The Black Death: Folklore and the Plague

It killed more than 20 million Europeans, almost one-third of the continent’s population, but arrived silently aboard 12 Genoese trading ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina in 1347. Onlookers who had come to welcome the ships were met with a terrible sight: many of the sailors had died at sea and the remaining crew on board these ships were severely ill. With the pain of illness, many of the sailors had become insane and were covered in oozing black boils. By the time any action was taken to make the ships leave, the affliction that had struck down the sailors had already jumped ship. By the time the sickness had run its course, it had cut down 75 million people, though this is only an estimate, worldwide. I’m speaking, of course, of The Black Plague.

Plague may take three forms (www.medicinenet.com):

1. Bubonic plague

In this form of the infection, bacteria infiltrate the lymph nodes, causing enlarged, painful, tender lymph nodes called buboes. Accompanying symptoms are fever, chills, headaches, and weakness. If not treated, the infection can spread to other areas of the body. This is the most common form seen in the few U.S. infections.

2. Septicemic plague

This form of plague is a result of plague bacteria entering the bloodstream. It can occur on its own or it may develop from bubonic plague. Symptoms include fever, chills, weakness, abdominal pain, and shock. There can be bleeding and tissue death, especially of the fingers and toes. These dying tissues may appear black, hence the name Black Death.

3. Pneumonic plague

In the pneumonic form of the illness, symptoms of other types of plague can be present, but the characteristic clinical picture of pneumonia is present. The plague bacteria spread to the lungs or infect the lungs directly when infected droplets in the air are inhaled. This is the only form of plague that can be transmitted from person to person. Shortness of breath, chest pain, fever, and cough with watery or bloody mucus production are symptoms of pneumonic plague.

https://www.medicinenet.com/plague_facts/article.htm#what_is_the_contagious_period_for_pneumonic_plague

According to History.com, many early Europeans believed the plague was a punishment from God itself.

“Because they did not understand the biology of the disease, many people believed that the Black Death was a kind of divine punishment–retribution for sins against God such as greed, blasphemy, heresy, fornication, and worldliness. By this logic, the only way to overcome the plague was to win God’s forgiveness. Some people believed that the way to do this was to purge their communities of heretics and other troublemakers–so, for example, many thousands of Jews were massacred in 1348 and 1349. (Thousands more fled to the sparsely populated regions of Eastern Europe, where they could be relatively safe from the rampaging mobs in the cities.)

Some people coped with the terror and uncertainty of the Black Death epidemic by lashing out at their neighbors; others coped by turning inward and fretting about the condition of their own souls. Some upper-class men joined processions of flagellants that traveled from town to town and engaged in public displays of penance and punishment: They would beat themselves and one another with heavy leather straps studded with sharp pieces of metal while the townspeople looked on.”

https://www.history.com/topics/black-death

I think it’s safe to say that everyone went a little mad. Their friends, neighbors and family members were dying all around them and it seemed as if the world they knew was disintegrating before their eyes. Their livestock died, the loss of so many sheep actually led to a wool shortage across Europe. It was a culture of insanity. I guess that’s why many people in Norway, both those suffering from plague symptoms and those looking on, believed that their afflictions had something to do with a creature from Norwegian folklore: Pesta.

 

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Pesta, the Plague Hag https://www.pinterest.com/pin/720224165378447316/?lp=true

 

In Norwegian folk legend, Pesta is an old woman who carries both a rake and a broom.  It is also said that Pesta, the plague hag, carries pestilence with her. If Pesta brings her rake, some may survive the plague and pass through the teeth, but if she’s carrying her broom, there will be no survivors.

SIDE NOTE:
It’s no small wonder that the name Pesta is located on a list of popular baby names at number 71,580. If you hate your kid, name them Pesta.
As I was searching Google, I happened upon a list of baby names. Pesta sits around the 71k mark (predictable.) I scroll down and see there is no “meaning” for this particular baby name. There is, however, a little button you can push to suggest one. Guess what I wrote?

Plague Hag.

I’m sure that whoever checks that email will be stupefied.

