Service to the plague-stricken (1576-1635)








A work of

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap.

From I Frati Cappuccini, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia 1991, III/2 pp 3643-3734.

Table of Contents

When dealing with the assistance offered to the sick, to those who were dying and to those who were condemned to death, we did not speak about the assistance that was offered to those who were suffering from the plague, an activity that was a typical part of the identity of the Capuchins during the plague that spread through Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Now we wish to treat the topic more fully because, together with other activities, it represents an important aspect of the apostolic and spiritual tradition of the Order.

1. The example of St Francis and the testimony of the early Capuchin chroniclers

We cannot begin to discuss this topic without mentioning the example set by St Francis. Although they had limited access to documentary sources, the early Capuchins spent a great deal of time meditating on the example of St Francis.

The Saint’s Testament, which they regarded to be “a spiritual commentary and explanation of the Rule,”[1] vibrated in their hearts as a living word that contained and exuded the sweet-smelling odour of the words of the Gospel and the example of Christ. The Saint’s zeal for penance and his exhibition of compassionate concern for lepers was one of the basic aspects of the image of the Poverello that they wanted to reproduce and imitate in their commitment to reform.[2]

Those who were sick, the poor, those who were suffering, the incurable and those suffering from the plague are scattered through the history of the Order, and the brothers immediately undertook dealing with the problem in a practical manner by reliving what Francis has gone through in changed social conditions.

As early as 1525, Matteo da Bascio, following a symbolic encounter with a poor naked man as he was walking alone the road, had obtained faculties from Clement VII to preach penance while living an apostolic life as a hermit. He became famous for his work among those stricken by the plague in Camerino and drew the attention of the Court of the Da Varano family and especially of the Dutchess Caterina Cybo.

Later on, the first friars to adopt and follow the Capuchin Reform, Ludovico and Raffaele da Fossombrone and Paolo da Chioggia, developed and strengthened assistance to the plague stricken in 1527, which was the year of “the sack of Rome”. Following this the plague spread to different regions including the Marches and from there on to Jesi, Fabriano, Urbino and other regions.[3]

At the same time a large cloud of grasshoppers arrived in the Abruzzi region and destroyed a great part of the harvest and contributed to the famine and infestation that followed which increased the long-lasting discontent in the countryside. “Following the flight of a flock of moths from the Abruzzi to the Province of the Marshes, the city of Ascoli was infested with disease which infected the Marches and reached Camerino, where one hundred people died in the course of three days and countless others fell sick.”[4]

According to the chroniclers of the Order, this is where the leaders of the Reform heroically made themselves available to give spiritual and medical assistance to those who were infected and to lay to rest those who died.

Mario da Mercato Saraceno, when relating what Matteo da Bascio had told him, says that in 1523, when the plague was in Camerino, Fra Matteo (who later did the same thing with Fra Lodovico da Fossombrone when they lived together in the fraternity in Zoccolanti in Camerino), went out voluntarily (with the permission of the superiors), to assist and administer the most Holy Sacrament to the sick and those who were ill with the plague. He was always accompanied in this holy and charitable work, by Fra Lodovico until the plague ended.”[5] Colpetrazzo adds that “that they provided many that had been abandoned with what they needed, and if they had no one to bury them, they buried them with their own hands. They heard their confession and gave them all the other Sacraments and comforted them in a wonderful manner when they were dying.”[6]

The early chroniclers emphasise the ideal example set by St Francis and Bernardine of Siena. Fabiani wrote “that at the time of the plague, for love of Him who wished us to be saved and gave his life, suffered and died on the cross, and also in imitation of St Francis who helped lepers, these saintly fathers assisted those who were ill by following in the footsteps of the most fervent servant of the Lord, St Bernardine in the way he carried out being of service to those stricken by the plague who were in the hospital of S. Maria della Scala in the city of Siena. He goes on to say that at the time of the plague when the environment was full of infection, this saintly father was so brave that in 1527, the year that the Duke of Camerino died, he did all that he could (as he had already done in 1523 and in1524) to be of service to those stricken by the plague without caring about himself or being afraid of death.”[7] However, in these and in other stories we note the repetition of a sensitivity to what is spiritual and of what comes from the experience of serving those stricken by the plague as something that was already present in the Order and clearly anticipated in its official legislation.

With regard to this matter Colpetrazzo gives a dramatic account of the tribulations when he comes to relating the hardships that accompanied “the sack of Rome” in 1527. He interprets it from a religious and penitential perspective.

At that time the sins and failings of everyone were so great that the whole of Italy was turned upside-down, and as Italy was going from bad to worse people like that appeared, and because what was morally good and what was required to live a human life had disappeared, everything had gone and people were more staunchly wicked, so that in 1528 and 1529 there was a very great plague and famine, which I could not account for, and so I remember these things so clearly. In all of this all that you could see was the dead, those who were starving, those stricken by the plague, sick people being killed by soldiers. This was so real that wherever you went you saw dead bodies being eaten by wolves. To go on a journey was very frightening because you would come across few people and many cities were burned and there were many places that were no longer inhabited.

At that time the poor Capuchins were at a standstill … because there were no religious Orders without sick or dying members and the air seemed to be crying.[8]

On the basis of the traditional and quite frightening tribulations that are listed in an invocation in the liturgy of the Church namely the Litany of the Saints: A peste, fame et bello, libera nos, Domine, (From pestilence, famine and war, O Lord, deliver us,) the “ three sickles of divine anger,” to use an expression taken from medieval thought patterns,[9] constitute the context in which the charitable work of the early Capuchin friars, that was based on “the fire of love that was alight in those servants of God.”

This fire – Colpetrazzo says – impelled the friars to go to Lodovico da Fossombrone, who was in Colomenzone at the time, to ask permission and to obtain an obedience to help those who had been stricken by the plague. A prayer vigil took place. The votive Mass of the Holy Spirit was celebrated. Everyone received communion. Then, relying on the past experience he had gained when he had accompanied Matteo da Bascio to care for the plague stricken in 1523, Lodovico Tenaglia put together some specific requests insisting on fraternity life, correctly understood, fidelity to personal prayer and community life, detachment and poverty. He concluded by saying:

You know, that to spend one’s life in the service of our neighbour is a kind of martyrdom and it is very pleasing to the divine Majesty. But unite your mind to Jesus Christ and go, simply out of love for him, to perform this work of charity. If you die, be most assured that you will be saved.[10]

Encouraged by this and inflamed by the spirit, the early Capuchins spread out through the infected population and offered all kinds of spiritual and bodily empathy. The spectacle of such heroism made an impression on the hearts of the people, and at the end of the sixteenth century, when Colpetrazzo was compiling his “sacred history,” he could honestly state, without exaggeration, that:

the clamour was so great that their reputation had spread throughout the whole of Italy. The people were so struck to the heart by these servants of God, that they still remember them up to this day … It is proclaimed from all quarters that these saintly religious asked for nothing, but did everything for love of God. Because of which they trusted them as they would trust their own children.[11]

On this point a modern historian of the Order says very accurately that by means of this initial act of heroism the early Capuchins were assured of receiving charismatic approval, “sigillo caritatis heroicae apud omnes” [endorsed with the seal of heroic charity], before they obtained the juridical seal, the seal from the curia, the official seal written down in the form of a bull.[12] This judgement was made by the authentic papal historian L. von Pastor who, when examining what Colpetrazzo had written, saw how this was one of the factors that contributed to the success of the Capuchin Reform.[13]

In many hospitals assistance to both those stricken by the plague and to other sick people, in spiritual combination with the assistance being offered by laity of the religious Order of the Oratory of Divine love, became in many Italian cities, including Rome, Genoa and Naples, an effective way of providing formation for those entering the Order. Ludovico Tenaglia soon made it part of what was required: “It was laid down in Rome, Naples and Genoa and in many of the principal cities that the friars had to assist those in the hospitals who had been struck by leprosy and other illnesses,” and that postulants, “before they were sent to the noviciates in the Marshes and Umbria, had to provide assistance in a hospital for some months”.[14]

2. Charismatic norms in the first Capuchin legislation

The early experience of giving assistance to those suffering from the plague and performing the works of Gospel mercy that followed, were turned into charismatic and heroic regulations both in the Ordinances of Albacina in 1529 and in the definitive Constitutions of S. Eufemia in Rome in 1536.

The first group of “the friars of the hermitical life” that gathered in the lonely solitude of S. Maria dell’Acquarela above the castle at Albacina who still had the clear unhappy vision of the many unburied corpses of the poor people killed by the plague before their eyes, placed an astonishing item of mercy in their first pieces of legislation prescribing the burial of the dead in their hermitages. This was a point of law that was valid also at normal times and which was quite different from a wide-spread custom based on human glory that was aimed at making a name for a church or cloister that had monumental tombs for personages. These regulations were a testimony to opus charitatis et misericordiae (a work of charity and mercy), or of a gesture of love for the poor people who had been left unburied because they did not have the money to pay the cost. These bodies, “that were brought to the friaries or hermitages”, where buried by the friars for nothing and with devotion as an act of charity accompanied by prayers of suffrage “out of charity and the love of God.”[15]

Even the well-educated Observants that entered the Capuchin Reform after the plague of 1532 and the plague of 1537, when they rewrote the Constitutions of the new Franciscan family more systematically six years after the Ordinances of Albacina, did not hesitate to make it a rule for each friar to engage in the heroism of providing assistance to those who were struck with the plague. This was motivated by deep Christocentric spirituality and conformity to the cross:

Since for those who have no love upon the earth it is a sweet, fair and fitting thing to die for the one who died for us on the Cross, we instruct the friars to serve the sick during the times of plague, according to what their Vicars decide, who will strive in such cases to keep prudent charity in mind.[16]

Assistance to the poor who were in a state of emergency is also set down in law:

We also order that in times of famine questing be done by friars assigned to this by their superiors in order to provide for the needs of the poor, according to the example of our most pious Father who had great compassion for the poor.[17]

Finally, Ilario da Milano wrote: “Public calamities have their place in legislation as part of ongoing formation for being prepared to be of service to the poor which is an integral part of the example set by Franciscans.”[18]

The example of St Francis is taken from several episodes in his life that are presented from a mystical point of view that highlights unitive love:

If he was given over to the love of God, he did not want it without an undertaking to be able to give it to the poor when he found someone poorer than himself. As we read in many places, so as not to be without the Gospel wedding garment of charity, he stripped off his own clothes and gave them to the poor. Or rather, he was stripped by the violent impulse of divine love.[19]

The option for the poor and dynamic solidarity with them to the point of sacrificing one’s life in providing assistance to those who were incurable, who had a contagious illness such as the plague was an outburst of love that melted the inner boundaries of selfishness. It cannot be explained in any other way without repudiating history once the ideological structure of society is taken into consideration.

