Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Black Plague, Decameron, Wise Advice and Salmon Pie

1349 Plague scene from Tournai

Legend has it that the first pandemic, The Black Plague (also known as the Bubonic Plague or Yersinia pestis), came west from Egypt in a basket of grain in 541 AD.

Byzantine Constantinople - modern interpretation

Constantinople, the capitol of the Byzantine Empire (now Istanbul in Turkey), saw the first explosion of the disease. With a population of half a million in 500AD, It killed 5,000 a day till 40% of the population of the city was dead. 

 From there it spread ferociously. It wiped out 50% of Europe’s population by 700AD. It came to be named The Plague of Justinian after the tyrannical, bellicose Byzantine Emperor. (I wrote about Justinian HERE).

You may not want to know, but plagues employ diabolical stratagems. They slumber - you think it's over, you relax. Then, without warning, WHAM - it's resurrected and comes back like a monster from nightmares and horror films.

After a 600-year nap, only interrupted by small outbreaks over the intervening centuries, the Black Plague roared back at full strength into the world in 1331 where, in 6 years, it efficiently scythed through twenty to thirty million people in Europe. There were 100 outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century and together these visits killed 75 to 200 million people.

Did you know the first use of the word quarantine came during the 14th c plague? It comes from the Italian for 40 days, quaranta giorni to quarantena to quarantine. It was the length of time a ship had to keep its crew onboard and offshore before being allowed to debark to keep the plague from spreading. Quarantines helped a little. On land, victims were boarded up in their houses to keep them from infecting others, but, as one contemporary observer noted during the 17th century outbreak, “I think the only reason why the plague is somewhat slackened is because the place is dead already, and no bodie left in it worth the killing.”

Guy de Chauliac (1300-68)

Guy de Chauliac, a wise French physician who tended to plague victims and urged his fellows to rely on science and not superstition, wrote of the plague:

“The great mortality appeared at Avignon in January 1348, when I was in the service of Pope Clement VI. It was of two kinds. The first lasted two months, with continued fever and spitting of blood, and people died of it in three days. The second was all the rest of the time, also with continuous fever and with tumors in the external parts, chiefly the armpits and groin: and people died in five days. It was so contagious, especially that accompanied by spitting of blood, that not only by staying together, but even by looking at one another, people caught it, with the result that men died without attendants and were buried without priests. The father did not visit his son, nor the son his father. Charity was dead and hope crushed.”

It was Chauliac who advised Pope Clement IV to protect himself in a novel way. Deciding that fires purified, Chauliac told the Pope to sit between 2 large fires that were never allowed to go out till the contagion passed through Avignon. One third of the Cardinals died, but Clement was spared.

Millions were not so lucky, but a good many souls that lived through the plague benefitted from it. The plague changed the way the world worked. Scholar Charles Creighton observed, “Nothing marks so definitely the emergence of Europe from the Middle Ages as the depopulation and social upheaval made by the plague. The great benefit from the carnage was that wages went up and land wealth was spread out to the underclasses at last. A more robust middle class arose from the ashes.  There was enough food to feed the people. The remaining populace was fed up with the tyranny of the church and turned away from slavish obedience and the wealth and greed and hypocrisy that the institution had come to symbolize. The church lost some of its power and a lot of its clergy. The changes brought on the Renaissance - and a new, observable 3-dimensional world less rooted in superstition. But it got very, very dark before the light.

Giovanni Boccaccio 1310-74

Giovanni Bocaccio’s  The Decameron (1348-53) is one of the few works describing this plague that is familiar today – in fact it is a best seller again during these plague times. It’s a magnificent group of tales that surely inspired Chaucer to write his own Canterbury Tales (Chaucer most likely read The Decameron on his trip to Italy in 1372 – like Boccaccio and Dante before him, Chaucer chose not to write in Latin but in the common language of the day).

The title, decameron, means 10-day period which is the time allotted for the telling of the stories of the 3 men and 7 women escaping the black death of Florence and taking up residence in a country villa. They tell stories – 100 stories in all about real people – not just the ruling class but people from all walks of life like farmers, weavers, maids and clergy. Then as now, people loved them because the telling of the stories, the singing and dancing the carola [watch it Here ] transported the travelers from the horror of Pestilencia Magna or The Great Mortality as our streaming does for us today with Covid 19.

Thanks to Patrick Lane at Medieval Death Trip, I discovered an essay by Martin Marafioti about the theory of “narrative prophylaxis” – the healing power of a story to fight disease – inspired by Decameron. A medical manual, Regime du corps, advocated “literary pleasures in the times of plague” (it also advocated fresh air, nutritious food, salubrious wines and regular bathing as well as not getting angry, fearful sad or anguished – wise words then and now). It is not a cure but it helps – then as now.

