecutions for witchcraft, the confessions of the accused, not always made under pressure, contributed greatly to the establishment and maintenance of the popular belief in witches. When an opinion has been held for a long period over a large part of the earth’s surface, it will always end by expressing itself with every appearance of conviction, and by infiltrating through every gap in men’s minds and invading every level of their beliefs. And when everyone, or nearly everyone, is fully persuaded that a monstrous thing has been done, it is almost certain that someone will be found who is convinced that he has done it.

Among the various stories inspired by this mad belief in anointings, one deserves special mention both for the credence it gained and for the wide circulation it achieved. People related – with some differences of detail, since we must not expect too much of the forces of legend, but with a fair degree of consistency none the less – that a certain citizen of Milan, on a certain day, had seen a coach and six arrive in the cathedral square, inside which sat, among others, a great nobleman, with a dark and fiery face, burning eyes, bristling hair and menacingly curled lips. The onlooker gazed with interest at the coach, which stopped in front of him; then the coachman invited him to get in, and he found himself unable to refuse. The coach drove off on a winding course through the streets, and put its passengers down at the door of a certain palace. The onlooker went in with the rest of the company, and found himself amid scenes of beauty and terror, desolate wastes and lovely gardens, ugly caves and splendid halls, in which ghosts sat at council. Finally he was shown great boxes of money, and told to take as much as he liked – on condition that he would also take a jar of unguent and go through the city anointing the walls. He refused, and in the twinkling of an eye he found himself back at the place where he had been picked up …

This story was generally believed by the common people of Milan, and, according to Ripamonti, was never sufficiently ridiculed by men of more weight.13 It circulated widely in Italy, and abroad as well. In Germany it even became the subject of a broadsheet and the Archbishop-Elector of Mainz wrote to Cardinal Federigo Borromeo asking him how much he could believe of the astonishing stories that were being told about what was happening in Milan. The Cardinal replied that they were all dreams.

The dreams of the learned were not identical with those popular delusions, but they were equally unfounded, and equally pernicious in their effects. Most educated people saw both a prophecy of the pestilence and its cause in the comet which had appeared in 1628, together with a conjunction of Saturn with Jupiter. ‘For the above-mentioned Conjunction’, writes Tadino, ‘has so clear a Bearing upon this Year of 1630, that anyone could understand it. Mortales parat morbos, miranda videntur.’14 This prediction, which came, it was so said, from a book entitled ‘The Mirror of Perfect Almanacks’, printed at Turin in 1623, was quoted by everybody. A second comet, which appeared in the month of June during the year of the pestilence itself, was taken as a new warning, or rather as a manifest proof of the anointings. Old books were searched (and not, alas, in vain) for examples of ‘artificial’ pestilences, as they called them. They quoted Livy, Tacitus and Dion – even Homer and Ovid, together with many other ancient writers who have recorded or hinted at similar events. There was an even greater plentitude of modern sources. Dozens of more recent authors had written authoritatively about poisons, spells, anointings and powders, or mentioned them incidentally. They included Cesalpino, Cardan, Grevino, Salio, Pareo, Schenchio, Zachia, and finally we must add the disastrous name of Delrio. If the fame of authors were proportionate to the sum of good or evil caused by their works, Delrio would be one of the most celebrated writers of all time. His literary labours cost more human lives than the military campaigns of any conqueror. His ‘Magical Disquisitions’, a summary of all the nonsensical dreams that men had entertained on this subject from the earliest times up to his own day, had become the most authoritative and incontrovertible of texts, and provided both the procedure and the motivating force for more than a century of horrifying, continuous legal slaughter.

From the inventions of the crowd, educated men borrowed all that they could reconcile with their own ideas; from the inventions of the educated, the crowd borrowed as much as they could understand, as well as they could understand it. Out of all this emerged a confused and terrifying accumulation of public folly.

But the most astonishing thing of all was the behaviour of the doctors – even those who had believed in the reality of the pestilence from the first, even Tadino himself, who had foretold its coming, and seen it arrive, who had been a witness of its progress, who had stated and maintained that this was the plague and that it was transmitted by contact, and that it would infect the whole country unless proper measures were taken. For Tadino later extracted from the same events conclusive proof that poisonous anointings and witchcraft were to blame for everything. In the case of Carlo Colonna, the second victim to die of the plague in Milan, Tadino had described delirium as a typical result of the disease, and yet later on he was capable of treating the following story as proof of anointing and of diabolical conspiracy. Two witnesses, he says, swore that a sick friend had told them that unknown visitors had come into his room one night and offered to cure him and make him rich if he would promise to anoint the neighbouring houses; but when he refused, they vanished, their places being taken by a wolf lying under the bed and three great cats on top of it, ‘which did remain there until the Break of Day’.15

If it had been just one man who drew such conclusions, we would only have to remark that his mind worked in a strange way; indeed, we would hardly need to mention the matter at all. But as these views were common, in fact almost universal, they enter into the history of human thought, and provide an opportunity to observe how an orderly and reasonable series of ideas can be thrown into disarray when another series of ideas strikes across its path.