Considering the numerous waves of contagiousness that swept across western Europe between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to keep within our chronological context, the Capuchins joined “the violent impulse of divine love” to their patient, helpful and disinterested, free, spiritual and bodily service.

3. The service provided by the Capuchin Friars during the great plagues of the modern era

The history of this service as well as the duration and intensity of the amount of the danger of catching the plague has been well documented. In fact, the plague appeared and reappeared in very different, strange and unexpected ways, now in one region and now in another, following an unpredictable course. It was certainly carried along by the movements of people, processions and, in a special way, by military deployments. One can study and follow the movements of the plague by tracing military exercises and the commercial routes of shipping in the ports of the Mediterranean.[20]

Still what Manzoni said in his novel always remains true. In addition to the natural causes, which were only discovered at the end of the nineteenth century,[21] what made the plague contagious were people and their lack of hygiene, their moving around, the illegal trafficking in contaminated substances, their fear and ignorance and their failure to come forward out of fear of the brutal measures that were being taken by the municipal authorities.

The ones who were most exposed were those who had dealings with the plague stricken such as priests and religious confessors or parish assistants, members of Confraternities, undertakers and grave diggers, attorneys, municipal staff (when they did not run away), doctors and surgeons. Members of the privileged class were the ones who kept the greatest distance from the plague. Even though none of the Capuchins died during the early days of the plague, the paid a very heavy price later on, even if, as Manzoni says, they went “happily” to provide a humane and heroic service.

The name of the first Capuchin who gave his life in performing this charitable work is not mentioned in the Capuchin chronicles. Even in cases like this there was no concern in the early days about documenting what happened in their own history which was lived out in the light of the charism rather than as something to be remembered.

There were many outbreaks of the plague within the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but historians preferred to focus their attention on the two major ones in the modern era, that is the great epidemics of 1575-1576 and 1629-1631. The Capuchin Friars also left a fairly rich documentary record of these periods. In their case these epidemics were separated by only a brief interval of about fifty years.[22] In fact, following the plague in 1524, that was known as the Plague of Charles V, following symptoms that began to develop in 1227/29, there came a more famous one, even though not as destructive, in 1576/77, which passed into history as the Plague San Carlo. After that there came the great catastrophe of 1630/33, which was preceded by and followed by different events, the exceptional story of which is told by A. Manzoni.

It is evident that the further away the plague is from the early years of the history of the Order, the richer is the documentation. Because of this the documents that have come down to us tell us more about the plague in 1630, whereas only two mention the Plague of San Carlo.

We do not have an accurate knowledge of what the three great plagues that were just mentioned were like. The friars learnt to recognise the signs quickly and knew how to apply the medical solutions that were accepted as being most effective at a practical level. With regard to this there are two interesting sources: the Dialogo della peste by Paolo Bellintani da Salὸ (doc. 1), and the ordinances of the Provincial Minister of Palermo, Domenico da Palermo (doc. 3). These two documents were written at least forty years apart and dealt with the very different societies of Lombardy and Sicily. They present different approaches to the treatment and prevention of the illness and different spiritual strategies.

1) The “Plague of San Carlo” and the “Dialogo della peste” by Paolo Bellintani da Salὸ

Paolo da Salὸ composed his Dialogo delle peste between 1580 and 1590 after he had had a heavy and glorious experience in the Leprosorium in Milan, Brescia and Marseille and even before that with the soldiers in the army at Lepanto.

As is often the case with documents, this writing remained unknown until the last century when it was discovered in Toscolano in 1850 and copies were made. One of these copies is held in the APC in Milan.[23] With the exception of some studies that came out in that period, the Dialogo della peste has not been adequately appreciated or made use of by modern historians in the hundred years since it was discovered. It is not even mentioned by Leonida Besozzi and Paola Borghi in their recent detailed and interesting studies on the plague.[24] It will therefor be appropriate at present to go over these great tracts once again and discover some of the important aspects of the presence and the service offered by the friars in the dramatic circumstances of the suffering that was being endured.

When he began to compose the Dialogo, Paolo da Salὸ felt that he was incompetent to write it. For certain he was not as clever as Mattia who was a Friar Minor. He was more practical than academic. This is why he bowed to “many learned people” who had written “many tracts” on the plague without ever having had experience of it. He was convinced that there is a great difference “between theory and practice”.[25] Various authors such as the Dominican, Gaspare Bugati, Ascamo Centirio and Giacomo Filippo Besta wrote about the same subject in great detail.[26]

In any case he was convinced that, because of his unique and unparalleled knowledge, he was able to describe the internal life of a hospice for those stricken by the plague indicating various aspects of treatment and diagnosis as well as the characteristics of contagiousness. “What I am telling you – he said confidently – is not the result of brief, limited experience, but of experience gained from thousands and thousands of cases, in different cities, at different times, in different circumstances, from dealing with different types of people, both men and women who were children, adults in their prime and the elderly.”[27] The internal running of these places required that there should be special regulations and a particular system of management at the spiritual and pastoral, public and political levels. His experience in this field was essential for the good of all concerned.

a) The plague as “a scourge from God” and the spiritual response to this

Starting from a religious way of thought, the Dialogo begins with a spiritual reflection in order to reinforce the general opinion that the plague was actually “a scourge from God” to punish the sins of the human race. Paolo da Salὸ proposes this supposition by using various quotations from the Bible.[28]

This is what both the educated and the general public believed. They thought that their interpretation was backed up by passages in the Old Testament and by in what the Apocalypse says about the “the three scourges” when the Angel opened the fourth seal (cf. Apoc. 6: 7-8). This subject, which was widespread in ecclesiastical literature and preaching, received very sombre treatment in the Memoriale ai Milanesi, which was St Charles Borromeo’s final spiritual message to the city in which he sets out how the entire Christian population of Milan are responsible for the outburst of divine anger. In the place where they live “the atrocious absurdity of performances, games, and your past carnivals have played no small part in provoking God to punish us with the plague, and if you do not stop doing these things and other things that do not deserve Christian forgiveness you should be afraid of incurring a heavier punishment.”[29]

Bellintani embraced this popular mentality completely and was able to adapt it easily to the “penitential spirituality” of the Capuchins even if he softened it with the image of God as someone who loved men and who was “a merciful Father”. (cf. n. 7230).

There are three remedies against God’s “fury” against sins, fasting, prayer and almsgiving. These are linked to quotes from Sacred Scripture that are always taken from the Old Testament. This is how the Christian people respond in a religious manner and find the strength to do penance and turn from personal and communal sin, when they are being chastised by God.

In additional to the traditional practices other religious initiatives are indicated including processions, hymns, prayer to the Virgin Mary and Patron Saints, reception of the Sacraments, making restitution, making peace with your neighbour. This was the attitude that prevailed following Trent in accord with the detailed prescriptions and the charismatic example set by St Charles Borromeo which had been acknowledged in those years and advocated by Paolo da Salὸ as one of the effective models. (cf. n. 7247).

One of the more typical responses in times of calamity occurred when the entire city marched in public atonement processions, during which the entire population turned to God and processed through the city in various groups, often dressed in sackcloth and barefooted with the intention of showing how they were collectively repentant. The saintly Archbishop has created an indelible image of spirituality in action and a model of how to organise such manifestations of popular religious sentiment that were so touching and widely publicised at the time. We see this in Giacomo Giussanti’s letter to the Bishop of Brescia. (cf. nn.2600).[30] It can also be seen in the work of some modern authors when they accuse religious assemblies of spreading the plague.[31]

Bellintani knew of the various edicts that had been issued by the Saint for this occasion and which were revised in more detail during the Fifth Provincial Council.[32] These processions together with “prayers for the dangers of the plague” were obligatory for members of the Chapter of the metropolitan Church, and for secular and religious priests.[33] The people were invited “to recite the seven psalms and the litanies and other prayers, of which the most recited were the Office of the Madonna and the rosary and other devotions.[34] Without interrupting the prayers, as the procession moved through various parishes, people were to be urged to go to Confession, even General Confession, as if they were at the point of death.[35] They were urged to receive Communion frequently and to fast on Fridays and Saturdays so as to renew their spiritual life.

The reason for providing precise information about the place and time of this prayerful event was so that it would be a public event and at the same time to ensure that the rules regarding social distancing were observed both by those who had the plague and for those who were suspected of having it. According to the prudent directions that St Charles issued to the priests “all of the prayers that took place in the evening prayer were to be said in the parish church, or if it seems to them to be prudent, they can be spread over one or more churches. They are to carried out in front of crosses that have been set up in those places, or before some other sacred images that have been painted or erected there, or placed on decorated altars that have been put there at the time for prayer. … If possible, the prayer will be divided among groups of people, or among families or households. This may be done at the doorways or from their windows of individual homes. … When it is performed in the last manner, those who live in the country or who are confined to their home because of being suspected of being infected can join in the prayers from where they are … praying loudly together with those in the procession and facing towards the altar.”[36]

Obviously, the way that this religious and pious activity was carried out was based on clerical and monastic practices. During the general quarantine in the city, the seven canonical hours remained in force even for the people who were being “guided by religious priests and other devout persons”, in reading passages from Christ’s Passion, antiphons, psalms and the assigned prayers in order to avoid devotional digressions. St Charles also suggested the topics for meditation which included “the seven principal times when Christ Our Lord shed his precious blood out of love for us in opposition to the seven deadly sins,” the seven words of Christ on the cross, the seven sorrows and joys of the Madonna, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the seven Sacraments.[37]

The faithful were invited to say these prayers, day and night, at the sound of the bell. There were also suggestions for devotional reading.[38] The saintly Cardinal also granted various plenary and partial indulgences according to the service that had been provided, thus encouraging and making it easier to provide spiritual and bodily assistance, and taking away the fear that was in many of the clergy, who were forced to speak out, and reprimand those who were fainthearted.[39]

These initiatives of a religious character were recorded by Paolo da Salὸ in chapter 7 of his Dialogo. This is the situation into which the Capuchins were plunged. It was an environment full of sorrow and panic on the part of the civic authorities who were unable to attack the plague effectively or find remedies to ease it, whether medical or spiritual. Bellintani sets out his recollections and observations in the context of the circumstances as he found them and of the work that he did in the hospital that catered for those suffering from the plague.

b) Measures taken for preventing the spread of the illness and for providing for the sick

The guidelines that he proposes when in conversation with his friend about what a city ought to do when “the plague is getting close or is nearby” (n. 7234) prepare the ground, to a certain extent, for the presentation of the work being done by St Charles during the plague and for him to invite everyone to imitate the saintly Pastor. (n. 7245). They also provide a description of the work being done by the Capuchins and others who work under the supervision of the civic authority.

