Warfare of Science with Theology   Chapter XIV: From Fetich to Hygiene

Gradual Decay of Theological Views Regarding Sanitation

We have seen how powerful in various nations especially obedient to theology were the forces working in opposition to the evolution of hygiene, and we shall find this same opposition, less effective, it is true, but still acting with great power, in countries which had become somewhat emancipated from theological control. In England, during the medieval period, persecutions of Jews were occasionally resorted to, and here and there we hear of persecutions of witches; but, as torture was rarely used in England, there were, from those charged with producing plague, few of those torture-born confessions which in other countries gave rise to widespread cruelties. Down to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the filthiness in the ordinary mode of life in England was such as we can now hardly conceive: fermenting organic material was allowed to accumulate and become a part of the earthen floors of rural dwellings; and this undoubtedly developed the germs of many diseases. In his noted letter to the physician of Cardinal Wolsey, Erasmus describes the filth thus incorporated into the floors of English houses, and, what is of far more importance, he shows an inkling of the true cause of the wasting diseases of the period. He says, ``If I entered into a chamber which had been uninhabited for months, I was immediately seized with a fever.'' He ascribed the fearful plague of the sweating sickness to this cause. So, too, the noted Dr. Caius advised sanitary precautions against the plague, and in after-generations, Mead, Pringle, and others urged them; but the prevailing thought was too strong, and little was done. Even the floor of the presence chamber of Queen Elizabeth in Greenwich Palace was ``covered with hay, after the English fashion,'' as one of the chroniclers tells us.

In the seventeenth century, aid in these great scourges was mainly sought in special church services. The foremost English churchmen during that century being greatly given to study of the early fathers of the Church; the theological theory of disease, so dear to the fathers, still held sway, and this was the case when the various visitations reached their climax in the great plague of London in 1665, which swept off more than a hundred thousand people from that city. The attempts at meeting it by sanitary measures were few and poor; the medical system of the time was still largely tinctured by superstitions resulting from medieval modes of thought; hence that plague was generally attributed to the Divine wrath caused by ``the prophaning of the Sabbath.'' Texts from Numbers, the Psalms, Zechariah, and the Apocalypse were dwelt upon in the pulpits to show that plagues are sent by the Almighty to punish sin; and perhaps the most ghastly figure among all those fearful scenes described by De Foe is that of the naked fanatic walking up and down the streets with a pan of fiery coals upon his head, and, after the manner of Jonah at Nineveh, proclaiming woe to the city, and its destruction in forty days.

That sin caused this plague is certain, but it was sanitary sin. Both before and after this culmination of the disease cases of plague were constantly occurring in London throughout the seventeenth century; but about the beginning of the eighteenth century it began to disappear. The great fire had done a good work by sweeping off many causes and centres of infection, and there had come wider streets, better pavements, and improved water supply; so that, with the disappearance of the plague, other diseases, especially dysenteries, which had formerly raged in the city, became much less frequent.

But, while these epidemics were thus checked in London, others developed by sanitary ignorance raged fearfully both there and elsewhere, and of these perhaps the most fearful was the jail fever. The prisons of that period were vile beyond belief. Men were confined in dungeons rarely if ever disinfected after the death of previous occupants, and on corridors connecting directly with the foulest sewers: there was no proper disinfection, ventilation, or drainage; hence in most of the large prisons for criminals or debtors the jail fever was supreme, and from these centres it frequently spread through the adjacent towns. This was especially the case during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the Black Assize at Oxford, in 1577, the chief baron, the sheriff, and about three hundred men died within forty hours. Lord Bacon declared the jail fever ``the most pernicious infection next to the plague.'' In 1730, at the Dorsetshire Assize, the chief baron and many lawyers were killed by it. The High Sheriff of Somerset also took the disease and died. A single Scotch regiment, being infected from some prisoners, lost no less than two hundred. In 1750 the disease was so virulent at Newgate, in the heart of London, that two judges, the lord mayor, sundry aldermen, and many others, died of it.

It is worth noting that, while efforts at sanitary dealing with this state of things were few, the theological spirit developed a new and special form of prayer for the sufferers and placed it in the Irish Prayer Book.

These forms of prayer seem to have been the main reliance through the first half of the eighteenth century. But about 1750 began the work of John Howard, who visited the prisons of England, made known their condition to the world, and never rested until they were greatly improved. Then he applied the same benevolent activity to prisons in other countries, in the far East, and in southern Europe, and finally laid down his life, a victim to disease contracted on one of his missions of mercy; but the hygienic reforms he began were developed more and more until this fearful blot upon modern civilization was removed.