ANYWAY!

The WordPress site Myths and Microbes states that Pesta arrives by a ghost ship filled with rats (I’ll tackle that in a little bit). The personification of an unseen force is a common theme in many folklore tales. For example, The Hag (of Newfoundland folklore) is a four-legged creature that sits upon your chest and freezes you to the spot. You’re unable to move or scream as it stares down at you with black eyes, its long, stringy hair brushing your face. Today, we know that this strange feeling some of us experience between sleep and wakefulness is actually something called sleep paralysis, but before there was a clinical diagnosis available to explain away fears there were a lot of people who slept with boards with nails in them (supposedly the Hag would get stabbed by the nails and run away, proof that folklore in no way has to be logical) across their chests at night.

 

According to Myths and Microbes, “This type of personification of death and disease is common during the late medieval period. It represents an attempt to explain a horrifying experience. The folklore of the black plague developed through observation of events that must have seemed inexplicable to the people living through them. We can, however, learn something about how the events unfolded through a careful examination of the folklore of Pesta. Folklorists argue that folklore can be true and can be the results of individuals “rationally perceiving a real situation.”  Through the story of Pesta and her path across Norway, we see an attempt to explain the spread of a disease based on actual observations. While the entity of Pesta is not a literal being, we can imagine her as a representation of the microbe that we know today.”

Pesta: The Personification of the Black Plague in Norway

The plague, known also by its Latin name Yersinia Pestis (pestilence), traveled from port to port by ship so it is no wonder that Pesta (personification of the plague itself) also used that mode of transportation. The folk legend states that Pesta traveled on a ghost ship filled with rats. But not only was Pesta the harbinger of grotesque suffering, those sailors that traveled by that same means were carriers of the plague and victims of Pesta.

Rats were said to be carriers of the plague during the first outbreaks. The plague bacteria is actually transmitted by fleas on the animals, not the rats themselves, but people had no way of knowing this. They simply associated the rats with the illness and certain folk legends in certain parts of the world perpetuated this belief.

Early Forms of Treatment

From The History Learning Site (http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval-england/cures-for-the-black-death/):

Vinegar and water treatment If a person gets the disease, they must be put to bed. They should be washed with vinegar and rose water

Lancing the buboes
The swellings associated with the Black Death should be cut open to allow the disease to leave the body. A mixture of tree resin, roots of white lilies and dried human excrement should be applied to the places where the body has been cut open.

Bleeding

The disease must be in the blood. The veins leading to the heart should be cut open. This will allow the disease to leave the body. An ointment made of clay and violets should be applied to the place where the cuts have been made.
Diet We should not eat food that goes off easily and smells badly such as meat, cheese and fish. Instead we should eat bread, fruit and vegetables

Sanitation

The streets should be cleaned of all human and animal waste. It should be taken by a cart to a field outside of the village and burnt. All bodies should be buried in deep pits outside of the village and their clothes should also be burnt.

Pestilence medicine

Roast the shells of newly laid eggs. Ground the roasted shells into a powder. Chop up the leaves and petals of  marigold flowers. Put the egg shells and marigolds into a pot of good ale. Add treacle and warm over a fire. The patient should drink this mixture every morning and night.

Witchcraft
Place a live hen next to the swelling to draw out the pestilence from the body. To aid recovery you should drink a glass of your own urine twice a day.

Face of the Plague

Plague doctors were often hired to treat entire communities and paid a salary by said communities. The dominant theory around the 17th century was that miasma (“bad air”) was to blame for the spread of plague. This is why, on their faces, doctors wore masks with long “beaks.” The beak would be packed full of sweet-smelling mixes of herbs and flowers and the eyes of the mask would be covered with glass, “sealing” in the “good air” and forcing out the bad. Wikipedia states, “Medical historians have attributed the invention of the “beak doctor” costume to Charles de Lorme, who adopted in 1619 the idea of a full head-to-toe protective garment, modeled after a soldier’s armor. This consisted of a bird-like mask with spectacles, and a long leather (Moroccan or Levantine) or waxed-canvas gown which went from the neck to the ankle. The over-clothing garment, as well as leggings, gloves, boots, and a hat, were made of waxed leather. The garment was impregnated with similar fragrant items as the beak mask.”