First of all, he warns them about covetousness and lust, vices that had made a significant contribution to the spread of the plague, and so “those who were put in charge”, that is the “officials”, must be “good men who fear God”. (n. 7234) He then suggests certain measures to assist in the adequate prevention and control of the entry of persons who come from infected areas. The plague was already rampant in Trent in 1575 as well as in Switzerland and Zurich.

At the height of summer, at the end of the month of July 1576, the contagion was approaching the city. Melegnano had been hit on 27th June and Monza on 4th August and seven days later it struck the suburb of Ortolano in Milan. From here it grew in an unrelenting way in the city. The preventative measures introduced by “Board of Health” included check points or timber obstructions in the road on the boarders and at the city gates with “trustworthy men” to guard them night and day as well as daily inspections by armed officers, but some were removed or damaged by vandals or even religious fanatics. When Bellintani heard of this he said dramatically that he was disgusted “to see people devouring their own fatherland.” (n. 7236)[40]

The passage of filthy, underfed pilgrims towards Rome during the Jubilee in 1525, including from four churches in Milan, in an influx of processions of faithful from the Dutchy, alarmed the civic authorities who laid down precise norms to control such movements so that people who were enthused by holiness, could move through the city in small groups. However, when these small groups of enthusiasts had identified themselves and said that they had come from places that were not affected, they were permitted to circulate outside the city and go from one place to another, and, naturally many of them were not trustworthy.

On this subject Paolo da Salὸ warned the guards at the “check points” not to indiscriminately accept the documents that were carried by those coming from suspect places, “if they did not have a good aroma” and if they had not made them attach their documents to a long pole with a little piece of wax without touching them. (n. 7236) This disinfecting consisted in subjecting the documents to vapours (called perfumes or sterilizing agents) that would destroy the germs that had accumulated on the paper.[41]

While there were many who avoided this by being deceitful, Bellintani also praised many lay people who were outstanding in their zeal and self-sacrifice. Among these, in particular, there were the president of the health authority, Gerolamo Monti (cf. n. 7237), and Antonio Cavallo, the official in the hospital at Brescia. However, he was less happy when he recalled the situation in that city where the authorities and officials were incapable of maintaining order and because of this many had to suffer.[42]

Another suggestion that was put before the hospital for those suffering from the plague was that it should provide nourishment quickly because as various cities and regions under the control of Venice, from which the plague had spread, had placed restrictions on merchants in the area, paralysing their activity, thus food had become scarce.

Another providential solution was the establishment of a Monte di Pietà to help the poor where “trustworthy persons” undertook to distribute food “honestly” preventing the frequent theft of contaminated things as often easily happens in similar circumstances such as those sadly experienced by Paolo da Salὸ in the hospital for victims of the plague in Brescia.[43]

Being the practical man that he was, he understood the importance of city hygiene in controlling and stopping infection. Thus, he supervised the cleaning of furniture and anything else that might spread the disease so as to abolish “bad odours and fumes” which, according to the medical theories of the day, were responsible for the spread of the plague. However, he insisted on a different kind of cleansing, namely the “extermination” (as he called it) of prostitutes, who were “the strongest cause of this illness and to get rid of beggars.” With regard to the former, a place outside the city had to be found for them, “a place in the country very far from the city”. Where they could work in an honest way to make a living and where, at the same time, “honest guards”, who had been secretly chosen, could see to it that “wolves” had not been put among the “sheep.” (n. 7240).

The insistence on this way of acting[44] also came about because he had personal experience of an atrocious lie that had been spread by one of these women. He passed this over in his Dialogo but dealt with it in another document which we have taken from the unpublished work Vite di alcuni frati cappuccini that was written by the chronicler Salvatore Rasari da Rivolta, who came from Milan.[45]

On the other hand, the “vagabonds”, or poor beggars were of two different kinds: those known as “peasants”, who could perform important work in the hospitals for the plague-stricken, or in building “timber rooms, or “cabins” for those who had the plague or who were suspected of having the plague. Instead, the “vagabonds”, the foreigners, had to be sent away.[46]

With regard to the poor the most difficult problem was how to organise the crowd of poor people who could not survive “without the daily charitable assistance”. Drawing of the wealth of his experience in Milan, Paolo da Salὸ proposed making a list of all of the poor people, of both sexes, who needed help. Then to select two “trustworthy honest people”, (note the emphasis on these two qualifying adjectives), one of these persons was to represent the nobles and the aristocracy”, the other ‘who was an older person” from the common citizens, would be charged with the distribution of alms as laid down by the authorities.

The “older persons” had to be alert, especially in the regions to which they were assigned, and when they found any sick people on their daily rounds who were locked in the houses they were to speak with them through the doors or the windows and immediately report this to an “official” who after informing the president of the hospital for the plague-stricken, should have them picked up by horse-drawn carriages that had bells and were accompanied by police officers or guards in case, as often happened, those who were affected did not want to leave the house.

The other members of the family immediately came under suspicion of having the plague and they in turn had to leave the house and were required to go into quarantine in the country. The empty houses were cleaned and disinfected by a group that specialised in “cleaning”, the group being made up of twelve men and a “leader”. They could be identified by the bells on their hands and feet. When they entered the house, they gathered all the clothes, that they could easily find, and had them washed at the “laundry”, usually having them hung outside near a stream of running water where there was something to make the water boil. They were all counted. In the end they were taken back inside, well dried, and given back to the owner if he was still alive, or if he had died, given to his heirs or to the poor.[47]

The “officials” met with “the council” at least three times a week together with Bellintani and some doctors to review the situation and to make arrangements to provide what was needed. [48]

When the hospital for the plague-stricken had been fitted out, it was indispensable to have a director who was “a capable man” put in charge with the authority to “dispense the highest justice necessary in that situation.” Drawing on his personal experience in many large hospitals for those stricken by the plague, he wrote: “the wellbeing or misfortune of the entire city” depended on this because “in these places it is easy to rob and make a profit.” [49] What is more “barbers” or surgeons who were assisted by “barbers” were indispensable, as were others who could assist with the medical care of the sick. Many carriages were needed to transport the sick and those who had died. At the door of the hospital there was a list both of those who had been admitted and an inventory of their belongings as well as a register of the dead who had been taken to be buried.[50]

The hospital for those stricken with the plague was divided into three sections: a section for those who were sick, which had separate rooms for men and for women, and this should be a place “that was more comfortable and better; a section for those whose diagnosis was unsure, where people were held for about twenty days while their clothing was being disinfected. When this time had passed, if they were immune from contagion, they were moved to another section of the hospital, where they were kept in quarantine for a further twenty days while their belongings were disinfected and their bodies washed in sweet-smelling mixtures, in a room in which marshals were present.” Finally, they were allowed to return to their homes, but only on the condition that they were free from parasites. But even in that case, as a precaution, they had to spend another fifteen days in isolation. Only after that would they be they considered to be “clean persons”.[51]

If the hospital did not have these internal divisions. It had to provide “cabins” close by to house the doubtful cases.[52]

Next a kitchen had to be set up at the door of the hospital in which only “clean” people could work and have no contact with those within the hospital. They should be under the supervision of a “trustworthy person” in order to avoid easy smuggling. Paolo da Salὸ suggested having a kitchen in the first section of the hospital in order to provide better service for the various needs of those who were sick.[53]

The “waiters” who distributed food outside around the hospital, should go around in the various places assigned to them giving unicuique suum (each one his share) without showing favouritism or stealing from the poor who “did not have the means to grease their hands”, or else they ought to be severely punished … and removed with zeal – “the misuse of pity and mercy by such vampires is cruelty and being wicked to people.”[54]

Another important group were the gravediggers who were needed “to dig graves to bury the dead.” “Doctors” or “specialists” who had made a study of medicine were also needed even if, as Bellintani says, they rarely visited the hospitals for those stricken by the plague to visit the patients and lay hands on the sick people. He proposed a suitable solution for this situation.[55]

As to what the public authorities in a city should provide when plague struck, Paolo da Salὸ issued the following suggestions and warnings that were addressed to individual persons and they should conduct themselves when dealing with “unaffected people”, those who had been immunised and those who had the plague. His advice is rather spiritual and sober and reflects what was being thought at that time. It includes purity of conscience, bodily cleanliness, the avoidance of bitter food such as onions or garlic, morning prayer, using food and drink “that was not peppery”, not using strong perfume on the neckline or hands, avoiding crowds, not sleeping during the day, not burning wood the produced an odour, fumigating the rooms often, but, most of all, living in chastity and “live as happily as you can, do not become depressed over whatever happens, since you would have noted that those who have gloomy temperaments are more easily susceptible to contracting the plague and few of them survive.”[56]

c) Assistance provided by Paolo da Salὸ and by the Capuchins

What makes the Dialogo della peste so interesting to the modern reader is the strong, dynamic, resolute, enthusiastic, practical temperament of the author which becomes evident in that he treats the subject in a realistic way using plain language.

Paolo da Salὸ does not seem to be the kind of person who is a preacher, with the temperament of someone who is interested in speculation or in being a scholar like Mattia. Certainly, he might have preached, because he was a preacher, but his life is taken up with being actively involved, firstly when he was chaplain to the soldiers in Messina, and on the boats at Lepanto and then in the hospitals for those stricken by the plague in Milan, in Brescia and in Marseille. He is just the man for the circumstances of the plague, for “providing assistance to those who were plague-ridden”, “a faithful and genuine” servant, to use the terms that he preferred, who had been providentially discovered by St Charles after fervent prayer. (cf. n. 7249).

When the saintly Archbishop assembled the superiors of the religious houses in the city, to ask them to direct their activity to helping those who had been stricken with the plague, Bellintani was in Lodi wanting to go to Venice to help those who had been stricken by the plague and to bury the numerous corpses which had been left unburied. In fact, the Podestà of Crema was looking for volunteers. However, he needed the authorisation of the Commissary of the Province, Father Giacomo Giussani da Milano, who held the title of Calderino, to ask the Minister Provincial, Father Francesco da Bormito, to provide them.