People would gather in public spaces or in the country to read The Decameron out loud. As it was in Italian and not Latin, there was a small, newly literate merchant class who could read it themselves – but everyone could understand it when it was read out loud and they loved it.

Expanded, the idea of Boccaccio’s ‘lieta brigata’ -- a cheerful company of friends sharing stories that were joyful, uplifting, pleasurable and interesting … became a thing!

According to Tommaso del Garbo [author of Consiglio contro a pistolenza, professor of medicine and friend of Petrarch, 1305-70], “Diversion and entertainment are beneficial so that the bitter reality of the plague can be forgotten: Use songs and games and other pleasant novella that do not exhaust the body, and all those delightful things that bring comfort”. Another intellectual, Cardo of Milan advises in the Regimen in pestilencia (1378), to ‘remain in good spirits and to avoid negative affective states”. He also noticed a relationship between ‘grave sadness and physical ailments …. One should choose moderate joy and make it a habit of listening with loved ones to soothing speeches and joyful and soft songs in supreme harmony.”

It’s as if the physicians of the day learned the lessons of The Decameron. The character Pampinea warns that people shouldn’t think about the plague that killed 60% of Florence – the reflection on the plague corrupts the sanctuary— -- let it go!

Nicolo de Burgo, a Florentine physician agreed:

According to one’s possibility, one should abstain from sadness, anguish, superfluous thoughts, superfluous duties, anger and from contemplated fear and suspicion, especially from every report and conversation of the pestilence and death and from the mention of ill people and people who have dies from the epidemic, unless they be of those who have recovered, or who are going to recover.” He also recommended softly sung songs (in voce remissa – cantilena like this or this), play, clean clothes and good friends – in an atmosphere of peace and harmony.

Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) believed it was best to avoid the news of the plague but also believed in the power of words and song – ‘the most powerful imitator of all things’ has the ability to relieve pain and cure illness. His theory is based on the idea that words and song can alter a person’s well-being especially when the content is inspired by one’s heart and imagination.

Botticelli’s Banquet of the Pine Forest from The Decameron (1482)

Yes, The Decameron was an escape from the Great Mortality. Still, it began with a bleak description of what they were escaping from – written contemporaneously. Think of it as the black and white of Kansas and the hurricane before the world of Oz. Boccaccio didn’t flinch from painting a horrific sketch of the reason the band of storytellers were escaping the city. Enjoy a few passages from the Payne translation  and be grateful that we live in 2020, not 1350.

“And there against no wisdom availing nor human foresight (whereby the city was purged of many impurities by officers deputed to that end and it was forbidden unto any sick person to enter therein and many were the counsels given for the preservation of health) nor yet humble supplications, not once but many times both in ordered processions and on other wise made unto God by devout persons,—about the coming in of the Spring of the aforesaid year, it began on horrible and miraculous wise to show forth its dolorous effects. Yet not as it had done in the East, where, if any bled at the nose, it was a manifest sign of inevitable death; nay, but in men and women alike there appeared, at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits, whereof some waxed of the bigness of a common apple, others like unto an egg, some more and some less, and these the vulgar named plague-boils. From these two parts the aforesaid death-bearing plague-boils proceeded, in brief space, to appear and come indifferently in every part of the body; wherefrom, after awhile, the fashion of the contagion began to change into black or livid blotches, which showed themselves in many [first] on the arms and about the thighs and [after spread to] every other part of the person, in some large and sparse and in others small and thick-sown; and like as the plague-boils had been first (and yet were) a very certain token of coming death, even so were these for everyone to whom they came.” 2

“To the cure of these maladies nor counsel of physician nor virtue of any medicine appeared to avail or profit aught; on the contrary,—whether it was that the nature of the infection suffered it not or that the ignorance of the physicians (of whom, over and above the men of art, the number, both men and women, who had never had any teaching of medicine, was become exceeding great,) availed not to know whence it arose and consequently took not due measures there against,—not only did few recover thereof, but well-nigh all died within the third day from the appearance of the aforesaid signs, this sooner and that later, and for the most part without fever or other accident. And this pestilence was the more virulent for that, by communication with those who were sick thereof, it gat hold upon the sound, no otherwise than fire upon things dry or greasy, when as they are brought very near thereunto Nay, the mischief was yet greater; for that not only did converse and consortion with the sick give to the sound infection of cause of common death, but the mere touching of the clothes or of whatsoever other thing had been touched or used of the sick appeared of itself to communicate the malady to the toucher. A marvellous thing to hear is that which I have to tell and one which, had it not been seen of many men's eyes and of mine own, I had scarce dared credit, much less set down in writing, though I had heard it from one worthy of belief. I say, then, that of such efficience was the nature of the pestilence in question in communicating itself from one to another, that, not only did it pass from man to man, but this, which is much more, it many times visibly did;—to wit, a thing which had pertained to a man sick or dead of the aforesaid sickness, being touched by an animal foreign to the human species, not only3 infected this latter with the plague, but in a very brief space of time killed it. Of this mine own eyes (as hath a little before been said) had one day, among others, experience on this wise; to wit, that the rags of a poor man, who had died of the plague, being cast out into the public way, two hogs came up to them and having first, after their wont, rooted amain among them with their snouts, took them in their mouths and tossed them about their jaws; then, in a little while, after turning round and round, they both, as if they had taken poison, fell down dead upon the rags with which they had in an ill hour intermeddled”3

