The word “plague” has bad historical connotation…
Until today, someone unrecognized in the society is often being called: „plague-stricken”.
For the historical inhabitants of Gdansk plague was a very real experience, and for many – the last such experience in their lives…
Human life in the past was extremely unstable. It’s an unfortunate term, but the fact is that it was so uncertain “investment”, that children – often dying in infancy – were not even recorded in the annals of the family. It was the waste of space and ink in the pages of the chronicles. Death was omnipresent.
And while the death resulting from old age, illness or wars – was “socially accepted” – the many deaths due to plague were something incomprehensible and unpredictable. This was terrible. This was like a thunderbolt from heaven. For a long time, any disease which touched the old continent was treated in terms of “God’s Wrath”.
Plague has long been known. It was called “black death”, “bubonic fever”, “pestilence”, “black air”, and probably was the most scared all diseases which ravaged the continent.
This terrible disease rolled through Europe from the sixth century, causing considerable depopulation. And not just leaving a trail in the consciousness and historical memory of the continent, but also in some customs. Such a trace of the most common plague – is the popular saying “bless you” when someone sneezes. Indeed, many people died during a sneeze (in the form of pulmonary plague – Lat. pestis pneumoniae).
In the years 1347 to 1348 – 1352 the plague took about 1/3 of Europe’s population. Although some historians say it was even 2/3.
Epidemics were real disaster. In such terms until today we are used to treat the plague, which hit Gdansk in 1709.
As a result of the epidemic which lasted from July to November (1709), the death rate in the city and the suburbs ranged up to more than 30 thousand people. It’s a big number, considering that the city then had a population of over 50 thousand inhabitants. The number of residents of the suburbs could be around 20 thousand, so the plague took almost half of Gdansk’s population.
From the analysis of contemporary records it is known that formation of the “pestilential air” commonly associated with the Battle of Poltava.
When the unburied bodies started to rot – the air was poisoned by„cadaverous stench”. Until the last moment however it was believed that the epidemic wouldn’t strike. Winter of that year was unusually long, and was extremely frosty. There was a common belief that frosts, which started from December, would effectively prevent the spread of any danger. However it is supposed that it was winter that “demobilized” preparations to resist the plague.
The Battle of Poltava was not in itself the cause of the epidemic. Epidemics “swept” through Europe in the eighteenth century in the years 1702 – 1716. In 1708 the plague appeared in Plock, Chelmno, Torun, Bydgoszcz and Grudziadz. “Searching the guilty” – simplifying – the whole so-called “Great Northern War” may be blamed for the spread of the plague.
The plagues were nothing new to Gdansk, because as a port city it was haunted by them more or less every few years.
However, the Plague of 1709 was a surprise to the residents of the town. All because for over 50 years nothing like that had fallen on the city. Information about the epidemic was passed only by the older generation and was treated like dark legends of the past. Therefore greater was the panic in collision with reality. There was an attempt to organize medical care, protection against the spread of the disease. There also was an attempt to organize urban life in this specific time. Keeping pigs in the town was forbidden, and collection of waste from the streets and disposal of carcasses was ordered. One could say that too late – but still – something was being done as far as the sanitary state of the city.
For us, the then methods preventing and fighting the plague may seem (and seem to be) funny, sometimes they simply fill us with horror. But in the eighteenth century, these methods were considered common, and … modern.
So – a lot of outdoor activity was recommended, even physical work was ordered; also it this was good to fumigate the house, or oneself. Hence the figures on the paintings from this period can be seen with pipes in their mouths.
The incensation of homes was also advised. For this – sulfur, tar, juniper, or dried horse manure was used. But resin or nitrates were not scorned.
In wealthy homes (like in the 14th century) children were given silver spoons to suck. There was a strong belief in the healing power of silver.
Popular were amulets with pearls and emeralds, also blood-letting, or administering enema.
In order to “stir the stagnant air” – gunpowder was used, so no wonder that many houses lost their windows, doors or roofs. A lot of garlic was eaten, bay leafs were used, or the so called English Root – namely Garden Angelica.
Today this plant also is used in medicine as:
„diastolic remedy and aromatic-bitter in digestive disorders… In addition, as a mild diuretic, diaphoretic, expectorant and sedative. Oil is often used for rubbing and for mitigating neuralgia and rheumatic pains. Significant quantities of raw materials are used for the manufacturing of liqueurs and vodkas. Softly cooked young stems and stalks are used in the confectionery industry for making cakes and also for decorating cakes and “mazurkas”.
Vinegar was commonly used as an inhaler as well as for cleansing, and orange peel and myrrh were used too…
Also snuff was much in demand – although sneezing was feared, as the stories about the past plagues still were remembered.
Easily digestible diet was recommended – that is, poultry and veal, cooked fish, and lots of fruit.
There were warnings against the consumption of milk; however, doctors did not forbid the consumption of dairy products. As it was commonly believed that drinking vodka increased the absorption of “bad air “, it was rather recommended to drink mulled beer. A lot of lemon juice was advised to be added to the beverages.
On the outskirts of the city hospitals for plague-stricken were established… The guilds developed a special care system network for their members. Quite frequent were examples of adoption of orphaned infants.
8-day quarantine on roadstead for ships approaching the port was established.
Patients with a diagnosis of plague – were treated with the painful “cure” – namely, cutting abscesses. It was known that this type of plague (pestis bubonica) needed 2 to 7 days to hatch in the body after the bite. Since in that form of the plague, the fleas feeding on infected rats or rather their bites are the cause of the spread of this terrible disease.