The letter was received by the Commissary himself while he was on his way to Lodi to visit the nearby friaries and the response was both immediate and favourable, but it was sent to Milan in accord with what the Cardinal wanted. Paolo da Salὸ was delighted with this. “I replied that it was my wish to spend my life serving those stricken by the plague, for the love of Him who had given his life for me who am a sinner,’ (n. 7250), repeating what was said in the Capuchin Constitutions. He wrote to the Cardinal telling him that he could not bear hearing that so many people would die abandoned and without the Sacraments. Therefore, “having been inspired by the Lord”, and having already had pastoral experience with “the fleet” at Lepanto, with great joy: “Together with another priest friar I go down on my knees to offer myself while begging you not to reject me, for I am ready to go at any moment.’ (cf. n. 7251).

His willingness and enthusiasm were frustrated by an unforeseen setback that forced him to postpone his departure for Milan for more than a month. As he was still sick and in the process of recovering, in order to save time, he had St Charles send him a carriage immediately. He says in the Dialogo, that when he arrived in Milan before going to the hospital for those stricken by the plague “I made a general confession for which I prepared myself diligently by carefully examining my conscience.” By knowing how to be sorry about what happened in his life, he wanted to offer up his life as something completely pure, a holy sacrifice that was pleasing to God. “Then – he goes on – “accompanied by the Lord Cardinal and other dignitaries, I went to the hospital for the plague stricken on the Feast of St Michael which was on 29th September 1576, where I stayed for about one month just administering the Sacraments.” (n. 7254). The exact date remained impressed on his memory and in his heart as an important moment in his life, similar to that of his religious profession or the beginning of his noviciate, when the Capuchin Friars used to demand a general confession that completely took away all that had happened in the past and prepared the way for an entirely new way of life.

Those from the populous town of Ortolani di Porta Tenaglia who were stricken by the plague were herded into the hospital of S. Giorgio, while Bellintani was tirelessly carrying out pastoral work. It happened that from the 5th to the 20th of the same month between 18 and 20 died each day and the Health Tribunal predicted that there would be an increase of up to 50 a day.[57] While the poor were leaving, many other people remained in the city. The population was reduced to half especially by the massive exodus of the nobles and those who were well-off so that the population began to experience a great want of food because of the scarcity of government supplies.

Giambattista Casale, who was a carpenter and a catechist, and who lived in these sad circumstances, wrote in his diary that people who had been affected by the plague … “were falling like flies.” As the infection spread it produced great panic. “God allowed this plague to enter the city and progress through Porta Comasina (Milan city gate) and go as far as Orefici (the boarders). From there it spread through the entire countryside so that nothing could be heard throughout Milan apart from: “What was dreaded is coming as punishment”. It threatened Santo Gregorio with having people die and with others who had fallen ill. It is true that the threat was not as great for a Gentilino … Because of this great threat you could hear nothing else throughout Milan but night and day those who had died or who are sick being carried to Santo Gregorio or to cabins outside Milan, or that they had to be confined to their homes and placed in quarantine. Nothing was being talked about in Milan except the plague. People were doing nothing but carrying the dead or those who were infected.”[58]

The Archbishop asked the Governor to intervene on behalf of 800 patients in the hospital for those stricken by the plague who had recovered in order to “immediately provide them with “special” alms through the direct intercession of the saints. However, this would not be enough and Borromeo wrote to the Marchesi d’Ayamonte on 19th September 1576: “I am only able to help them with prayers which is only half of what they need considering the confusion and inactivity that I see in providing for them and helping them with what human forethought and care should provide. However, there is no hope of this happening.”[59]

On 22nd September the Community of Milan undertook to feed and to provide financial assistance to “the poor” in the hospital for the plague stricken while, in the meantime, they continued to increase in numbers. These poor people were travellers who were subject to the health regulations and who were detained in the hospital by force as a precautionary measure because they were suspected of having the plague. The twelve nobles assigned to S. Gregorio were not able to maintain public order. The medical treatment was the responsibility of the barbers and the surgeons.

In this difficult and disorderly situation Paolo da Salὸ was full of enthusiasm although he could not intervene. The Health Tribunal had sent out word that threatened to confiscate the property of anyone who disobeyed the orders of those in charge in the hospital in order to put an end to “the many excesses and wrongdoings that were caused by the great audacity and greed of many of those who were helping at S. Gregorio.”[60]

Two days later, following the prompting of Borromeo, as Bellintani says, President Monti gave the Capuchins ample discretion to restore order and discipline in the hospital. The extent of the authority, that was exercised in the name of the President of the Tribunal, was set down in detail in a document that was sent to the Brother and which he published in full in his Dialogo (cf. n. 7255), probably in order to justify the severity of the decree and the amount of effort used in this period which lasted until the end of August of 1577. He wrote, “I have authority over all those infected by the plague and those suspected of being infected.” This authority extended to being in control of all those who worked in the hospital.

He immediately took firm control of the situation. He chastised the hired nurses, the lurid women, dishonest merchants and the cleaners, those who were wasteful, those who were indecently playful, the “vampires” who stole from those who were sick and in pain and many others.[61]

Such strict discipline soon changed the situation and the hospital became a model of efficiency prompted by spiritual values and human and Christian solidarity. In doing this Paolo da Salὸ was assisted and supported by some of his brothers, both priests and lay brothers, who showed a great spirit of sacrifice and tireless charity. The chronicler, Salvatore da Rivolta, gives a list of these helpers. He adds that “although they were few in number, nevertheless, they carried the weight of so many activities that were very exhausting and demanding on their shoulders, which called for deep feelings of compassion.” (n. 7263),

But the heart behind it all was Mattia da Salὸ, and this was also recognised by the Commissary Provincial of the Capuchins, Giacomo da Milano, when he wrote the Bishop of Brescia on 4th October 1526 in these words:

“Ten poor, brave Capuchins, who were inspired by the Lord, forgetting about life but mindful of death, began to help … Father Filippo da Milano, who was a priest … died a glorious death on the tenth day as if he were a protomartyr for the Lord and, as if he wanted to outdo him, his companion was stricken by death, and the others dealt with everything, spiritual or temporal, that passed through their hands with the brother of Father Mattia da Salὸ taking charge. They went off prepared to die. They went to Confession, celebrated Mass, and took medicine. They immediately obeyed the officials as if the officials had taken the place of the Lord.”[62]

The Capuchins were the only ones who served in the hospital and that is why they had the highest number of victims.[63]

d) Caring for the poor and zeal for social justice

Paolo da Salὸ supervised the “clean door” in a special way. It was through this door “that those who had been cured went out and the medical supplies and other necessary things were brought in” and through which nobody who had not been immunised was allowed to enter. As he himself wrote: “When he saw how much was coming in through the door, he knew that the door should be guarded carefully and he wanted to see to it most of the time.” (cf. n. 7265 and 7262). When we read the Dialogo we are struck by his constant vigilance and his capacity for observation which was accompanied by and enriched by his wealth of experience in providing many kinds of service, and his prompt and practical decision making concerning the many different needs of those who were sick and his religious sensitivity for social justice and love for the poor.

He railed against the injustices and some of his zeal is evident in the style of his writing and his choice of words. He was particularly focused on the provision of efficient pastoral assistance and the guarantee of the presence of the Most Holy Sacrament, together with the celebration of Mass in the three restricted sections of the hospital,[64] and many other indulgences and spiritual graces that would facilitate the administration of the Sacraments, especially Confession.[65]

When the dead were being buried, he wanted their bodies to be treated with care, respect and “reverence” and that they be protected from the nightly attacks of wild wolves a great number of which were in the countryside. He was saddened by the memory of bodies that had been abandoned to be savagely devoured by these animals.[66] They erected a large bare cross at the grave and transported the dead persons “accompanied at least by a priest carrying a cross who was singing a psalm as charity demanded. I am saying this – he added bitterly – because in some places I have seen them carried out like dogs, without a cross or prayers as if they were animals and not Christians.”[67]

His ardent zeal for justice made him very sensitive to “the cry of the poor” who were often cheated by many “vampires”, as he called the dishonest people, who could be officials or guards who “made off” with many things while performing their services and were supported in doing this by the municipal authorities. Thus, these evil men could hire out individual rooms for money or shorten the time of quarantine with the risk of spreading the infection, or return disinfected bed sheets “in the correct number but not the correct condition” and steal what was of better quality, or “make poor people wait longer for what belonged to them.”[68]

He also wanted the workers to be paid regularly to avoid tampering with wills, because he knew what those who were sick and wanted to be served properly in such dramatic circumstances “would give for a glass of water not only what they had, but the entire world”, depriving their own children of their inheritance. He therefore produced documents that made “all the wills of the sick people” invalid if they were not previously approved by the superiors. In this way he put a stop to the greed of the family members of those who died which had reached the point of claiming that a relative had died, especially if it involved an orphan baby, “in order to inherit the belongings.” Bellintani says that something like this happened especially in the case “of poor little children who had not reached the age of reason, and who often did not know whose child they were and therefore were put in the hospital where others took advantage of this against their consciences.”[69]

As we read the Dialogo, justice for the poor becomes a theme that is continually repeated, a symphonic refrain that pervades the story. “My effort yielded fruit and was of benefit to the poor.”[70] “Here I advised the President that it would be very good to keep an eye on the [officials] who were taking [food] out, so that the poor would not be robbed, as happened in a previous city where I had gone.” He was referring to Brescia.[71] He often reports: “The President was warned clearly not to ignore the tricks, if he wanted to preserve his good name and reputation as well as that of the hospital, and, what is more important, if he wants to help the poor who are under his protection.” He also told him, “that many say that they are poor” when they are not really poor, for there are many who pass themselves off as such in order to obtain the services without paying.[72]

Swindlers may have come and actually did come in all the sections of the service, in the kitchen, the laundry, where the belongings and homes were being cleaned out, where food was being distributed, where alms were being collected, medicines dispensed and, indeed, even when the dead were being buried. Because of this he frequently sent sheriffs, and went himself, “to ask the poor how they were being treated”.[73] He praised the rich who were generous and active in giving alms: “In the Lord Jesus Christ I exhort all the rich people to come together and to decide how to support all the poor people living in their area so that they who are wealthy can be assisted by the prayers of the poor. Happy Milan, where the wealthy are conducting themselves like real Christians, not leaving the poor people to want for what is necessary and who are doing what they can.”[74]

With the same severity that he chastised those who were evil, and with the help of a good police force, made up of “birri” (sheriffs), as he called them,[75] he succeeded in maintaining justice and the rights of the poor in the hospital for those stricken by the plague. He was criticised then and not only by modern historians, for why he did this. He replied by quoting the facts and the positive results of what he had done.