“The condition of the common people (and belike, in great part, of the middle class also) was yet more pitiable to behold, for that these, for the most part retained by hope or poverty in their houses and abiding in their own quarters, sickened by the thousand daily and being altogether untended and unsuccoured, died well-nigh all without recourse. Many breathed their last in the open street, whilst other many, for all they died in their houses, made it known to the neighbors that they were dead rather by the stench of their rotting bodies than otherwise; and of these and others who died all about the whole city was full”. 6

Seven gentle women (Emilia, Elisa, Lauretta, Neifile, Pampinea Fiammeta Filomena) and 3 gentlemen (Pamfilo, Filostrato, Dioneo), decided to get out of Florence and left the next morning for their new Eden… “nor had they gone more than two short miles from the city, when they came to the place fore-appointed of them, which was situate on a little hill, somewhat withdrawn on every side from the high way and full of various shrubs and plants, all green of leafage and pleasant to behold. On the summit of this hill was a palace, with a goodly and great courtyard in its midst and galleries and saloons and bedchambers, each in itself most fair and adorned and notable with jocund paintings, with lawns and grassplots round about and wonder-goodly gardens and wells of very cold water and cellars full of wines of price, things more apt unto curious drinkers than unto sober and modest ladies. The new comers, to their no little pleasure, found the place all swept and the beds made in the chambers and everything full of such flowers as might be had at that season and strewn with rushes.”

They decide to pick a new chief for each day to decide what the subject of their entertainments will be. They broke off and returned at the appointed time to find …”entering a saloon on the ground floor, they saw there the tables laid with the whitest of cloths and beakers that seemed of silver and everything covered with the flowers of the broom; whereupon, having washed their hands, they all, by command of the queen, seated themselves according to Parmeno's [Dioneo’s manservant] ordinance. Then came viands delicately drest and choicest wines were proffered and the three serving-men, without more, quietly tended the tables. All, being gladdened by these things, for that they were fair and orderly done, ate joyously and with store of merry talk, and the tables being cleared away, the queen bade bring instruments of music, for that all the ladies knew how to dance, as also the young men, and some of them could both play and sing excellent well.” 15

After this they retired to the grass and the plan was settled. “Here is the sojourn fair and cool, and here, as you see, are chess and tables, and each can divert himself as is most to his mind. But, an my counsel be followed in this, we shall pass away this sultry part of the day, not in gaming,—wherein the mind of one of the players must of necessity be troubled, without any great pleasure of the other or of those who look on,—but in telling stories, which, one telling, may afford diversion to all the company who hearken; nor shall we have made an end of telling each his story but the sun will have declined and the heat be abated, and we can then go a-pleasuring whereas it may be most agreeable to us. Wherefore, if this that I say please you, (for I am disposed to follow your pleasure therein,) let us do it; and if it please you not, let each until the hour of vespers do what most liketh him." Ladies and men alike all approved the story-telling, whereupon, "Then," said the queen, "since this pleaseth you, I will that this first day each be free to tell of such matters as are most to his liking. Then, turning to Pamfilo, who sat on her right hand, she smilingly bade him give beginning to the story-telling with one of his; and he, hearing the commandment, forthright began thus, whilst all gave ear to him.” 15

And so the tales begin. The hundred tales are not strung together by anything other than the direction of the chief of the day. They are very bawdy, funny, sad, exciting, provoking and terribly entertaining. They are human and they are meant to take one’s mind off the world around you for a while – the perfect book for today, yes?

Also, PLEASE listen to those very wise men of medicine from the 14th century. Don’t let the crazy make you sick. Our president is a force of chaos and division. Don’t pay him attention – he thrives on chaos and hurting others while he screams ME ME ME. Change the conversation. TURN AWAY from the toxic and toward great friends and great art, literature, drama and music. Let it feed you and heal you.

