The Plague Of 1630: Milan’s Deadliest Hour

As the coronavirus outbreak intensifies in Italy and the deaths begin to mount, it is worthwhile to take a look back at a similarly afflicted time in history.

Plague Milan
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As the coronavirus outbreak intensifies in Italy, it is worthwhile to take a look back at far more afflicted times in history

As the coronavirus outbreak intensifies in Italy and the deaths begin to mount, it is worthwhile to take a look back at far more afflicted time in history. The year is 1629. Italy is divided into various states and dominions, from the Kingdom of Naples in the south to the Duchy of Milan in the north. The rest of Europe has been battling the Thirty Years’ War for more than a decade, and the violence has spilled over the Alps into the Po Valley. Though it is now difficult to say with absolute certainty how the plague, which had been flaring up in Switzerland and Austria, made its way onto the Italian peninsula, Landsknechts may have played a part. These German mercenaries were moving across the region as they served the Habsburgs, and spread the disease to the Italians they came into contact with.

Sometime in the fall of 1629, a Milanese soldier returned home to the neighborhood of San Babila feeling ill. Within two days he was dead, and the plague began to creep across the city. The government attempted to get a handle on the situation by banning trade with foreign soldiers and requiring every person seeking to enter the city to obtain a paper certifying that they were plague-free. While Milan did have one of the better hospital systems in Italy at the time, there was little that could be done to stop the sickness from spreading. By the summer of 1630, the plague was wreaking havoc on Milan. Thousands of people were dying every day, and the monatti, or corpse carriers, could barely keep up. In August it was said that 4,000 dead bodies littered the streets, and the smell of rotting flesh was overpowering.

At a time when medicine existed only in the most rudimentary sense of the word, it was not surprising that the Milanese turned to the most curious of panaceas. Bezoar stones — masses from the stomachs of livestock — were consumed or dipped into beverages to combat the effects of the pestilence. All types of herbs and plants were eaten or mixed into foods in the vain hope that they might ward off infection. No solution was seen as too outlandish or perilous, as anything was seen as better than a lonely, agonizing death.

Yet those who attempted to treat the sick with folk medicine often found themselves the targets of authorities seeking a scapegoat as the plague spread. Gian Giacomo Mora, a barber surgeon of his time, not only trimmed beards but also prescribed remedies and performed interventions like bloodletting or pulling teeth. When his customers began to fall ill, they naturally sought him out for a remedy that might ward off the terrible boils erupting in their groins and armpits. Mora concocted a salve, word of which spread rapidly in Milan. As crowds besieged his shop, the plague was unfortunately spread from close contact. Though there was no proof that his ointment was to blame, Mora was arrested and brutally tortured for almost a month. After obtaining a forced confession, he was lashed to a breaking wheel and all the bones in his body were shattered. His corpse was exhibited as a warning, and then dumped in the river as soldiers razed his house and shop to the ground. Sadly, Mora was only one of the better remembered names among the dozens who were jailed or executed for accusations of plague spreading, with similarly lacking evidence.

The plague began to wane in the fall of 1631, and by November was declared finished. Milan had lost more than 25 percent of its population, with 64,000 deaths. Across the rest of northern and central Italy, between 12 and 60 percent of the inhabitants had succumbed to the pestilence. A staggering two million Italians were dead, out of an estimated total population of four million. This wouldn’t be the last plague to cast its shadow across Italy, but no other epidemic has exacted such a toll in the years since.

While our increasingly globalized world lends itself to the spread of contagions like coronavirus, we can look upon the overblown headlines with some measure of calm. Not only has our medical capability improved immensely, but we are now able to communicate across countries and continents, allowing for a rapid and unified response. The system is not perfect, but a disease like coronavirus would easily have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths only a few generations ago. Milan may be gripped by unease at the moment, but it has overcome much worse.

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