I appear to have been severe in my criticism and not to have had respect for anyone, and to have had no regard for friendship, or favour or for receiving protection. Yet with all of that I have enjoyed the favour of some people. However, it is necessary to have these sheriffs. Even within their ranks it is necessary that there should be a Minister of Justice who will dispense punishment in a proper way. I had two in Milan that were assigned to me for this purpose by Cardinal Borromeo. Look at what happened in Marseilles where there were no sheriffs, and everything went upside-down and there was no remedy or way to control it. Everyone acted on his own, without discretion. They went wherever they wanted to go without any fear. They did not have quarantine, or cleansing or anything that was beneficial. Therefore, they did not ask the civil authority to provide some finance, which would have been a good thing, and provided better service and security.[76]

e) Paolo da Salὸ in the hospitals for those stricken by the plague in Brescia and Marseilles

The plan that Paolo da Salὸ had proposed for the hospital of S. Gregorio was very beneficial for the sick and for the entire city. While the plague which had raged for eleven months in Milan was abating somewhat, it was reaching its peak in Brescia where there were countless victims and where there were three hundred deaths in one day.[77]

Saint Charles [Borromeo] told Mons. C. Speciano, his representative in Rome, that “the plague is so bad in Brescia that the city is almost completely without spiritual or temporal assistance. Each day between one hundred and one hundred and fifty people die in the city, and even more in the hospital for those stricken by the plague. There is only one Capuchin who is providing the administration of the Sacraments. They are dying from hunger rather than from the plague. There is no way of controlling that and attending to these needs. After the fourth outbreak of the plague, the local Bishop left his house and withdrew to about a mile away.”[78]

With the help of Cesare Speciano, the Bishop of Brescia, Domenico Bollani, asked the help of Cardinal Borromeo and the Saint sent him his trustworthy friend Paolo and another friar with a letter dated 22nd August 1577 in which he said: “I am sending you Father Brother Paolo and another Capuchin priest …”[79] In Milan the city magistrates wanted to express their thanks in public to the Brother and “his companions”, so they sent a “Letter of Congratulations” dated 23rd August. Paolo was praised in this letter for his enduring work (“his good and long-lasting service”) in “overseeing” the provision of spiritual care, “specially his vigilance”, as well as “his helpful guidance in what was going on there and of how the officials should work. He was praised for doing whatever he could for the physical and temporal benefit for those who were poor and those who were members of the public and helping with the last will of those who were dying.”[80]

When he arrived in Brescia, Bellintani was faced with a very desolate situation as he himself testifies in his Dialogo: “I remember walking through these cities (Brescia and Marseilles) and not seeing more than twenty people. The first time that I entered Brescia, I walked from the Gate that is called S. Giovanni as far as the square of Broletto, which is actually across half of the city, without seeing even a single person. Grass was growing in the square as it would in the fields and this added to the agony of those who were dying.”[81]

His vast experience and upright character were not immediately appreciated by the civil authorities at the hospital of S. Bartolomeo. Indeed, they attacked him out of wicked jealousy. Bishop Bollani, who knew about the sad situation within the hospital, which had come about because of “the presence of ambition and of conflict”, “discord and pride, ignorance and a lack of charity”, as well as “bad management on the part of the civil authorities”, reported it to Borromeo. “I tell you that I am uncertain in this situation if we were too optimistic when we brought Father Paolo from Milan. When I said that he was one of our friends from Salὸ, they retorted: ‘Let him not think that he can control our hospital for those stricken by the plague as he controlled the one in Milan.”[82]

When the Vicar General of the Diocese, Mons. Giovanni Domenico Ettocanti, wrote to Borromeo on 4th September he confirmed what Bollani had found out, giving some precise details:

Immediately after the reverend Father, motivated by his great love and charity, arrived here, wanting to be of assistance in the many spiritual and bodily needs of these poor afflicted souls, he went to see the five deputies offering himself and his life in the service of the city, thinking of nothing but God. He confidently warned them about the bedlam and confusion in the hospital in the city, the disposal of belongings and the want of concern about the serious sins in the place, the lack of control or extermination of dangerous mice, giving them the example of the concern about these things in Milan. Because of their ill will they started to protest, spread lies and began to persecute him and to stone him because of his good works….[83]

Fundamentally, the reason for such loathing was linked to a suspect political hypersensitivity on the part of the Republic of Venice, that led the Mayor of Brescia to write a letter to the Bishop criticising what Bellintani was doing, describing him as someone who was not minding his own business or showing respect for his habit and a person who wanted to interfere in the management of the hospital and even in the running of the city,” and who “encroached on the administration at his own whim while not having any authority”, threating “to challenge them one day with an edict from Brescia.”[84]

The actual performance of the brothers and the power of truth as well as conversations between the Bishop and the Rectors and Deputies of the city succeeded in changing this frame of mind and suspicion into open admiration and praise of the truly effective and well-organized work done by Bellintani and the other friars. Once again Giandomenico Ettore, the Vicar General, was the one who conveyed the consoling news in a letter dated 28th September 1577:

Some days ago, I wrote to your illustrious Lordship concerning Very Reverend Father Paolo concerning what they were doing and also asking the Most Reverend Bishop to reassure them and have them clarify what the friar wanted to do simply for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. They did this inflexibly in their conversations. I wrote that I derived little hope from these conversations. This was because for many days they went on without reaching a satisfactory conclusion. But later, partly because of your arguments, and partly due to the need for good ministers, we were happy to let them minister in the hospital with our authorisation.

Once they had accepted the responsibility and set things up as he wanted them, in order to maintain the good order that he had established in the hospital, they immediately admitted that all that was going well in the hospital was due to Brother Paolo both with regard to making the patients happy and fixing the many things that were wrong, including the provision a substantial amount clothes by means of charity, whereas before that they had been thrown away as being of no use. Now everything was working well in the hospital through the activity of the Capuchin Fathers and the charitable way they cooperated in the spiritual and bodily requirements of the hospital.

They often heard Confessions and gave out Communion. Father Paolo was never satisfied with just doing this. As time went on, he went through the neighbouring lodgings hearing the Confession of those who were sick or who were showing symptoms. In the end, by using the system that was in place in Milan, separating those who were actually sick from cases that were doubtful, so that they could be quarantined separately, (something that had not been done very much before), and which meant that some were ever set free without being a risk to spreading the infection further. Things were now just the opposite. After he came all those who came out did not infect others. In a short space of time from 4000 being in the hospital we can report to the Very Reverend Bishop on last Thursday 22nd of this month that there were just over 700.[85]

Three intense months spent in great dedication elapsed before the infection abated and the friars could return to their friaries. Before he came to Milan to attend the Provincial Chapter which took place in April 1578, Paolo da Salὸ had been almost unemployed, and moved by his charismatic charity he immediately asked St Charles if he could return to working in the hospital for those stricken by the plague at S. Gregorio that was still operational after the plague had ended and which was still attended by a Capuchin. However, he was no longer needed there. The emergency was over. Nevertheless, Borromeo thanked him for his never-ending availability:

Reverend Father. The grace that the Lord God has been pleased to grant to our city of Milan in freeing it, one could say completely, from the plague means that I do not have the need of availing myself of the loving offer that you have extended to me of coming to serve in the hospital for those stricken by the plague. I thank you for the prompt willingness that you have shown to this church and for the letter that you sent me and which I opened readily. I ask you to pray for me.[86]

It was this “willing readiness” that motivate him to serve those stricken by the plague in Marseilles during the epidemic that broke out two years later in France, where the Capuchins had been for only a few years and were making a powerful extension of their reform. One of the pioneers of this Franciscan blossoming was Brother Mattia Bellintani who had this to say in his Historia capuccina: “When the plague had been in Marseilles for two or three years, he found himself in Marseilles where he was performing the same charitable work very fruitfully, converting heretics as they were about to die.”[87]

Paolo da Salὸ wrote to Borromeo, with whom he was always spiritually connected, on 21st January 1580. The situation that he described was much grimmer than what he had seen and experienced in Milan or in Brescia. “They do not speak about Confession or the other Sacraments, nor do they want to gain an indulgence from Rome. The Religious, especially the priests, want to run away and they do run away. There is a population of one hundred and twenty thousand people. There are very few friars in the area and we cannot do what we did in Milan. We have only four priests …” (n. 2610).

Brief hints about what he did in Marseilles appear in his Dialogo della peste, but we know little more. We do not know how he spent his time. He does not speak about his service. It reappears in his Diologo where he tells of some of his precious charitable experiences. It could not be any different. We only catch a glimpse of his jovial, practical, determined, self-sacrificing, totally compassionate character among the pest-ridden.

Thus, Jean Delumeau could make a general statement saying “if the Capuchins together with the Jesuits where the main protagonists of the Catholic Reformation, the Capuchin were not as big an object of hostility as were the Jesuits, mainly because of the sacrifices that they made during the plague for example between 1580 and 1581. People acknowledged their self-sacrifice in these tragic circumstances (as also during the fires). In France and elsewhere many civic authorities assisted the Capuchins during the sixteenth century in the hope that they would provide Confessors and nurses when there were epidemics.”[88]

This observation supplies important historical information. It is true for Italy and other areas in Europe where the Capuchins were expanding during the sixteenth century.[89] In Italy their greatest development during the twenty-six years of the plague of 1576-1577, and more precisely between 1565 and 1590, took place with the founding of more than 315 sites at the rate of twelve per year.[90] Thus, the “Plague of St. Carlo” represents, as far as the life and spirituality of the Order is concerned, an immense undertaking of charitable works that exploded and spread outside Italy along with the spread of the Capuchin Reform.

2. The service performed by the Capuchins in the plague of 1630-1632

The second great plague in the modern era broke out between 1630 and 1632 only fifty-four years after that which raged between 1575 and 1577. However, it took place in profoundly changed political and social circumstances. For example, one of the disturbing signs of social change was the so-called “caccia untori” (pursuit of smearers or greasers), that is the revival of the old belief concerning a “man-made plague” or the supposition that there were certain individuals who deliberately spread the infection, namely “smearers”, a concept that was based on “isolated cases of jokes in bad taste and episodes of common mischief” during the plague between 1576 and 1577, but which had become something “psychotic” in 1630.[91]

This epidemic, which was perhaps more severe than the famous Black Plague of 1348, did not come on suddenly, since there had previously been some sporadic indications of its approach.

a) The first outbreak in Palermo in 1624

It first appeared in Palermo in 1624. We have an indirect reference to this in the circular letter of the Capuchin Provincial of Palermo, that was sent to all the friars (doc. 3), and in two other very interesting dispatches which form the basis of our historical information.

