The Testimony of Michael Platiensis on the Plague (1347)

“At the beginning of October, in the year of the incarnation of the Son of God 1347, twelve Genoese galleys were fleeing from the vengeance which our Lord was taking on account of their nefarious deeds and entered the harbour of Messina. In their bones they bore so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade death. The infection spread to everyone who had intercourse with the diseased. Those infected felt themselves penetrated by a pain throughout their whole bodies and, so to say, undermined. Then there developed in their thighs or on their upper arms a boil…. This infected the whole body and penetrated it so far that the patient violently vomited blood. This vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days, there being no means of healing it, and then the patient expired.


“But not only all those who had intercourse with them died, but also those who had touched or used any of their things…. Soon men hated each other so much that, if a son was attacked by the disease, his father would not tend him. If, in spite of all, he dared to approach him, he was immediately infected and…was bound to expire within three days. Nor was this all: all those…dwelling in the same house with him…followed him in death. As the number of deaths increased in Messina many desired to confess their sins to the priests and to draw up their last will and testament. But ecclesiastics, lawyers and attorneys refused to enter the houses of the diseased. But if one or the other had set foot in such a house…he was hopelessly abandoned to sudden death. Minor friars and Dominicans and members of other orders who heard the confessions of the dying were themselves immediately overcome by death, so that some even remained in the rooms of the dying.

“Soon the corpses were lying forsaken in the houses. No ecclesiastic, no son, no father and no relation dared to enter, but they paid hired servants with high wages to bury the dead. But the houses of the deceased remained open with all their valuables, with gold and jewels; anyone who chose to enter met with no impediment, for the plague raged with such vehemence that soon their was a shortage of servants and finally none at all. When the catastrophe had reached its climax the Messinians resolved to emigrate. One portion of them settled in the vineyards and the fields, but a larger portion sought refuge in the town of Catania, trusting that the holy virgin Agatha of Catania would deliver them from their evil. To this town the Queen of Sicily came and summoned her son Don Federigo. In November the Messinians persuaded the Patriarch, Archbishop of Catania, to permit the relics of the saints to be brought to their town. But the populace of Catania would not allow the sacred bones to be removed from their old place. Now intercessory processions and pilgrimages were undertaken to Catania to propitiate God. But the plague raged with greater vehemence than before. Flight was no longer of avail. The disease clung to the fugitives and accompanied them everywhere where they turned in search of help. Many of the fleeing fell down by the roadside and dragged themselves into the fields and bushes to expire. Those who reached Catania breathed their last in the hospitals there. The terrified citizens demanded from the Patriarch prohibition on pain of ecclesiastical ban, of burying fugitives from Messina within the town, and so they were all thrown into deep trenches outside the walls.


“The population of Catania was so godless and timid that no one among them…offered [the fugitives] shelter. If some relations in Catania had not secretly harboured a number of people from Messina, they would have been deprived of all assistance. Thus the people of Messina dispersed over the whole island of Sicily…and with them the disease, so that…innumerable people died…. As soon as anyone in Catania was seized with a headache and shivering, he knew that he was bound to pass away within the specified time, and first confessed his sins to the priest and then made his last will. When the plague had attained its height in Catania, the patriarch endowed all ecclesiastics, even the youngest, with all priestly powers for the absolution of sin which he himself possessed as bishop and patriarch. But the pestilence raged from October 1347 to April 1348. The patriarch himself was one of the last to be carried off. He died fulfilling his duty. At the same time Duke Giovanni who had carefully avoided every infected house and every patient, died.”

(From The Black Death, trans. C.H. Clarke (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1926), pp. 18-20.)

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