Category: visions

A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year

The Great Plague of London of 1665 to 1666 is vividly portrayed in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which we’ll be examining closely in this episode.  As the text is quite entertaining (much more so than his better known Robison Crusoe) we’ll be hearing more extensive quotes from the material than usual, delivered as usual by our diligent reader Mrs. Karswell.

We begin with a look at the presumed connection between the nursery rhyme, “Ring Around the Rosie” and the Black Death. Though the facts here may not satisfy our desire for macabre secrets hidden in plain sight, we will find evidence for something similar in a children’s song we review at the show’s conclusion.  We hear a snippet of the song as rendered in the game Dead Space.

Defoe’s book occupies a strange place between history and historical fiction.  As Defoe was 5 years old in 1655 and the book was published in 1722, the story is technically a work of fiction.  However, the narrative is an excellent window into contemporary perceptions of the tragedy as well as treasure house of factual information.  Characters within the story are nearly all actual individuals. Particular events described have widely been corroborated in contemporaneous accounts. Particular dates and locations are also meticulously anchored in reality – so much so, that scholars have frequently treated it as a contemporaneous source.  Hints given in the text suggest that Defoe was in fact telling the story of his uncle, Henry Foe, who lived through the Great Plague in London and shared a profession (saddler) with the story’s narrator.

plague pamphlet
Illustration from A Rod for Run-awayes, by Thomas Dekker, 1625,

Part of what makes the book so fascinating is Defoe’s meticulous cataloging of the way in which Londoners reacted to (and anticipated) the plague in terms of omens and astrological predictions and biblical prophecies articulated in pamphlets, broadsheets, and almanacs of the day. Here, the sighting of two comets over England as well as the biblical and numeric significance of the approaching year 1666 play a large role.  He also describes predictions of doom were also shared by visionaries and eccentric personalities on the city’s streets, such as those shared by the Quaker Solomon Eccles, known to Londoners as “Solomon Eagle,” a self-styled prophet who roamed the city with a pot of burning coals atop his head.

Solomon Eagle illustration
Illustration of plague prophet, likely Solomon Eagle, source unknown.

Defoe’s narrative also relishes some detail on the symptoms of the disease, the madness it brought upon those suffering from these symptoms, and the dreadful treatments offered by contemporary doctors.  We hear a number of passages describing these aspects, including horrific accounts of patient suicides and a lethal kiss offered by an insane victim of the sickness.

Also included in A Journal are extensive quotes from municipal edicts stipulating how the emergency was to be addressed.  From these descriptions we learn of the “Searchers of the Dead,” old women who roamed the city with red wands, prodding at corpses to determine which had succumbed to the disease, and of the watchmen posted at the doors of quarantined homes to ensure that those within (sick and healthy residents alike) remained incarcerated until the afflicted either recovered or was carted to the plague pits.  We also hear how these measures were defeated by more devious citizens.

Corpses, which were placed outside homes (or later those that simply fell dead in the streets), were picked up by “dead carts” preceded by a bell ringer.  Pickups and burial in the plague pits were only performed at night to avoid further distressing the citizenry.  He hear  a particularly dramatic description of the narrator’s visit to one of these pits and an encounter with a grieving loved one there  and his rough treatment by cynical drunkards in a tavern to which he retreats.

Unfortunately for Londoner’s the Great Plague was followed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. While the death count from the plague had already begun to drop sometime before the fire, it was nonetheless commonly believed that this disaster somehow put an end to the epidemic or even, in some way, purified the city of its sickness. We hear a clip of the song “London’s Burning,” commonly associated with the 1666 fire despite its mentioning anachronistic “engines” sent to extinguish the flames.

Defoe’s Journal also includes another story related to a song.  It’s his retelling of a legend circulating in London at the time inspired by a story from Vienna.  It relates how a piper, a tavern entertainer, becomes grievously intoxicated and while passed out, is picked up by one of the dead carts and is deposited, while still unconscious, in a plague pit — thankfully awakening before earth is shoveled in.  The story was eventually turned into the Viennese song “Oh du lieber Augustin,” (Oh, my dear Augustine) in the 1800s, and attributed to Markus Augustin, a minstrel and piper, who lived through the Great Plague of Vienna in 1679. While it’s set to the innocent-sounding melody of “Have You Ever Seen a Lassie,”  the  grim lyric tells how the piper has lost everything to the plague,  like the city of Vienna itself.  But its cheery tune and the fact that the singer has lived to tell his story has made it an anthem of survival for the city —  and popular song throughout German-speaking lands.  We hear a snippet of the song rendered in period-appropriate style by Ensemble Unisonos.

