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The City Turned Upside Down
“The image of this supposed danger beset and tortured the minds of the people far more than the real and existing danger.”
I keep coming back to 19th century author Alessandro Manzoni writing about the 17th century plague in Italy. From his book: The Bethrothed.
Rumors started of unclean people spreading the plague: "The city, already tumultuously inclined, was now turned upside down..."
They started to burn and destroy everything which might be infected. "... the owners of the houses, with lighted straw, burned the besmeared spots; and passers-by stopped, gazed, shuddered, murmured."
Suspicions arose! "Strangers, suspected of this alone, and at that time easily recognized by their dress, were arrested by the people in the streets, and consigned to prison. Here interrogations and examinations were made of captured, captors, and witnesses..."
Further rumors arose of people using tainted oil and water "anointing" walls and benches. If you didn't follow things to exacting measure... measures were taken against you! "In the church of Sant’ Antonio, on the day of I know not what an old man, more than eighty years of age, was observed, after kneeling in prayer, to sit down, first, however, dusting the bench with his cloak. 'That old man is anointing the benches!’ exclaimed with one voice some women, who witnessed the act."
"The people... fell upon the old man; they tore his gray locks, heaped upon him blows and kicks, and dragged him out half dead, to convey him to prison, to the judges, to torture... I think he could not have survived many moments." (Shades of mask-shaming)
A group called the Monatti arose - unelected officials appointed to "enforce good government" (like county health directors) - these "exercised all kinds of tyranny" over the citizenry.
“The strictest orders were laid upon these people; the severest penalties threatened to them; stations were assigned them; and commissaries…placed over them: magistrates and nobles were appointed in every district, with authority to enforce good government summarily.”
“Such a state of things went on and took effect up to a certain period; but, with the increase of deaths and desolation, and the terror of the survivors, these officers came to be, as it were, exempted from all supervision; they constituted themselves, the monatti… the arbiters of everything. They entered the houses like masters, like enemies; and, not to mention their plunder, and how they treated the unhappy creatures reduced by the plague to pass through such hands, they laid them - these infected and guilty hands - on the healthy…”
“children, parents, husbands, wives, threatening to drag them to the Lazzaretto, unless they redeemed themselves, or were redeemed, with money. At other times they set a price upon their services, refusing to carry away bodies already corrupted, for less than so many scudi.”
“It was believed (and between the credulity of one party and the wickedness of the other, belief and disbelief are equally uncertain)… that both monatti and apparitori purposely let fall from their carts infected clothes, in order to propagate and keep up the pestilence, which had become to them a means of living, a kingdom, a festival. Other wretches, feigning to be monatti, and carrying little bells tied to their feet, as these officers were required to do, to distinguish themselves and to give warning of their approach, introduced themselves into houses, and there exercised all kinds of tyranny. Some of these, open and void of inhabitants, or inhabited only by a feeble or dying creature, were entered by thieves in search of booty, with impunity; others were surprised and invaded by bailiffs.”
As to the plague itself... Alessandro writes: “The image of this supposed danger beset and tortured the minds of the people far more than the real and existing danger.”