The same thing was seen in the Protestant colonies of America; but here, while plagues were steadily attributed to Divine wrath or Satanic malice, there was one case in which it was claimed that such a visitation was due to the Divine mercy. The pestilence among the Indians, before the arrival of the Plymouth Colony, was attributed in a notable work of that period to the Divine purpose of clearing New England for the heralds of the gospel; on the other hand, the plagues which destroyed the white population were attributed by the same authority to devils and witches. In Cotton Mather's Wonder of the Invisible World, published at Boston in 1693, we have striking examples of this. The great Puritan divine tells us:

``Plagues are some of those woes, with which the Divil troubles us. It is said of the Israelites, in 1 Cor. 10. 10. They were destroyed of the destroyer. That is, they had the Plague among them. 'Tis the Destroyer, or the Divil, that scatters Plagues about the World: Pestilential and Contagious Diseases, 'tis the Divel, who do's oftentimes Invade us with them. 'Tis no uneasy thing, for the Divel, to impregnate the Air about us, with such Malignant Salts, as meeting with the Salt of our Microcosm, shall immediately cast us into that Fermentation and Putrefaction, which will utterly dissolve All the Vital Tyes within us; Ev'n as an Aqua Fortis, made with a conjuuction of Nitre and Vitriol, Corrodes what it Siezes upon. And when the Divel has raised those Arsenical Fumes, which become Venomous. Quivers full of Terrible Arrows, how easily can he shoot the deleterious Miasms into those Juices or Bowels of Men's Bodies, which will soon Enflame them with a Mortal Fire! Hence come such Plagues, as that Beesome of Destruction which within our memory swept away such a throng of people from one English City in one Visitation: and hence those Infectious Feavers, which are but so many Disguised Plagues among us, Causing Epidemical Desolations.''

Mather gives several instances of witches causing diseases, and speaks of ``some long Bow'd down under such a Spirit of Infirmity'' being ``Marvelously Recovered upon the Death of the Witches,'' of which he gives an instance. He also cites a case where a patient ``was brought unto death's door and so remained until the witch was taken and carried away by the constable, when he began at once to recover and was soon well.''

In France we see, during generation after generation, a similar history evolved; pestilence after pestilence came, and was met by various fetiches. Noteworthy is the plague at Marseilles near the beginning of the last century. The chronicles of its sway are ghastly. They speak of great heaps of the unburied dead in the public places, ``forming pestilential volcanoes''; of plague-stricken men and women in delirium wandering naked through the streets; of churches and shrines thronged with great crowds shrieking for mercy; of other crowds flinging themselves into the wildest debauchery; of robber bands assassinating the dying and plundering the dead; of three thousand neglected children collected in one hospital and then left to die; and of the death-roll numbering at last fifty thousand out of a population of less than ninety thousand.

In the midst of these fearful scenes stood a body of men and women worthy to be held in eternal honour - the physicians from Paris and Montpellier; the mayor of the city, and one or two of his associates; but, above all, the Chevalier Roze and Bishop Belzunce. The history of these men may well make us glory in human nature; but in all this noble group the figure of Belzunce is the most striking. Nobly and firmly, when so many others even among the regular and secular ecclesiastics fled, he stood by his flock: day and night he was at work in the hospitals, cheering the living, comforting the dying, and doing what was possible for the decent disposal of the dead. In him were united the, two great antagonistic currents of religion and of theology. As a theologian he organized processions and expiatory services, which, it must be confessed, rather increased the disease than diminished it; moreover, he accepted that wild dream of a hysterical nun - the worship of the material, physical sacred heart of Jesus - and was one of the first to consecrate his diocese to it; but, on the other hand, the religious spirit gave in him one of its most beautiful manifestations in that or any other century; justly have the people of Marseilles placed his statue in the midst of their city in an attitude of prayer and blessing.

In every part of Europe and America, down to a recent period, we find pestilences resulting from carelessness or superstition still called ``inscrutable providences.'' As late as the end of the eighteenth century, when great epidemics made fearful havoc in Austria, the main means against them seem to have been grovelling before the image of St. Sebastian and calling in special ``witch-doctors'' - that is, monks who cast out devils. To seek the aid of physicians was, in the neighbourhood of these monastic centres, very generally considered impious, and the enormous death rate in such neighbourhoods was only diminished in the present century, when scientific hygiene began to make its way.

The old view of pestilence had also its full course in Calvinistic Scotland; the only difference being that, while in Roman Catholic countries relief was sought by fetiches, gifts, processions, exorcisms, burnings of witches, and other works of expiation, promoted by priests; in Scotland, after the Reformation, it was sought in fast-days and executions of witches promoted by Protestant elders. Accounts of the filthiness of Scotch cities and villages, down to a period well within this century, seem monstrous. All that in these days is swept into the sewers was in those allowed to remain around the houses or thrown into the streets. The old theological theory, that ``vain is the help of man,'' checked scientific thought and paralyzed sanitary endeavour. The result was natural: between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries thirty notable epidemics swept the country, and some of them carried off multitudes; but as a rule these never suggested sanitary improvement; they were called ``visitations,'' attributed to Divine wrath against human sin, and the work of the authorities was to announce the particular sin concerned and to declaim against it. Amazing theories were thus propounded - theories which led to spasms of severity; and, in some of these, offences generally punished much less severely were visited with death. Every pulpit interpreted the ways of God to man in such seasons so as rather to increase than to diminish the pestilence. The effect of thus seeking supernatural causes rather than natural may be seen in such facts as the death by plague of one fourth of the whole population of the city of Perth in a single year of the fifteenth century, other towns suffering similarly both then and afterward.

Here and there, physicians more wisely inspired endeavoured to push sanitary measures, and in 1585 attempts were made to clean the streets of Edinburgh; but the chroniclers tell us that ``the magistrates and ministers gave no heed.'' One sort of calamity, indeed, came in as a mercy - the great fires which swept through the cities, clearing and cleaning them. Though the town council of Edinburgh declared the noted fire of 1700 ``a fearful rebuke of God,'' it was observed that, after it had done its work, disease and death were greatly diminished.