It should be remembered that Tadino bore one of the highest reputations in Milan at that time …

Two worthy and distinguished authors have stated that Cardinal Federigo Borromeo was sceptical about the anointings.16 We would like nothing better than to add this additional touch of perfection to our portrait of that illustrious and well-loved figure, and to represent the good prelate as superior to most of his contemporaries in this, as in so many other respects. But alas! we are compelled to observe in him a mere further instance of the power that a generally held opinion can wield over even the noblest minds. We have already seen what real doubts he had on this subject at the beginning of the plague, according to Ripamonti at least. Later on he continued to maintain that a large part was played in people’s ideas about the anointings by credulity, ignorance, fear and the wish to excuse themselves for having been so slow about recognizing the infectious nature of the disease, and about taking the appropriate steps. But though he thought that there was much exaggeration in the public view, he also believed that there was some truth in it. In the Ambrosian Libary is preserved a short work about the plague written by his own hand, which several times hints at the opinion we have just mentioned, and on one occasion states it explicitly.

‘It was the common view’, he says (we translate freely), ‘that these unguents were concocted in various places, and that there were many different devices for setting them to work; some of which seem to us to be genuine, and others invented.’17

But there were some men who believed right up to the end of the plague, and indeed to the end of their own lives, that the whole idea of the anointings was a fantasy. We do not know this from the men themselves, since none of them was bold enough to proclaim so unpopular a view to the public. We know it from the writers who ridicule, reprove or refute this opinion as the prejudice of a minority, as an erroneous theory that dared not come to public discussion, and yet did not die out. We also know of these doubts from people who had heard of them later through oral tradition.

‘I have come across intelligent people in Milan’, says the worthy Muratori, in the passage mentioned above, ‘who had had a clear account of the matter from older members of their families, and were not very convinced of the truth of the stories about poisonous unguents.’

This was clearly a secret disclosure of the truth, a family confidence. Good sense was not lacking, but it was in hiding from the violence of general opinion.

The magistrates grew fewer in number and more and more dazed and confused as day followed day. They used all the little resolution they could still command in the search for anointers. Among the papers from the time of the plague which are preserved in the archive mentioned above is a letter (without any accompanying documents) in which the Grand Chancellor reported to the Governor, as a most serious and urgent matter, that he had heard that poison was being concocted in a country house belonging to the brothers Girolamo and Giulio Monti, members of the Milanese nobility, in such quantities that forty men were employed en este exercicio,18 with the help of four nobles from Brescia, who were importing materials from the territory of Venice, para la fábrica del veneno.19 He added that he had taken all the necessary measures, in the utmost secrecy, to arrange for the mayor of Milan and a legal member of the commission of health to go to the house with a force of thirty cavalry; but unfortunately one of the brothers had been warned of the raid (probably by the legal member, who was a friend of his), and had been able to smuggle away all traces of the crime; also the legal member had made a number of excuses to delay the departure of the expedition; but none the less the mayor had taken the soldiers and gone on a reconocer la casa, y a ver si hallará algunos vestigios,20 and to gather information, and arrest all suspects.

This case must have petered out without any result, since the contemporary documents which mention the suspicion that fell upon those two nobles do not speak of any action being taken. But there was, alas, another occasion when it was really believed that the guilty parties had been discovered.

The trials which followed were certainly not the first of their kind, and cannot even be considered as a rarity in the history of jurisprudence. Even if we pass over the ancient examples of similar cases, and confine ourselves to those nearer the period we are discussing, there were trials in Palermo in 1526, in Geneva in 1530 and 1545, and yet again in 1574, in Casale in 1536, in Padua in 1555, and in Turin in 1599 and again in this very year of 1630, in all of which trials poor wretches were brought to judgement, in greater or smaller numbers, and condemned to die, generally by most horrible deaths, as guilty of having spread the plague, by means of powders, unguents, witchcraft or all those things together. But the affair of the so-called anointings at Milan is not only the most famous of all, but also probably the one where the facts are most clearly available. At least it offers us a wider field for study, because the documents are more detailed and reliable than in the other cases.

It is true that an author of whom we have spoken warmly above has already written about the Milanese trials; but his object was not so much to give a historical account of them as to draw from them a supply of supporting arguments for a thesis of greater, or at least more immediate importance. We therefore feel that the story could well provide the material for a further study. But it is not a subject that can be dealt with in a few words; and this is not the place to treat it at the length it deserves. And besides, if the reader were delayed by a full consideration of this matter, he might well lose interest in the remainder of our story. Reserving the subject for description and discussion in another work,21 we now at last return to the characters of our main story, whom we shall not leave again until the end of the book.