Tag Archives: black death

Ebola – lessons from the past

The Four Horsemen – War, Famine, Pestilence and Death* – tend to work as a team. War brings famine (and famine, or at least land shortage, brings war). Hunger makes people vulnerable to infectious diseases – and pestilence, famine and war all bring death.

Durer Four Horsement

Albrecht Durer , The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1497-8)

But sometimes a new disease turns up unexpectedly, like Ebola in West Africa right now, or smallpox in the Aztec Empire in the 16th century, or the Plague of Justinian in 541AD, the first recorded pandemic caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, better known from its second appearance in 1347 as the Black Death.

Historians are good are looking back and finding explanations, and epidemic diseases are most deadly when certain preconditions exist: poverty, poor hygiene, poor nutrition and over-population all make things worse. But sometimes, there are no preconditions, and it doesn’t do to blame the victims: the Aztecs were doing just fine until the Spanish arrived, bringing smallpox to a population that had no immunity to the disease. Continue reading

Little Bags of Poison

The year was 1348, and terror haunted Europe.  An inexplicable, horrifying disease was spreading from city to city along the trade routes, killing as it went.  Within 4 years, perhaps a third of the population died, and nobody knew why.

In their fear, people looked for explanations – and scapegoats.  In Savoy, the authorities rounded up a number of Jews, men and women, and questioned them under torture.  One of them, Agimet of Geneva, had recently been to Venice to buy silk.  Before he left, according to his confession, he was approached by ‘a teacher of their law’, Rabbi Peyret, who gave him ‘a little package of half a span in size which contains some prepared poison and venom in a thin, sewed leather bag.’

‘Agimet took this package full of poison and carried it with him to Venice, and when he came there he threw and scattered a portion of it into the well or cistern of fresh water which was there …. Of his own accord Agimet confessed further that after this had been done he left at once in order that he should not be captured by the citizens or others, and that he went personally to Calabria and Apulia and threw the above mentioned poison into many wells. …He confesses further that he put some of this poison into the public fountain of the city of Toulouse and in the wells that are near the [Mediterranean] sea. Asked if at the time that he scattered the venom and poisoned the wells, above mentioned, any people had died, he said that he did not know inasmuch as he had left everyone of the above mentioned places in a hurry. Asked if any of the Jews of those places were guilty in the above mentioned matter, he answered that he did not know.’

Today we know that bubonic plague is caused by a bacillus, Yersinia pestis, but in the 14th century, little bags of poison were as good an explanation for the spread of the Black Death.  Agimet’s confession, extracted under torture, suggests he was able to travel vast distances – from Geneva to Venice to Calabria to Toulouse and home again – in a few months, and showed a puzzling ignorance of the Torah that would be surprising for a practicing Jew, but not at all surprising for his Christian torturers.

In the wake of the latest Wikileaks revelations about information gathering at Guantanamo Bay, and some of the self-serving statements from the CIA about how they extracted information from a courier to Osama bin Laden’s safe house, we need to confront the issue of torture, and its long and inglorious history.

People have never lacked inventive ways of hurting their fellow human beings, but the motivations for doing so vary.  I’m not talking here about people who get their kicks from inflicting pain, though no doubt many sadists have gravitated to the work.  Nor am I talking about corporal punishment, or executing people in imaginatively cruel ways.  Roman crucifixion, the Chinese ‘death of a thousand cuts’, or hanging, drawing and quartering in England, were all horrible deaths, designed to serve as a warning to others, and to assert the power of the state over the quivering bodies of its subjects.

But official, judicial torture, as opposed to just hurting someone, was designed to make people confess, to recant their heretical beliefs, and/or to get information about co-conspirators.  The problem, as in the case of Agimet, was (and is) the quality of the information extracted in this way.

In the medieval and early modern period, both religious and civil authorities in Europe used torture.  There were rules, gradually elaborated.  Judges could only order torture when they already presumed the person was guilty, torture should be applied in stages, and a confession extracted under torture had to be subsequently confirmed afterwards.

Paulus Grillandus, a papal judge, presided over witchcraft trials during the 16th century.  He certainly believed in witches and wrote one of the standard accounts about them, but he was dubious about confessions extracted under torture.  In On the Question and Torture, he itemizes 5 degrees of torture:

‘now a mere threat, now a suspension on the rack for the space only of an Ave Maria or a Paternoster, now a graver suspension for the space of a Miserere, now for a period which might reach into hours, and, last degree of all, where the victim’s limbs, weighted down, were jerked and twisted till the agony was greater than the amputation of the hand….’

Galileo was shown the instruments of torture by the Inquisition, though there is debate about whether he was tortured to ‘the second degree’.

Many confessions, particularly of witchcraft, occurred without torture.  As any experienced policeman knows, false confessions are common, and fantasists reflect the context of their time.  So in the 17th century, people were more likely to fly to a witches’ sabbat in Germany, or see the devil in the woods of Massachusetts, than to see aliens in the Arizona desert.

The Salem witch trials of 1692 are particularly well documented.  Very little torture was involved, but they do show how accusations tend to proliferate: 1 accuses 2, who accuse 4, who accuse 8….  in a geometric progression.  The decisions of the Salem trials were overturned in 1711 and most of the survivors and relatives were compensated.  One of those who raised concerns at the time was the Boston cleric, Increase Mather.  ‘It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape,’ he wrote, ‘than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned.’

Gravestone of one of the judges, Salem

Judicial torture went out of favour in the late 18th century, coincidentally (or not) at about the same time that people stopped believing in witches.  It was irrational, in a rational age, to reply on information extracted under torture, better ways of finding information were coming in with police forces, and people worried about the long term effects on the torturers themselves.

Torture went underground. The British used torture against the Mau Mau in Kenya in the 1950s, and we now know – if we ever doubted it – that the Americans used torture at Guantanamo Bay.  Torture tends to surface in situations when the state is weak, and people are frightened or confused.  Then it is easy to identify that invisible terror with alien people, of an alien religion, travelling from place to place with little bags of poison.

Documents from the Salem witch trials are on line at

Cornell University Library Witchcraft Collection and Salem Witch Trials Documentary archive