 

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“Dr. Schnabel” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plague_doctor

 

Many people believe that the beaked mask, large hat, and long waxed robe were worn during the original outbreaks of plague. This is not the case as the miasma theory didn’t come along until much later.

Doctors would travel from town to town, often held for quarantine themselves due to their proximity to the afflicted, and treated sufferers as best they could. They carried a long staff so that they would have as little contact with the patient as possible. They would use it to point to various parts of the body, keep a safe distance from people who insisted on walking too close to them, or to help a patient remove his clothing. Maintaining a safe distance and wearing a garb that was covered in a waxy substance actually helped the doctor avoid getting sick. The wax on the leather would not allow liquid to permeate the outfit and with all of those people coughing bloody sputum everywhere, it likely saved many doctor’s lives. As for the miasma, that was a bit of a miss medically speaking although I’m sure all of the rotting corpses being thrown into the street and picked up in wagons to be burned didn’t smell too appealing.

Your Fellow Haunt Head,

Janine

hauntheadscast@gmail.com

Tweet us @hauntheadscast

Listen to episodes of Haunt Heads at hauntheads.podbean.com or wherever you listen to podcasts!

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S1 Ep. 16 On an Egg Roll

This week, Mimi delivers two steaming hot tales of the supernatural from Chinese writer Gan Bao and Janine springs into the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack. This episode contains Chinese food critiques and praises, folklore, and mysterious family recipes. “There’s five spice in these egg rolls, right?” 😉

Got a folklore story or paranormal experience to share? Send it to us at hauntheadscast@gmail.com.

S1 Ep. 13 So Many Knights (Nights)

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/chdz8-6d0b70?from=yiiadmin

Mimi continues her voyage to the dark side this week with the tale of Giles DeRey, compatriot to Joan of Ark, child murderer, and necrophiliac. Janine explores vampire folklore and legend in a little piece she likes to call Bird of Death.
Disclaimer: Mimi’s piece is a little creep-tastic this week. If you’re faint of heart or just don’t enjoy graphic descriptions of violence, skip to the 20 minute mark.
Have a folklore story from your neck of the woods that you’d like to share? Experience some ghostly or otherwise unexplainable phenomena? Drop us a line! We’d love to read about your experiences and share them on an upcoming minisode! hauntheadscast@gmail.com is your friend. =)

Please take a moment to leave us a review on iTunes. We’d very much appreciate your feedback!

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Immurement: A Rock and A Hard Place.

A Long, Rich History

Elizabeth_Bathory_PortraitIf you know anything of the case of serial killer Elizabeth Bathory, The Blood Countess of 1610, who believed the blood of local virgins would keep her young forever, you already know about Immurement, or the practice of sealing an individual up in a wall or other confined space for a prolonged period of time. Bathory was sealed inside a tower in her castle and left with only a tiny opening for food. Likely very flat food. Bathory lasted four years in her prison, but some sentenced to immurement lasted far longer. Some didn’t last long at all.

Immurement can also be found in literature. Edgar Allan Poe used immurement as a form of punishment several times, but most famously in The Cask of Amontillado. Villain Injun Joe meets an accidental and untimely end in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when he is immured in a cave. Oscar Wilde wielded immurement like a club in The Canterville Ghost and several characters in the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, specifically Barnabas Collins (Collins is a vampire and cannot die so his punishment is eternal), suffer immurement.

Cultural folklore is rife with tales of people being bricked up inside bridges and behind the walls of ancient castles. It was popular to offer a “foundation sacrifice” to ensure the longevity of the structure and to bring good luck to those who would reside within it. In particular, Greek, British, Scandinavian, German, and many other cultures participated in the practice. If it’s any consolation, the sacrifices were likely put to death prior to being immured, though we can’t be sure.