As the fleas do not feed on horses, they were not sick, nor were the people who had a constant contact with horses. And so on drawings or paintings depicting the plague, among frequently shown dead dogs and cats, there are depicted very much alive horses – pulling wagons with the dead. Probably the smell of horse sweat and urine may be effective in deterring fleas (a recent study on the plague in Marseilles led to such discovery).
As a preventative – it was also popular to use amber as incense. It was observed that the amber polishers did not suffer from plague.
And THIS is a material for a complete different story and a separate research…
One of the ways to absorb the bad toxins was supposed to be putting a piece of fresh bread in the mouths of the dead. However, there were cases of sale of such bread to the poor by the guards responsible for taking out the dead. Gdansk did not close the gates during the plague; there were also food supplies to the city. So, with all the misfortune, the people were not sentenced to death by starvation. Food for the city was supplied from the area of Zblewo on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Distribution of bread for the poor was free under the direct supervision of the head of the Office of the Charity.
Throughout the duration of the epidemic, Gdansk strove to maintain business contacts with the so called outside world. Even a special decree was issued so that no one dared to write about the misfortunes that affected the city. Whoever wrote in the letter about the true size of the Black Plague was to be punished. Penalties for describing the situation in the city have been severe – the penalty by imprisonment up to and including the death penalty. During the plague fairs were held – (St. Dominic’s fair) also Artus Court was not closed.
Anyone who noticed symptoms of the disease at home – had to report to the “district” surgeon. Patients were prohibited from leaving the house, which, however were mot marked with crosses as it was done during previous epidemics.
People were terribly afraid of fever (fear of the fever remained until today), because this is how the disease began. The patient suffered from chills and severe sweating and complained about unbearable headache. Then – about the second day – there followed painful swollen lymph nodes. It was believed that the split of swollen nodes – was synonymous with “escape” of the disease. Efforts were made to speed up this process – using different warming plasters. In fact – not rare were cases of recovery after such severe treatment. I recommend the book “Forever Amber” by Kathleen Winsor, and Journals by Samuel Pepys – very dramatic in detail, describing the plague, which hit London in 1665).
The above image shows how doctors dressed in times of plague. In the “beak” there was a piece of cloth soaked in fragrant oils or perfumes to dispel the stench of decomposing bodies. The City kept 15 surgeons to treat patients (physicists – the qualified ones rather did not dazzle gloriously and I will not mention them.)
Moreover – as I mentioned above – on the outskirts hospitals and cemeteries were established.
From this time comes the name” Plague House” in Oliwa, when the Gate House (the gate to the Cistercian domain) was turned into a field hospital for the residents of the area.
Hospitals, which operated in the city – today are only places on the map. And there were quite a few then. The Hospital at today’s Dyrekcyjna Str., and the Orphanage, a hospital in Siedlce (today around Skarpowa Str.), Bastions: “Lynx”, “Ox”and “The Lion”, Góra Gradowa (Hagelsberg).
Burials were subject to strict rules. It was necessary to wait a day with the funeral. It was so since the accident with a janitor of the Academic Gymnasium, who had regained consciousness in the wagon with corpses. He survived and recovered, which was regarded as a sign of the favor of heaven.
People were buried without coffins, in mass graves. Rare were burials allowed within the city walls, in fear of spreading the „ Bad air”, but also for aesthetic reasons – “the stench of corpses” was indeed unbearable. Already the dead bodies decomposed in the streets. And we must remember that the main impact of the epidemic occurred in the summer. Grave-diggers were as many as six for the city … and six outside. They simply could not keep up with the burials.
Already the Corpus Christi Church cemetery became too small for burials. New graveyards were located by the New burial places were created by the decision of the City Council – at Rudno (correct name Kniebau – Knipawa) near the Lowland Gate (not existing today) at Siedlce, and in the near vicinity of the Oliwa Gate (near today’s Garrison Cemetery) .
As I wrote earlier – the dead were buried in mass graves which were covered up after being filled. Those cemeteries do not exist in the local (mass) consciousness. No wonder – as most of the today’s citizens of Gdansk are the descendants of the post-war newcomers, and the true Gdansk traditions were not passed to them.
Tracking the “plague cemeteries” is today one of Europe’s common elements of the so-called. Dark Tourism – including not only places of torture and murder (like the German Concentration Camps in Stutthof, or Auschwitz and Birkenau – today Museums of Marturdom), but also remnants of ancient plagues and pestilence cemeteries…
But it has to be stated, that in many families (not only Polish) until today there is a tradition (passed on from generation to generation) to lay flowers on the grave of a stranger, or in place of the old cemetery – because in this way we somehow pay the tribute to the buried ancestor in a forgotten grave. This custom is connected not only to past wars, but also to numerous epidemics.
The plague of 1709 began to expire in November – and then birds mass returning to the city was observed (all birds escaped disaster at the beginning).
Officially the termination of the plague was announced at the beginning of April the following year. And on April 27, Thanksgiving Day was set.
It is estimated that as a result of the plague – in the city there died around 22 100 people in the total number of dead 24 533. This is almost half of the city’s population. To this we add the number of 8,000 dead in the suburbs (those were populated with about 20 thousand). So all the victims of the plague gives us a number of over 30,000. As for those times and the then population – it is a frightening figure.
Gdansk has never recovered from the collapse caused by the plague. Besides, the times were not good – it was a time of war and unrest. Literally and figuratively was the end of the glory of the Golden Gateway of Poland.