41. Chateaubriand, plague doctors, infested

Marseilles during La Peste by Michel Serre
Schön, dass du mich endlich bemerkst, sagte der Tod. Ich bin der Tod.
WOLF ERLBRUCH, Ente, Tod und Tulpe

Francois-René de Chateaubriand, French writer and politician wrote about the plague and about Belsunce in his Mémoires d’outre-tombe (Memoirs from beyond the grave) the book that he wrote from eighteen nine until eighteen forty one. Chateaubriand dedicates one chapter to the different plagues, twenty two great plagues before the one in Athens, in four hundred thirty one before Christ, Constantinople, modern Istanbul, during the fifth century, the European black death in the fourteenth century, Milan in fifteen seventy five and again in sixteen twenty nine, all Europe a nouveau in 1660, Marseilles 1720, apparently, according to Chateaubriand, traveling all the way by sea from Syria to the French port. Chateaubriand talks of closed cities, windows open only to throw the corpses down, walls painted with their blood and street dogs waiting to devour them, an entire neighborhood where everyone died and all the dead were left inside their houses, streets covered with the sick and the dying, half-rotten bodies on the ground, corpses against walls in the place where they expired, bodies melted after being exposed to the sun for weeks that made a lake of liquefied meat where the only thing that moved were the worms eating their flesh. Chateaubriand quoted the Bishop who wrote, On devrait abolir les médecins, ou du moins nous en donner de plus habiles ou de moins peureux. J’ai eu bien de la peine à faire tirer cent cinquante cadavres à demi pourris qui étaient autour de ma maison (We should abolish doctors, or at least we should be given more skilled or fearless ones. I struggled when removing one hundred and fifty half-rotten corpses that surrounded my home).

François-René de Chateaubriand by Anne-Louis Girodet

During times of plague, plague doctors wore dark from head to toe, a brimmed hat made of leather, a long-nosed mask, the beak filled with a balsam made of cinnamon, camphor, white wine, petals of orchids and lilies, cloves, ground cardamom, mint leaves, straw, opium, and saffron, glass spectacles to protect the eyes, a cane to avoid contact, long gloves, long boots, a long black coat, the whole waxed to impede contact with the fluids from the sick and dying. During times of plague, hundreds kids were buried alive under suspicion of the illness. During times of plague fear pushed the living to open lazaretos to keep the living away from the penitent. In a short video in the history channel, Shiya Ribowsky, former director of special projects at the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office, explained, with a television-infused drama in his speech, how the bacteria passed from rats to fleas and from fleas to humans, even though experts worldwide still debate details of the process, how the flea bit the new host and vomited the infected rat blood in his or her bloodstream.

Plague Doctor

Ribowsky mentioned two variants of the plague. In the Pneumonic, bacteria settled in the lungs of the host, made them liquefy in a period of days, and the host coughed pieces of them till he or she died. In the Septicemic, the bacteria inhibited blood clotting and the body of the ill would bleed from everywhere. In the introduction of Decameron, Bocaccio tells his readers how the deadly plague came to the city of Florence in 1348 due to the giusta ira di Dio a nostra correzione mandata sopra i mortali (righteous wrath of God in correction sent over the mortals). Years later, once the house was half-way rebuilt and I was living there with mother, we also experienced a rat infestation. The rats quickly learn to distinguish the smell of poison in the food rations we left for them. Half a dozen rat-traps we placed around the house offered us three or four plump rat corpses with their necks and spines broken, dark blood oozing from their mouths, every morning. Javier, a country-side man sent by Grandmother to help us with the house chores, showed us a new rat-slaughtering technique which proved much more efficient. Javier placed an orange bucket which came up to his wait out in the open, in the middle of the grounds of the House, filled three quarters of it with water, and placed a thin wood-plank in the middle of the bucket’s mouth. On the middle of the plank he left chunks of raw meat, thanks to which I found out that the rat cheese diet is nothing but a myth. The rats climbed the bucket sniffing, looking for the feast, stepped on the plank, and, given their generous size, inevitably lost balance and fell into the water to their deaths. The bucket had one or sometimes up to two dozen corpses every morning, the Atlantis of the rats, an aquatic cemetery. Thanks to Javier and his pirate technique, the pest was finally eradicated.

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