Confinement in 1349

BY Guillaume de Machaut | | Pandemic Diaries

In the year 1349, the ninth day of November, I was walking around my room; if the air had been clear and pure, I would have gone out. But it was so dark that the mountains and plains were covered in fog. That’s the reason that I remained sheltered, for everything that was normally green had changed color; the storm had washed it out, and had cut down many flowers by the cold of its sword. I was thus facing melancholy, all alone in my room, and I thought about the way the world was governed, following the advice of those who frequent taverns, and about how justice and truth died because of the iniquity of avarice that reigns in so many kingdoms, like a lady sovereign, like a queen.

One often saw the sun, the moon, the stars, the sky, the earth manifest themselves with the signs of war, of suffering, of plague. Everyone could see the moon and the sun in eclipse with the naked eye, greater and more obscure than ever, and they could see them lose their clarity and color for a long time, a sign of suffering. It was the same with the comet, endowed with a tail of fire, that announced fires and death. The gods, who saw from on high the misfortunes that would arrive in the world, out of pity cried tears of blood. Stricken to see them cry, the earth trembled with fear. That’s what several people who were witnesses said. And towns and cities collapsed, more than 40 in Germany (I don’t know exactly how many, but it’s known in Rome, since there was an Abbey of Saint-Paul that was destroyed). 

Along came a group of scoundrels, liars, traitors, denounced by all, that is the honest Jews, bad and disloyal, who hate much and love evil. They gave much gold and silver to Christians, and made many promises that they would poison the wells, the rivers, and the fountains, which until then had clean and healthy waters, thus giving a death sentence to many people. For all those who used this water died suddenly. And in truth, by ten times a hundred thousand they died, in the fields and in town, before the mortal plot was uncovered. 

In these same times came a troupe of people led by Lady Hypocrisy, who flagellated themselves and crucified themselves while singing a popular song (I don’t know which). But the Church heard them and forbade these flagellations and condemned the song, that even little children sang, and excommunicated all of them, by the power that God had given the church, because their flagellations and their songs were heretical.

When Nature, so beautiful and noble, saw its work so pillaged, and that men were killing each other and poisoning the waters to destroy the human race, by lust and by desire, this displeased [Nature] much, and he got quite angry and rendered humankind very unhappy. Nature thus went to see Jupiter and had lightening bolts, thunder, and storms made.

The air that was so fresh and pure now became viscous, black and dark, ugly and odorous, deranged and full of puss to the point that it became totally corrupt; and from this corrupted air, people concluded that they were themselves contaminated and lost their colors. They grew buboes from which they died; in a word, few dared to go out and talk to each other close up. For their corrupted breath corrupted those who were healthy. And if there was a sick person, and a friend paid a visit, he ran the same risk. Thus died 500,000 souls, such that the son died before the father, the daughter before the mother, the mother, for fear of the sickness, before the son and daughter. All true friends were rejected and received no help if they fell ill. There was neither a surgeon nor a doctor who knew the cause of the sickness, its origin or its nature, and they found no remedy at all, except to know that it was a sickness called epydimie.

When, from his throne, God saw the corruption of the world, everywhere so great, it’s not surprising that he was desirous of cruelly avenging himself from this great upheaval. Thus, without waiting any longer, to render justice and to avenge himself, he had death leave its cage, she who was full of unreason and rage, without breaks, without bridle, without links, without faith, without love, without moderation, so arrogant and proud, gluttonous and famished, that she could not satisfy herself with what she swallowed. Death killed some and devoured others when, every day, and in great quantities, one saw ladies, adolescents, youths, old people, people of all kind lying dead in the churches.

And they were thrown in large trenches, all together, marked with buboes. The cemeteries were so full of bodies and coffins that new ones were opened. Would you like to know or write down the number of those who died? All those who are, who were, who will be and will come could not count them, no matter what effort they made. No one could give a number, to imagine it, to think it without saying it, nor to represent it, to show it, to write it down. For I heard say several times, by many, that out of 1300 there only remained 49, and out of 100, only nine.

Because of this situation one noted that, since people were missing, many beautiful and noble lands were unplanted. No one was working the fields, mowing hay, pruning vineyards; even for a triple salary, no, even for 20 shillings instead of one, so many had died. And in the fields, animals were lying all lost, and wandered within the meadows and vineyards, everywhere they wanted. There was neither lord, nor shepherd, nor household that took care of them; no one claimed them as property.

A number of lands remained without lords, and the living didn’t dare to stay in the houses where there were deaths, whether in winter or in spring. If someone had done it, it would have been at the risk of his life. And when I saw these various and somber events, I was not so bold as to claim not to be infected; for the most hardy trembled with fear before the death that stalked them. I confessed to myself all my sins and put myself in a state of grace to receive death there where I was, if it pleased Our Lord.

I did thus confine myself in my house and made the resolution to not leave until I knew how it would all end. I gave myself to God. For a long time I stayed there, without knowing what was going on in the town; during this time more than 20,000 died without my knowing it, which made me sad. I didn’t want to know anything about it, so that it didn’t occupy all my thoughts, even though lots of friends were dead and buried.

I thus stayed a long time, like a hawk that is put into a cage to molt, until I heard, to my great joy, bagpipes, trumpets, and a dozen other instruments. I went to the window to ask what was happening. A friend heard me and quickly answered that all those who remained alive were marrying and holding wedding feasts, for the sickness due to the buboes, what was call the epidemic, was entirely gone, and people were no long dying.

 — Guillaume de Machaut, translated by Peter Sahlins

The poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) was witness to the Black Death that devastated Europe between 1347 and 1352. For Machaut, moral corruption was at the source of mortality from the plague, including a corruption of the body politic. Hence the persecution of Jews, a phenomenon common during the Black Death but rarely repeated in subsequent plague visitations. Machaut like so many others also recognized the transmissibility of plague within families, among friends, and in the community. He survived the plague by going into confinement.