Misery Loves Company

Immurement sounds like cruel and unusual punishment, but there were actually people who elected to be immured, particularly the devout of several religions including monks, nuns, and priests. In some cases, these devout souls would be bricked up along with a small child, a symbol of innocence and purity. It was not uncommon for nuns to be bricked up for a decade or more with a child companion, generally an orphan but sometimes willingly given by their parents, who was a “gift” to the Catholic church. Both individuals would receive food through a small slot and would never emerge from the chamber. There are no records of a child surviving immurement.

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In the 4th century A.D., a nun named Alexandria was immured for ten years. Saint Jerome wrote of one devout follower who spent his entire life living in a cistern and surviving on only five figs a day.

Punishment

As much as immurement could be used as a faith strengthening practice, it was also used in the religious community as a punishment. Priests who were found to have committed pederasty were sealed in a coffin and suspended inside a tower until they starved. in 1409, four clerics in Bavaria were subjected to this form of immurement as church officials felt the usual punishment, immolation, was too merciful.

Portrait_of_a_Grand_Vizier_(-)

 

In the 18th century, the governor of Lebanon, Jazzar Pasha, decided to build a wall, something both decorative and entertaining, around the city of Beirut. Pasha, known to be a cruel and vengeful man, captured a large number of Greek Christians and ordered that they be built into the structure. Their heads protruded from one side, allowing Pasha to watch as they suffered and starved to death.

In 1906, a cobbler from Marrakesh was convicted of murdering 36 women and walled up for his crimes. His screams were heard for two days after his immurement. On the third day, he fell silent.

According to Henry Charles Lea, an American historian, civic reformer, and political activist, “The cruelty of the monastic system of imprisonment known as in pace, or vade in pacem, was such that those subjected to it speedily died in all the agonies of despair. In 1350 the Archbishop of Toulouse appealed to King John to interfere for its mitigation, and he issued an Ordinance that the superior of the convent should twice a month visit and console the prisoner, who, moreover, should have the right twice a month to ask for the company of one of the monks. Even this slender innovation provoked the bitterest resistance of the Dominicans and Franciscans, who appealed to Pope Clement VI., but in vain.”

Sir Walter Scott,  a Scottish historical novelist, playwright and poet, notes in a remark to his poem Marmion (1808): “It is well known, that the religious, who broke their vows of chastity, were subjected to the same penalty as the Roman Vestals in a similar case. A small niche, sufficient to enclose their bodies, was made in the massive wall of the convent ; a slender pittance of food and water was deposited in it and the awful words Vade in pace, were the signal for immuring the criminal. It is not likely that, in latter times, this punishment was often resorted to; but, among the ruins of the abbey of Coldingham were some years ago discovered the remains of a female skeleton which, from the shape of the niche, and the position of the figure seemed to be that of an immured nun.”

Ancient Entombment

In Ancient Egypt, it was often the practice to entomb a deceased King or Queen along with those who served them in life and any pets they wanted to bring with them into the afterlife. In some cases, the living sacrifices were drugged prior to being immured with their master. In the 14th century, a mongol khan was immured with his servants, wives, and “several vessels of drink.” In others, as was the case of the widows of a great chief in Africa, legs would be broken prior to being immured.

In an effort to ensure a fruitful harvest, during The Festival of the Sun, the Ancient Incas would sacrifice animals and hold celebrations lasting nine days in an effort to thank the gods for providing their bounty. When Christian Spaniards intiarrived in the 16th century, they attempted to convert the Incas to Catholicism. This was likely due in part to the custom of immuring young women (aged 12 or younger) inside a water-less cistern as a form of sacrifice to the gods.

Infanticide

Why would anyone immure a newborn, you ask? Cases of child immurement were often due to an inability to provide for the infant or in order to hide the shame a child might bring to their parents. Often, these children were the offspring of nuns who had become lustful or who had been raped by monks or priests. Children might also be immured if they came from poverty stricken families. In most cases, the children were left in abandoned places and not actually entombed as they were unable to attempt escape.