We end the show with a custom mashup of “Oh du lieber Augustin” and the curiously similar dead-cart scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Augustin Awakes in the Plague Pit by Adam Brenner, 1841.
Augustin Awakes in the Plague Pit by Adam Brenner, 1841.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#33 Ghosts from Purgatory

#33 Ghosts from Purgatory

Hear how notions of Purgatory influenced medieval ghost stories, the tradition of All Souls’ Day, and a Neapolitan “cult of skulls.”

We set the scene with a clip from “The Lyke Wake Dirge,” a 14th–century British song sung or chanted as a sort of charm over the body of the deceased in the night before burial. It describes the perils confronted by the soul during its journey into the afterlife, describing a “thorny moor,” and “Bridge of Doom,” which must be traversed to arrive in a none-too-friendly Purgatory.

We take a moment to review the historical Catholic concept of Purgatory, one usually associated with fire and torment, albeit of a temporary rather than everlasting nature and geared toward the further purification of the soul bound for Heaven.

Souls in Purgatory, Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau, Walters Manuscript
Souls in Purgatory, Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau, Walters Manuscript

Gregory the Great, the 6th-century pope, is one of the earliest influences on the notion of Purgatory offering as evidence a  ghost story of a wicked bishop condemmed to haunt the baths. We also hear of a grisly apparition of Gregory’s dead mother that supposedly appeared in a church where, legend has it, Gregory was saying mass.

From the 8th-century English chronicler Bede, we hear of a man named Drythelm who is granted a vision of Hell, that is “not the Hell you imagine,” (i.e., Purgatory instead) and of the Irish saint. Fursey, who was flown by an angel over purgatorial fires, where a surprising encounter with a demon provides him a curious souvenir.

St. Patrick went one better than ghost stories, at least according to legend. With a tap of his bishop’s crook, he’s said to have cracked open the earth to reveal a gateway to Purgatory itself, all in an effort to convert those stubborn pagans who wanted something a bit more concrete to validate the gospel.  A variety of medieval legends chronicle adventures through this underworld, and the site (though not the cave itself) is still open to visitors to a tiny Irish island in Loch Dergh (“the lake of the cave.”)

Though it’s not specifically Purgatory, descriptions of hellish torments identical to those that might be experienced there are particularly plentiful in the 12th-century Irish text The Vision of Tondal. Mrs. Karswell reads for us all the best passages.

Detail from the Getty Tondal
Detail from the Getty Tondal

Following a snippet of a late medieval ballad from Norway, Draumkvedet* or “The Dream Poem,” which relates its own story of a visionary journey into the afterlife, we discuss the relationship between All Souls’ Day, prayers for the dead, the cult of the Anima Sola (“lonely soul” suffering in purgatory), and the strange Neapolitans “cult of skulls,” including that of “Princess Lucia,” a legendary lovesick suicide.

Next we hear some stories of frustrated demons and a graveyard full of grumbling corpses from Jacobus da Varagine,1260 compilation of saint stories,  Legende Aurea, or The Golden Legend, followed by the utterly bizarre ghost stories written on some spare pages of a manuscript collection by a 13th-century  Cisterian monk from the abbey of Byland in Yorkshire, or “The Byland Ghost Stories.”

From 14th-century France, we hear a story known in modern English as The Ghost of Guy, describing a series of ghostly visitations by a soul condemned to Purgatory —  and the surprisingly colorful reason they were necessary!

Our last ghost story comes from The Adventures of Arthur, a story from northern England, probably set down in the late 14thcentury.  It tells of a particularly loathsome manifestation of Queen Guinevere’s mother that rises from within a lake with some pious advice for her daughter.

Cult of Skulls, Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples
Cult of Skulls, Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples

We end with two more modern efforts to provide evidence of souls suffering in the afterlife: Rome’s very small, and very odd Museum of the Souls in Purgatory created by a particularly obsessive 19th-century priest and a classic urban legend in audio form captured from late-night airwaves of a few decades ago.

* Norwegian listeners: my apologies for any errors in pronunciation of “Draumkvedet.”