In a contemporary Brief[92] it says that the infection was brought about by a boatload of Turkish sailors that berthed, firstly in Trapani and then in Palermo, to sell its cargo. This was a big event. The crowd that assembles was large and the sailors, who were also transporting Christian slaves, made a good profit. However, the plague had started in the month of June in a wealthy family in the city and developed into an epidemic in a short space of time. Two hundred people died each day and developed more extensively from the month of November onwards.

The health regulations, including collecting and burning whatever had been bought, in order to prevent the spread of infection, did not succeed in slowing down the plague and it became necessary to set up a hospital for those stricken by the plague. The people were terrified and “when they saw priests taking the Blessed Sacrament to the sick, they cried out in sorrow “have mercy on us Lord God and Father of mercies.”[93]

Life in the city in these sad circumstances is summed up in the Breve Raguaglio, just quoted, where get a glance at what Milan was like at the time of Borromeo:

Let them try to appease the Lord God by means of devout and lengthy processions and many prayers in the Cathedral in front of the Blessed Sacrament and a miraculous image of Christ Crucified. They should advise people to make a general Confession and receive Communion after they had fasted, given alms and performed other good works. These were to be performed with great piety and devotion without, at the same time, setting aside human remedies.

In different places in the city many special places, in addition to the hospital, were to be set up where confessors from various religious Orders, as well as from the Parish clergy, should put their usual work aside to attend to those stricken by the plague, whenever they were summoned by day or by night, whether it was raining or snowing, not being concerned about their own comfort but simply ready to serve the plague-stricken.

These places were to be organised for those who were in the city. The President had ordered that a large house be made available to them and that their expenses be paid for the duration of the plague. If they wished even those who have to go outside the city to the hospital may stay there so that they would not miss out on being helped by the Church.

Nobles and knights were appointed to go out every morning to visit the houses one by one to ascertain if anyone, even someone not belonging to the household, had taken ill, and if they found someone who was sick, they should notify the doctors if it is a contagious illness and have them go to Confession etc. They are to stop them conducting business (which is done by forbidding them from leaving the house under pain of death), or they are to send them to the public hospital outside the city.

Let them provide also for the poor by giving them generous alms that have been provided by the public authority or by other pious people, especially the bishop, whose generosity on this occasion has been outstanding in giving alms to the poor with his own hands.

To make things easier, let them send some pious religious persons throughout the city with beasts loaded with bread and other provisions to distribute this to those in need and keep a strict account of this.

When the infection has stopped in a household, let then put those who remain there into quarantine, having them clean the content as well as the house and, if necessary, have them moved to another house for the time being.

As to the bodies of the dead, even though they had been already taken to be buried with bells tolling and a cross etc. later on let their dear ones provide a closed coffin with a cross painted on top without bells being rung, (because that would frighten people). When the bodies had been sealed let them be transported to be buried a long way from the city in a tomb with mortar so that the flesh will decay in a short space of time and the bones will still be purified.

To stop people coming too close and casting abuse on the dead person, a soldier shall go in front and another soldier go behind with a rod in his hand to keep them away.

They are to do the same for the priest when he is going to administer the most Holy Sacraments, carrying an umbrella to serve as a canopy, holding a candle, wearing vestments with a mantle. The soldier who is taking care of the priest shall live in a house that has been built for him close to the house of the priest.[94]

The plague lasted for about a year.[95] The cause of the epidemic was not “just infected clothing” but, most of all, according to the medical theory of the day, because “the entire area was infected”. Because of this, in Palermo, in addition to the isolation of those who were sick and in quarantine, it was also recommended “to light fires throughout the city”, and, in order to reduce expenses, “the fires were to be lit on wagons that would be driven slowly through the city.” Another very odd remedy that was involved said: “When the air was infected, it would also be helpful to bring a large herd of oxen or cows into the city and have them walk through the streets so that their breath and warmth could make the air very clean.”[96]

It was against this background that the Capuchin Friars that lived in the Province of Palermo read the circular that was issued by their Provincial, Domenico da Palermo. Like everyone he was convinced that this was a punishment from God and he suggested that the friars apply some of their prayers, pious practices and penances “with much love and charity” to “appease God’s anger.” It was an obligation in justice because – he said – lay people worry about us so energetically and with such great concern and take care of many of our expenses…, it is only right for us to support them with exercises like these, as many saints did, not just so they would be protected but also, with God’s help, they might be set free from evil.” (n. 7269).

The letter contains many detailed norms for the life and organisation of various friaries in the community. The objective was to make the friars sensitive and create a culture of being alert to the little things that were considered important at the time. For example, it was laid down that holy water be taken out of the church and away from the church doors and that everything be washed and cleaned, with every little thing removed. Keys were not to left in the doors. An iron chain that had a large ring was to be attached to the bell at the door. All the attachments and clips on wooden flasks were to be washed as well as anything considered to be able to propagate infection.

However, the most important overseer was the guardian of the friary who had to inspect all the provisions “with prudence and care” in accord with the doctor and the health authorities of the city.

A “sick bay” was to be set up in a remote corner of the garden for friars who had contracted the plague. This place which consisted at best of a cabin made of wood and straw, was also to be used by “suspect cases” to keep them in isolation until they had completed the prescribed quarantine and undergone all kinds of decontamination. However, they were normally confined to a separate cell known as “the room for suspects or those under investigation” where, when they developed a fever, which was the most common symptom of the plague and If that friar was subsequently discovered to have the plague he was immediately transferred to the “sick bay” in the garden, while the cell was subjected to a series of cleansing procedures and fumigated for a week, and later received a full application of lime mixed with vinegar, a process which they said was allatata (being breast fed). If the friar died before he was taken to the hospital the procedure was repeated twice. (n. 7274-75).

Shame on those who concealed the symptoms from the superior! The superiors also had to inform the officials of the city health authority immediately. The personal possessions of the person, such as books, utensils, vestments and sacred vessels, cutlery etc., “were placed in a locked cell that had a wall” in order to disinfect them so that they could be used when the epidemic had ended. Only a few things were necessary to satisfy day to day essential needs. (n. 7276)

If he came from places that were infected, every friar who was travelling about, as a sign of his respect for others, had to display the “white insignia”, the certificate of health and the written obedience of the superior. If he was found not to have even one of these three things, he received a resounding rebuke and a heavy penance. However, out of prudent charity, the superior could permit religious to leave the city “to breathe a little”, that is to take a breath of fresh air and enjoy some respite. (n. 7279).

The friar who died of the plague was buried in an isolated place in the friary, in a grave that was more than two metres deep with lime above and below him. The small funeral cortege was sad to see. The body was conveyed by public undertakers who were assigned to catering for those who died from the plague. A few friars went ahead carrying a cross. From a distance they sang psalms, prayed and proclaimed blessings while the undertakers were going through the special gate that led into the garden to provide entrance for those infected by the plague. He was buried naked and his clothing was burnt later.

The impression that remains after reading this circular is that there were too many precautions that were only human and inspired by excessively well-meant charity. All the regulations and orders the were laid down “under the command of holy obedience” should have made a friar determined not to become infected himself or to infect others with the plague: “Let each one act with care”, “no friar should interact with those who are in quarantine. They shall not touch, pick them up or take anywhere without due caution. Let those who go questing “take care … not to become involved in long conversations or spend a long time with people”. ‘Let them not visit anyone who is sick with any disease … if they have not first of all informed the superior and the doctor.” In brief “they have to be careful not to harm” the entire community in the friary or in the city.

It looks like all idealism and heroism have vanished. It appears that we cannot see a grain of voluntary service. Even when this “visit of the Lord’, as the plague was called, has taken place in a fraternity it would appear that in place of the practice of willing fraternity, after the superior has celebrated the Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit in the presence of the whole community, or sung the Veni Creator Spiritus, that he has recourse to drawing lots out of a basket, just as the Apostles did when they chose St Matthias, picking out the name of the one to be sent, whether a lay brother or priest, to attend to the friar who has been stricken by the plague.

However, Father Domenico da Palermo immediately recognised the need to justify these procedures in the light of what the Bible said and what the religious sensitivity of most people felt should be done. He used what all the other religious Orders in Palermo were doing as an example of what was to be done. He cited the serious obligation to do works of charity that was laid down in the Franciscan Rule. Whatever action was taken should be considered as a gift that God granted to a friar to be of service to another friar to be performed “with all possible charity and promptness, cheerfulness and willingness.” (nn. 7272-73).

However, the Provincial Circular could not provide for every possible case so that everything was regulated by “prudent charity.” Some of the problems that arose were solved by rational logic. Above all, when it came to safeguarding the lives of the friars, decisions were based on common sense and experience. It is certainly not a document that describes the service that the friars provided to those stricken by the plague in Palermo in 1624. In fact, we know that there were many who came forward willingly to undertake this work of love so that the Archbishop of Palermo, Cardinal Giannettino Dona, called all the Religious Superiors to his palace and encouraged them to take part in offering this service.

A contemporary report that was made by an anonymous Capuchin states that when this invitation was offered all the Superiors accepted it enthusiastically. To the great amazement of the Cardinal who was aware of willingness of the Capuchins to respond to the challenge, the Capuchin Provincial was the only one who did not respond. To the modern reader the reason seems to be slightly condescending but it also shows the honesty of the friars. The Provincial replied that the Capuchins were not to be made use of in performing this service, and they had no need to be persuaded to do it out of charity, because imbued with the spirit of their institute and following what St Francis wanted, “each one of us is prepared to sacrifice his life in the service of his neighbour for the glory of God.” Then he remained silent as if the Cardinal’s invitation only applied to the other Religious Orders.[97]

He had already sent a circular “and invited all the members of his religious Order to come to a chapter and partake in a similar gathering.” He had also “informed his subjects that from time to time, he would send them out to whatever hospital had the greatest need.” Because of this, the Cardinal had entrusted the hospital at “Zafondes that was dedicated to S. Lucia” to the care of the Capuchins.