Take a break. Let some light in. Cook something, take it to a shut-in – do good and be well. We will get through this.

And on a personal note, 2,500,000 people have visited Lost Past Remembered in the last 10 years -- thanks so much for joining me.

The Lutrell Salter 1330

So what did they eat?

Needless to say. They dined well at this castle. I had originally thought I was going to write about the plague in England, but then Bocaccio won the day with the excellent advice of the famous Italian physicians that I felt compelled to share. I had already decided to go with something from an English cookbook of the period and was pleased when I made the dish, so The Forme of Cury it is!! It came from Richard II’s kitchen around 1390 and its recipes have fed me well many times (I wrote about it HERE ). I have already made a 1420 Savoyard tuna pie by Chiquart, chef to the Duke of Savoy (I wrote about it here)  which had similar ingredients but also rice flour, almond milk and orange. I thought I would try something a little different and slightly earlier. Looking at Bartolomeo Scappi’s cookbook (1570), I don’t think my pie would have been alien to Florentines in the 14thcentury.

Yes, it is not your idea of a fish pie. It has raisins, dates, figs, apples, pears and prunes so it is more like a dessert before you pop the fish in – but it is delicious. Also, for those of you who are vegetarians, it is dessert again if you skip the fish – it is delicious either way.

Just a note- I didn’t cook the fish beforehand since I don’t like heavily cooked fish and I only used salmon because, in these quarantine shopping days – it’s what I had. I didn’t have fresh plums so just used prunes – I think the ‘damsyns’ would be delicious – next time

                                        Forme of Cury 


Take Fyges & Raysouns. & waisshe hem in Wyne and grinde hem smalewith apples & peres clene ypikede (picked). take hem up and cast hem in a pot wiþ wyne and sugur. take salwar Salmoun [2] ysode (boil). oþer codlyng (cod), oþer haddok, & bray hem smal. & do þerto white powdours & hool spices. &salt. and seeþ (boil-reduce) it. and whanne it is sode ynowgh. take it up and do it in a vessel and lat it kele (cool). make a Coffyn an ynche depe & do þe fars þerin (stuff). Plaunt it aboue [3] with prunes and damysyns. take þe stoneout, and wiþ dates quartereded [4] and piked clene. and couere the coffyn, and bake it well, and serve it forth
{FYI, þ (upper case Þ), is the letter thorn. it was gradually replaced by "th". so pronounce wiþ - with}

Tart de Brymlent. Take figs & raisins, & wash them in wine, and grind them small with apples & pears clean picked. Take them up and put them in a pot with wine and sugar. Take very fresh salmon boiled, or cod or haddock, and mince them small, & do there-to white powders & whole spices & salt, & boil it. And when it is cooked enough, take it up and do it in a vessel, and let it cool. Make a pie shell an inch deep & do the filling there-in. Place on top of this damson prunes: take the stones out; and with dates quartered and picked clean. And cover the pie, and bake it well, and serve it forth.

Tart de Brymlent serves 2 - 4 (thanks to Gode Cookery for the translations and help with the recipe )

2 figs, minced
¼ c Raisins
1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped
1 pear peeled, cored and chopped
½ c White wine
2 T Sugar
½ Lb fresh Salmon in small pieces
½ t White Pepper (I used a ground blend of black pepper, grains of paradise, cubeb and long pepper)
Whole spices – 1 Cinnamon Stick, 5 Cloves, 1 quarter size piece Ginger, etc. - wrapped up in cheesecloth or ½ t of cinnamon, ¼ t cloves ½ t ginger  - do it to taste before you put the fish in -- I like a little more spice)
1 t Salt
Pastry for a double crust lid
6 Pitted Prunes sliced in half
2 plums sliced in quarters (I didn’t have them so didn’t use them)
6 Dates, pitted and halved
1 T butter

Heat oven to 425º

Put the figs, raisins, apples and pears with the wine and sugar into a pot. Add spices, & salt to taste. Bring to a boil, then simmer. Cook until it has reduced and thickened (if it seems too liquid after fruits have cooked thoroughly, remove them and reduce the liquid a little. Remove the whole spices if used. Let the mixture cool.

Roll out the bottom crust and place in pan (I used a copper pan with a 4 ½ “bottom - 6” top- so smaller than a regular pie pan – a small, oven-proof skillet would do well). Add the salmon to the pie filling and put in pie crust. Put the prunes and dates on top and dot with butter. Cover with the reserve pastry and seal. Add holes for steam. Bake about 40 minutes - checking that the top doesn’t get too brown (put foil or a silicone pie rim on it if it is getting too brown). Take it out of the oven and cool a few minutes and serve. It’s good hot or at room temperature.