The Italian plague of 1629-31: A frightening nightmare

Like an old foe, the plague kept coming back to the Italians from time to time. Subsequently after the pandemic of the fourteenth century (when it took the toll of 25 million lives), the plague kept coming back to one Italian region or another arbitrarily.

So, when in the early seventeenth century dead rats were coming to be seen here and there in the streets and houses, people could sense the onset of another plague epidemic. However at those times, no one knew that the dreadful disease was actually caused by microbes living on the black rats. They instead accused the miasmas of swampy air, full Moon, conjunctions of the planets, famine, fate, beggars, prostitutes or even Jews for the plague.

The name ‘Bubonic Plague’ was derived from the word ‘buboes’. These were swelling lymph nodes which appeared as the first symptom of the disease. It was accompanied by prickling pain, high fever, vomiting, dark markings on the skin due to internal hemorrhage, and eventually- death. Only a fraction of those who were afflicted by the plague could hope to recover.

Plague doctor in protective costume

The plague was like a forest fire. Once a member of a family contracted the malady, the others would soon follow suit. Even the discarded clothes or belongings of the afflicted could spread the disease. In Venice, specially appointed guards patrolled the city walls, preventing travellers from plague stricken regions from entering the city. Special plague hospitals were set up, which were soon overflowing with patients.

Eleven hundred health workers thus succumbed to the disease, demanding the replacement of more and more able bodied men whose number was rapidly shrinking. Both the plague houses as well as the graveyards were shortly jam packed, hence turning the dire situation into a nightmare.

While standing in the midst of a pandemic, looking back at a previous one makes us realize how history repeats itself from time to time!

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