On 29th June a procession left from the friary led by the Provincial and his Definitory “with all of them being unshod and wearing a crown of thorns and carrying a cross on their shoulder and followed by the rest of the friars who were making various gestures of penance. There were four priests, two at the front and two at the end, singing the litany of the saints … and in public places they delivered short sermons to exhort those who were guilty to make acts of contrition to appease God’s anger.”[98]

The first ones to reach the hospital were Father Arcangelo da Malta and the lay brother, Anselmo da Lombardia. They remained there for two Masses “and without delay or drawing breath, let alone having a rest, they continued to move on to where the needs of the sick called them so as to be more prepared to carry out their ministry. They went from one sick person to another giving them medical assistance and respite, attending to their wounds, washing the dirtiest cloths and comforting them as best they could by giving them help and spiritual support, comforting the dying, and removing those who were dead from the cabins and burying them with their own hands”. Finally, “weighed down by this intolerable burden,” they fell sick and, within four days, “while reciting the Office of the Blessed Virgin”, they died on 13th August.[99]

They were immediately buried by the other three Capuchins mentioned on the list: Fathers Mariano da Palermo, Angelico da Partanna and the cleric Br Basilio dalla Marca. These friars, although they possessed “the same enthusiasm for performing acts of charity”, had other kinds of gifts. One of the priests was “jovial and bright, but very unassuming”, the other was “serious and meek yet very elegant and friendly,” one was quick the other was sedate. Thus, they made up a combination of charitable characteristics. “As a layman the cleric had specialised in medicine.” He was humble and appeared to be inept whereas “what he did under the Lord’s inspiration, was of great benefit to the sick as well as to the officials in the hospital”.[100] However, after three months one of them also died.

The infection had reached its summit and the number of those who were sick in the hospital could not be counted. In the month of November, about 11,00 died from the plague. Two men were sent to serve them. These “were men of outstanding spirit and ability”, Fathers Gianmaria da Montereale, a preacher, and Gianmaria da Monte Sacro. They introduced a better “system” to organise and control what was going on in the hospital. “They separated the men from the women and provided for about 600 poor babies who had been born in the hospital, some of whom had been brought in because they were suffering from the plague, and others who had become orphans because of the death of their parents …” In a short time, they contracted the plague but were subsequently cured.[101]

The people who were confined to houses outside the hospital, especially in the large area which the old people called “Zannaria”, became jealous of the service that was being provided by the Capuchins for those who were in the hospital of S. Lucia and they complained about being abandoned. The Cardinal, who, at the time, was acting for the Viceroy of Sicily, Filiberto di Savola, who had died of the plague, was forced, together with the city Senate, to ask for other friars, namely Fathers Antonio da Palermo, Angelico da Polizzi and Bartolomeo da Sciacca, with each being accompanied by a lay brother.

While they “were living in a room between the new slaughterhouse and the oratory of S. Francesco di Paolo, in the part of the Zannaria that was most badly infected … they went through the houses looking for those who were sick,” who wanted to open their heart and hand over “what they possessed that was valuable” so that “they could place their household goods into the care of the public officials.”

The friars even went, “quite boldly and without feeling disgusted,” into the filthiest and neglected little huts” in the area. “indeed, they looked for these more carefully because they were the ones most in need of help and support.” Describing the work done by the Capuchins the writer says that “they did everything with zeal and with their own hands.”[102]

The Minister Provincial’s “prudent charity” which was evident in his pastoral letter, was manifestly outdone “by many fervent workers … who burnt with the fire of Divine love.”[103]

b) The progress of the plague before and after 1630

It might be thought that the plague in Palermo in 1624 was contained and did not spread beyond southern Italy had it not been that when it returned thirty years later it was even more severe. On the other hand, in the north it gathered strength gradually and, in the space of a few years, it devastated the entire region. It appeared at first in Languedoc in the south of France in 1627. However, it had already appeared in some events that gave rise to concern.

In September 1625 people in the city of Mantua, including “people who had attended or who were returning from the Fair at Bolzano and the merchants who came to participate in the Fair” were subjected to investigation. They were met at the gates to Modena by officials of the health authority who ordered the foreign soldiers who came from the camp in Modena, whether they were healthy or sick, whether they had health documents or not, as well as the subjects of the Duke of Modena, to go to the hospital of S. Lazaro outside the gates towards Bologna, to be seen. Only after they had been taken care of and received a health certificate could they enter the city.[104]

In 1627 orders were also given at Verona that all the merchants that had come from the Fair at Bolzano had to be stopped at the boarder “fumigated and singed with fire and then taken to Borro and subjected to 40 days of investigation. The rest of the people would also be subjected to investigation.”

In 1628 alarming news came from Avignon: “We are all in a state of confusion here because of the plague and the wars that surround us and the recent news from Lyon that 400 per day continue to die there, some of them even from the nobility, and that there was a group of Huguenots who went through the country with a kind of grease putting it on the lintels and doors and into the vessels of holy water in the churches and sprinkling this about and that they arrested some people and burnt four or six of them alive.”

In 1626 the infection appeared in Lombardy, brought there by the German naval personnel who came through the eastern region of Valtellina to Mantua where 28,000 soldiers were stationed and who were in contact with the people of Modena. The first case of the plague was recorded at Mantua on 2nd November 1629. The Health Authority of Modena began sending out a series of warnings and adopting many procedures.[105]

The epidemic invaded Milan in the early autumn of the same year, and set in during the early winter of 1630 and, after easing off, it continued in the spring and the summer of 1630, petering out in autumn, without completely disappearing until 1632. Milan was not taken completely by surprise, but the sanitary arrangements were not adequate. This was partly due to the fact that war was raging and there was a severe famine that had been brought on by two years of poor harvests due to bad weather as well as the war. The city was filled with refugees, beggars and vagabonds (about ten thousand). The authorities, the Health Tribunal, was disadvantaged by the absence of the Governor, Gonzalo di Cordova, who was at the war, and by the differences of opinion among the doctors concerning the nature of the disease and how contagious it was. A. Bosisio wrote: “a defence plan was lacking. Fragmented measures were being suggested, with some being useful, others useless and some actually destructive. Provision was made for the care of those stricken by the plague in the hospital of Porta Orientale and in other smaller places, for the “health barricade”, disinfection with fire and vinegar, for placing a wall round the infected houses and for quarantine. However, large gatherings were being permitted, not only the penitential processions, for which Cardinal Frederic was blamed, but also other useless festivities. The hospital was left without doctors. There was a fanatical reaction against those who had been treated with grease or those who were presumed to have been treated. They were regarded as having been sent by the French or by those who lived in Venice. … The huge calamity which decimated the population of Milan reducing it from 130,000 to little more than 60,000 inhabitants, aroused the most secret instincts of people who were filled with terror and the most macabre and ferocious phantasies and left the way open for them to go along every avenue, while on the other hand, it stimulated and exalted their thinking and compassion.”[106]

The plague also abated among people living in Venice. According to historians, it had been brought to the water-logged city in all probability by the Marquis of Strigis, who was the Duke of Mantua’s ambassador to the Emperor. In addition to achieving victory at Valeggio in the war at Mantua, he also brought the infection. From working its way around during the winter and summer of 1630, it exploded during the following months.

Paolo Pietro wrote that the situation in Venice during the months of the great epidemic was not much different to what had happened in the previous century:“In a dead city where thousands of people held little baskets at windows asking for charity, (“with the entire city being reduced to begging”, as a doctor sadly put it). The authorities displayed their usual wisdom and cold-bloodedness. The hospitals for those stricken by the plague were maintained effectively. Those supplying food performed well in the very difficult situation. There were many “people living on the square” who are wrapped in sheeting and wearing gloves. Normally when an unprecedented catastrophe happens an organised and rational response is required from the state authorities.” [107]

There was also a feeling of helplessness, submissive fatalism and lack of hope among the people and among those in authority. The unpleasant sight of “those who had been greased” had reached Venice. People shouted “untore” (one who has been greased) in the faces of some of those who were French, and told them to present themselves to the “alchemists”. Those who were providing medical services spoke out against “individuals who had the perverse and wicked intention of deliberately trying to attack the evil infection with powders and plaster for a diabolical purpose.” In the months of July and August 1630, at the same time that there were proceedings against the “untori” in Milan, the “untori” in Belluno, Bergamo, Padua and Brescia were raising their voices.

The plague also infected Tuscany, Liguria and Piemonte in 1630. In the last place mentioned, the armies of Piemonte, France and Spain, which were comprised of 3000, 000 soldiers, had come together, engaged in an interminable war over the succession of the Duke of Mantua and Monferrato. The plague was also propagated by the war and the famine that accompanied it. It was also felt in Susa, after Susa was captured by the French. Later, by about Lent in 1630, it developed in Vercelli and went from city to city spreading throughout the entire region with great loss of life.

A large part of Italy was contaminated by this pandemic, which also extended over a large part of Europe. In 1656/57, twenty-five years later, there were further outbreaks, In Naples it spread widely causing extensive infection among the people. From here it spread to the rest of Italy, especially Umbria and the Abruzzi. However, these episodes go beyond the period of the period of time that we are treating.[108]

This is a quick summary of how the plague progressed and continued to appear unexpectedly in the first half of the seventeenth century when the population of Italy was reduced by 1496. We have provided this in order to draw a picture of the situation in which the Capuchins lived and worked.

The available documentation is so abundant that we have been forced to limit our choice to the longer, unpublished documents. They deal with the area around Venice and the district of Piemonte. It was not possible to develop the story of Lombardy where the plague had been very dramatic in 1639 and so we are moving on to the “peste manzoniana” (the plague portrayed by Manzoni) or that which is known as The Italian Plague of 1629-1631 or The Great Plague of Milan).

c) The Capuchins and the “peste manzoniana”

Scholars, both lay and ecclesiastical, have written extensively on this subject and we cannot add anything that is new. We are simply sharing what they say. G. Santarelli, who is a Capuchin friar, has dealt with the subject as some length and we shall refer to his work for important details.[109]

The text that we shall publish has already appeared in two different editions, one by Ottaviano da Alatri in 1957/58, and the other by G. Santarelli in 1973. It is the famous “Processo autentico” (Authentic Statement) which was deposited in 1646 in the friary of S, Vittore in Milan in the second week of September where, fourteen years before, the only three Capuchins who had survived deposited their reminiscences in the hospital for those stricken by the plague at Porta Orientale where they worked. These Capuchin friars were Father Vittore da Milano, Brother Bonifacio da Milano and the famous Father Felice da Milano. We have chosen to rename it “Processo informativo” (Statement containing information), even though it is known everywhere as “Processo autentico”.[110]

What happened during the plague in Milan is well-known and we shall not delay here to relate it again. Instead, we wish to dwell on the three submissions that were sent in. They were certainly influenced by what had been set down previously by the Minister General, Innocenzo da Caltargirone, and the Provincial of Milan, Lorenzo da Novara, (cf. n. 7287), as well as by the possibility that they would be published as edifying news in the Annali of the Order.[111] This does not underestimate their value as historical documents of the Order.

Indeed, it is important to discover how these friars remembered what they had done fifteen years previously and what this meant to them as something that was both a human and spiritual experience.