Immurement On Television

Mr_BurnsYou’ve likely seen the episode of The Simpsons (Last Exit to Springfield) where Mr. Burns relates the story of a worker in his grandfather’s power plant is found with atoms in his pockets. As he is dragged away, Burns discusses  labor unions and Japan’s economical and industrial prominence. He then remarks “If only we’d listened to that young man instead of walling him up in the abandoned coke oven.”

 

On the HBO TV series OZ, a preacher (Luke Perry) is walled up by some inmates. He is later found by prison officials.

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In a 1984 episode of Thomas the Tank Engine, Percy is immured in a tunnel for refusing to leave during a rain storm. I think it had something to do with being afraid he’d ruin his paint job. You’ll have to trust me on that one.

 

On the HBO TV series Game of Thrones,  Doreah and Xaro Xhoan Daxos are sealed in an empty vault in Daxos’ villa, after betraying Daenerys and attempting to steal her dragons.

Here’s the Rub…

There was definitely a trick to surviving this particular method of torture. Obviously, rationing what little food and water you were given and finding something to keep yourself from going batty were givens, but your fate really relied on your keeper and whether or not the people on the outside would continue to care for you. If they forgot about you completely,  you were doomed to spend the remainder of your short life entombed with only the spiders and cobwebs to keep you company. Unless you were a nun who was immured with a kid. Then the two of you could play Parcheesi or whatever until the food and water ran out.

What do you think about the practice of immurement? Did it have practical applications? Was it just a way to punish and murder people? Chat us up in the comments below. =)

Until next time!

Your Fellow Haunt Head,

Janine

hauntheadscast@gmail.com

Tweet us @hauntheadscast

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Sleep Tight: The Hag of Newfoundland Folklore (Newfoundland, Canada)

I learned of The Hag in grade school, sometime around 1994.  It was close to Halloween and my teacher had added a little bit of folklore into her lesson plan. It was a story I hadn’t heard before and I was instantly intrigued.

Most people call it what it is: sleep paralysis. That feeling of being unable to move in the moments just before your fall into REM sleep. If you have issues falling into or out of REM sleep, and your experience involves hallucinations or you’re unable to move or speak as you begin the waking process, you might be experiencing sleep paralysis. Where I come from, it means you’ve been “Hagged.”

John_Henry_Fuseli_-_The_Nightmare.JPG

The Hag is a demon called down upon an unsuspecting individual by another person. There are many reasons why The Hag might be summoned, but the tale my teacher wove involved a vengeful wife. As the story goes, the woman made a pact with the devil and offered her husband’s soul in exchange. He had many women interested in him, but one woman in particular had set her sights on him and the two were often seen in each other’s company. This angered the man’s wife, so she called The Hag down upon him.

One night, the man awoke from a deep slumber to a pressure on his chest. His eyes slowly came to focus on a dark form perched there, its eyes glowing and its teeth glinting in the moonlight. Although the man tried to scream, no sound could he make. Although he tried to move and push the figure away, he could not make his arms or legs react. The growling form pried his mouth open with long, sharp talons and placed its mouth upon his, draining the life from his body. The Hag swallowed his soul and forever imprisoned it in hell. The man’s wife lived a long and happy life without the burden of her cheating husband.

Fritz_Schwimbeck_-_My_Dream,_My_Bad_Dream._1915

There is no definitive cause for sleep paralysis, though some doctors suggest that getting more sleep, as sleep deprivation is often reported by sufferers, could be a cure-all. Perhaps getting better and longer sleep will help, but the stories in cultural folklore still persist.

As long as there are unexplained phenomena in this world, there will be folklore tales to craft a response. Although this response may sound illogical, the folklore tale of The Hag was rooted deeply in the lives of early settlers on the island. These tales were handed down from generation to generation and allowed sufferers to give a real face to something they could not explain.

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Side Note: I’m pretty sure my teacher was disciplined for sharing such a story with a grade school class, even if it was just for laughs.

Have you ever experienced sleep paralysis? Do you have a Hag story to share? Please comment below. Sweet dreams.

Your Fellow Haunt Head,

Janine

hauntheadscast@gmail.com

Tweet us @hauntheadscast

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