Open search
« Tuna 2 / 2020

The Horseman on the Pale Horse. Thoughts and Notes on the History of the Plague in Past Times

This essay aims to revisit some basic features of the history of plagues and pestilences in Estonia and Livonia, particularly from the time of the Black Death until the plague and famine of 1601–1603. Those of us who stayed in self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic have possibly refreshed their acquaintance with dark sentiments while rereading Boccaccio’s Decameron or Camus’ almost forgotten novel La peste, or else by puzzling over the horrifying messages in the Book of Revelation. Indeed, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse made their imprint on the mentalities of the Later Middle Ages. The fourth horseman, the one riding a pale horse, has been personified as Death, and symbolises plague and pestilence. The fear of death and God’s wrath belonged to the worldview of people in medieval times; thus, the plague was understood as God’s judgement upon faithless people. Indeed, the Catholic Church explained the plague as God’s punishment for sins. Therefore, one can understand the rise of the motif of the Last Judgement in preaching during and after the Black Death pandemic in Europe.

Despite divine providence, the plague made no distinction between the sinful and the righteous, killing them both. The Black Death, or the bubonic plague (1347–1351/3), is estimated to have killed one third, or at least 25 million, of the population of Europe. In various European regions, outbreaks of the plague recurred periodically in the following centuries, every 10–15 years. One must admit that the term plague or pestilence (Latin pestilencia) was the common designation for epidemic diseases, not all of which could always be identified specifically as the bubonic plague.

The Black Death swept through western and central Europe toward the east and spread in Estonia and Livonia in 1350 and 1351. The scarce available data tell about great mortality in Livonia in 1351. According to selective research, Riga may have lost ca. one quarter of its population (Fr. Benninghoven); another study suggests that the plague killed ca. 30% of craftsmen in Reval/Tallinn (K. Kaplinski). Looking back at the calamitous fourteenth century, one must consider the compound effects of the Great Famine (1315–1317), the St. George’s Night Uprising (1343–1345), and the Black Death on social and economic life in Estonia. Whether or not the post-Black Death societal condition of the Estonian territories should be interpreted in the framework of the Late Medieval crisis still requires further research (cf. P. Raudkivi, I. Leimus). New waves of epidemics already followed in the late 1300s and continued through the fifteenth century. Thus, the apocalyptic horsemen who symbolised war, famine, plague, and death stayed firmly fixed in Late Medieval and Early Modern mentalities. The popular motif of danse macabre as an artistic genre (cf. the painting Dance of Death by Bernt Notke in the St. Nicholas Church in Tallinn) or the ars moriendi theme in literary texts belong to the context and afterlife of the Black Death.

The chronologies of plagues and pestilences in Europe in those centuries are astonishing (cf. G. Sticker, J.-N. Biraben): almost all decades are filled with some kind of epidemic diseases, shifting in time, while spreading in a wave-like motion from the west to the east, disappearing only to return again. The recently published chronology of the pestilences in Livonia – 1420, 1444, 1464, 1474, 1482, 1499, 1503–1505, 1515–1521, 1525, 1531, 1539, 1546, and the early 1550s – reflects such frequency that a late medieval person would have experienced an epidemic disease at least twice during their lifetime. To help people in their daily life, plague ordinances (Pestordnungen) were drawn up, which were later issued in printed versions.

The archival collections of the Tallinn City Archives include the manuscript of a late fifteenth century plague ordinance, obviously copied from a Middle Low German original or a translated text. Although confession of sins was suggested as the major means of fighting the pestilence, some practical advice was also given, including remedies, such as avoiding the south or warm wind, fumigating the living space with laurel, juniper, hyssop etc., washing the hands and face with clear water and vinegar, and using vinegar and rosewater for disinfection. The universal remedy for the disease was a medieval wonder drug, theriac. How effective the plague ordinance was during the frequent epidemics visiting Reval in the early sixteenth century remains unknown.

The archival sources quite often mention plagues and pestilences, although these data are not always sufficient to diagnose the disease. In 1498, for instance, Revalian account books registered a new epidemic of the French disease, or Spanish smallpox, which in fact was syphilis. A severe outbreak of the so-called English sweating sickness occurred in Reval in 1530–1532, killing, among others, three leading evangelical preachers who initiated the Lutheran Reformation in the town. Besides Reval, another outbreak of the same disease in the early 1550s also affected southern and western Estonia.

The later sixteenth century is mostly overshadowed by the Livonian War (1558–1583), which caused misery and calamities; thus, the apocalyptic vision captivated people’s minds anew. The Chronicle of the Province of Livonia (1584) by Balthasar Russow serves as the best guide to this fateful period. Plague and death accompanied Pastor Russow and his congregation both during the sieges and in peacetime. Russow recorded the outbreaks of epidemic diseases in 1561, 1566, 1570–1571, 1577, 1579, and 1580 with clerical accuracy. The chronicler later learned that the latter epidemic ‘spread throughout the entire world, through Turkey and the land of the Tatars as well as through all of Christendom’. This outbreak is better known as the Italian influenza epidemic of 1580. Russow himself survived two other destructive pestilences in 1591 and 1597 before he died in 1600.

Georg Müller, Russow’s successor at the Holy Spirit Church of Reval, eyewitnessed the far more disastrous famine and plague of 1602–1603 in his hometown. The plague killed about 3,000–4,500 citizens in the single year of 1603; at its peak in July of 1603 alone, Müller buried more than 13 victims a day. A few days before he lost his spouse, Müller preached to his congregation about the impending doomsday. This prophesy was never fulfilled. Müller’s congregation revived, and the losses among the Revalian clergy were recovered by the influx of new preachers from Germany, thus ending the era of the Middle Low German culture.

While modern research has argued that the Black Death may be interpreted as the turning point of history (O. Benedictow), other scholars have issued the prophetic message of the eventual return of the plague in our times (S. Scott, Chr. Duncan). It gives one pause to think that now, in the days of the coronavirus pandemic, this prediction is becoming reality.