The questionnaire that came from the Guardian of Monza, Father Cristoforo da Cremona, was meant to help in the recollection of these extraordinary experiences, starting from the concrete circumstances and the experiences of the participants, and going on to collect the amount and the quality of the services provided by the various friars, in their priestly ministry and material assistance up to the time of their death and burial. This would also provide an indication of what had been done for all the victims of the plague who came from that area and who had been brought to the hospital of S. Gregorio.[112]

There is almost a standard way of expressing the public memory of the “Plague of St Charles.” This way of expressing things is also used in the “health records” when they request the Capuchin Commissary, Father Cherubino da Milano, “to make friars available to manage and assist the poor people who have been stricken by the plague in the same way that it had been done at the time of St Charles.” (n. 7291).

This widespread way of thinking included pertinent details. Cardinal Federico Borromeo seems to have been portrayed as assuming the role of St Charles, Father Felice Casari was nominated by the civic authorities “as supervisor and manager” of the hospital and he carried out his duties in partnership with the zealous Father Michele Pozzobonelli with a thirst for justice similar to that of Paolo da Salὸ, while other friars attended to those who were sick with similar “mystical” enthusiasm.

Furthermore, the characteristics of this joyful service, which reached the point of being complete self-sacrifice, reflected the specific kind of spirituality that was advocated by the “Capuchin school” and which was based on practical reality rather than theoretical concepts.

This resulted in the friars making themselves instantly “available” without delay though always acting out of obedience as these expressions show. “They readily offered to be of service to the poor little people whenever holy obedience called them.” (nn. 7291, 7315); “with indescribable zeal and intense humility they were always prepared to be placed at the service of those who were ill … through holy obedience.” (n. 7323). There is also a somewhat stereotyped description of the features of this service that sets out how it was derived from the ideal of charity that was evident in all of the twenty Capuchin friars that went to the hospital and “served there with great zeal providing examples of religious motivation … exercising great charity … showing great fervour, love for God and charitable compassion”, (n. 7292); “by serving with great devotion and charity … they showed charitable fervour for the salvation of souls and the generosity of Christian fortitude, by the way that they offered their service;” (n. 7293); “they also offered their service with great charity, devotion and zeal’; (n. 7295); “acting in the same way as described above, he went to serve in the hospital with great enthusiasm, charity and zeal for the salvation of souls, being so attentive and committed that he seemed to have no body.” (n. 7323).

The spiritual feature, mentioned in the last quote, is very evident in a very emotional way in Father Felice Casati, who is described as being someone who is “charitable and thoughtful,” “a priest who is very gentle and full of charity and compassion”. In the following passage Vittore da Milano says of him, with perfect justification, that he possesses the traits of inner Franciscan love and resembles a “loving mother”.

Even though he was very busy, he celebrated the holy Mass every day, distributed the Most Holy Eucharist and gave sacramental absolution to a great number of people who were under his care because, being filled with charity and affection, he supported those who were sick like a loving mother. He hurried to the door and helped to lift them from the carriage with his own hands and place them on the lawn so that he could provide them with a place to stay and, with loving words filled with the love of God he encouraged them to endure patiently the sufferings of the infection for the remission of their sins and many of them died in his arms.” (n. 7297)

The third aspect of this “charitable service” is connected with the quality of the death they suffered: “they died with devotion and fervour”. Referring to the religious aspects of their death he adds the following details: “by persevering in the Catholic faith, and having received the most holy Sacraments devoutly,” (n 7293) they died peacefully.

With regard to Father Giovanni da Como, it was said that he gave up his blessed soul very peacefully and devoutly.” (n. 7294). Father Galdino da Brusada “died with great devotion and fervour leaving an example of extraordinary angelic devotion.” (n. 7296). Father Michele Possobonelli’s death was also “accompanied with great devotion and spiritual peace.” (n. 7307). Felice Casati asserts that the twelve of his brothers that died at the hospital “all surrendered their souls to the Lord with great composure of spirit, strong faith, and providing edification to the bystanders”, some of whom “were blessed with visions and apparitions.” (n. 7319).

These features of service and death may have been suggested, in part, by the theological and ascetical ideals presented in books and by a devotional way of speaking that was applied to concrete circumstances or even by the artes morendi. In fact, the way Brother Bonifacio da Milano, who was an uneducated lay brother, set down his thoughts there is not a trace of such descriptive phrases or abstract judgements, but just a presentation of the facts as they happened. This is also true of the other two presentations. This is perhaps an important feature of the kind of Franciscan charity that motivated the service offered to the sick, the concrete, almost physical aspect of this charity, which a modern author describes in a valuable study, as “the provision of physical and emotional care.”[113]

To explain his theory and making use of his vast knowledge of literary criticism, this author, among other things, raises some questions from the point of view of a critic who has read and reread and interpreted the issues in Manzoni’s plague as providing “a contrast between the ‘words’ and the ‘actions’ of the Capuchins who served with Felice Casati.”

They were concerned with nothing more than participating in a direct manner with amazing and supreme simplicity in what the infection was causing in a way that even involved the material reorganisation of the hospital … this meant not only setting an example of morality and wisdom, but a concrete (structurally effective) opposition to the “errors”. Through the humility and rigour of the way that they acted, they replaced research into the causes with examining the effects. Their words were few and simple, while what they were doing increased every day. … By not placing their trust in dreams, they were able to influence what was real … in a positive and direct way … Basically they did not regard the evil as being an enigma … but rather as a matter calling for love and passion that could overcome death. … The presence of these friars in history and in allegorical narrative has a very clear message about returning to reality. In the midst of the anxious flights of public fantasy they tried to revive the meaning of life, even when a person is being faced with death. … In the face of what was horrid, incomprehensible pain and silent deaths, they … were able to find meaning in desolation for they were human like everyone else and were used to what had to be done when words failed, when graves had to be dug for those who had fallen and had to be buried and those who were wounded had to receive medical attention, etc. [114]

What is most striking in the three documents that deal with “provision of information” is what Father Felice Casati says about the “physical and material charity” in the way they spontaneously shared their energy and labour for almost two years: “This went on for about 23 months, that is from the month of March in 1630 to the year 1532.” (n. 7316). The Capuchins made themselves available when the need arose to carry out all kinds of work. They were cooks, stewards, waiters, doorkeepers, chemists, undertakers and grave diggers in addition to being confessors and administering the Sacraments. In effect they organised all the material services and arranged for the safekeeping of funds and, finally, they were ones who kept watch for any kind of malpractice, “making the rounds at all hours, at times even for most of the night.” (n. 7307).

The symbol of such tireless activity was Father Michiele Pozzobonelli who “seemed to have no body”, but who spent himself for seven continuous months going around in the hospital “performing countless tasks and suffering greatly”.

The impact of death, which dominated the situation, is shown by the statistics that indicate that 79,000 died in the hospital, and 120,000 were buried in “fopponi” (ditches), with a population of 16,000 or more infected people still remaining alive in the hospital at S. Gregorio.

Finally, there is another way of seeing things that brings hope. It was described in the sermon preached by Father Felice to those who were recovering and who were taking part in a penitential procession in which he was holding a large cross in the air, had a rope around his neck, was barefoot and going along sighing and praying until he reached the hospital of S. Barnaba. This had been repeated at least 11 times in the 23 months that he worked there. To a certain extent it was like the famous procession of St Charles with the Holy Nail, which, after the passage of 50 years, the people of Milan still cherished as something sacred, adopting a style of Christian piety that focused on the figure of Christ crucified, as the Redeemer and Saviour. Now, in the friar’s “devout and fervent sermon,” the focus was rather on the suffering and distress of the plague from which the crowd of two thousand had been set free and, consequently, on the mercy and forgiveness that they had received as a lifegiving gift (“the great gift of having been liberated from the jaws of death”), rather than going into a long theoretical and biblical discourse. In the way Manzoni interpreted it, not even a man like Felice Casati could have understood it in this way for he saw himself as a “herald”, an incarnate sign of the Good Shepherd who had offered his life for sin by carrying the cross. (n.n. 7304, 7311).

d) The Capuchins and the plague of 1630-1631 in and around Venice

The story of the human and Christian heroism of the Capuchins from Lombardy is the same as the story of the other Provinces. Each one could present its own documentation. With respect to the Province of Venice we have made use of an interesting series of sworn depositions by the friars, by doctors and public authorities which are direct testimonies concerning hospitals for those stricken by the plague that were produced during the plague of 1630-31.

– “Trustworthy accounts” of the fervour and zeal of the Friars:

This material was collected and put together by Epifanio Solerini da Cipro who was the historian in the Province of Venice. He was ordered to do so by the Provincial, Gianbatista da Venezia, in obedience to a directive issued by the Minister General, Antonio Montecuccoli da Modena, after the General Chapter that took place in Rome in 1633.[115] In fact, various accounts were released in different places in the Province from 18th October 1633 to 15th February 1634, when many witnesses and friars who had worked during the plague had recently returned to their friary and resumed their normal duties and still had vivid images of the suffering, of the practical love and of their experiences with those stricken by the plague.

These accounts were presented by 18 people, 9 of whom were Capuchin friars: one being a student, two simple priests and six being either preachers or Guardians. There were also seven people from the town, among these one was the representative of the new hospital in Venice, another a health official, another called Mincio, who was the superintendent of the hospital of Chioggia, four doctors and a baker. An Augustinian Father joined them.

In a very short time, the plague spread from Mantua, which was besieged by German and Imperial soldiers,[116] to other cities. We are able to follow its twisted and tragic course in the Annali of the Capuchin Province. (doc. 6).

The lay brother from Brescia, Celso da Lonato, says that here too, we find the same charitable reasons expressed in the response to the call for spiritual help sent out by the Health Authority. These reasons are contained in a pastoral letter written by the Provincial, Father Basilio da Vicenza, in which he urges “all the friars to offer themselves promptly and willingly, when they receive an obedience, to go off happy and rejoicing in spirit as if they were going to paradise feeling joyful and delighted about the benefit they were bringing to those souls.” (n.7330). Indeed, whoever wrote the Annali said that the friars who were called to undertake this valuable work rejoiced, tamaquam si ad epulas essent invitandi” (as if they had been invited to receive a prize) (n. 7328) and were just like the early martyrs in the Church. “They went with the merit of holy obedience being completely happy and festive” (n. 7335), considering this ministry to be a gift equal to the grace of martyrdom.

Many friars, who were “stricken by the plague” while engaged in this charitable work, and who were subsequently healed felt humble because they thought that they were unworthy and unprepared for such a grace. Therefore, Father Francesco da Venetia did not hesitate to go to the new hospital near Venice “with happiness and under the merit of obedience” on 27th June 1631. Having contracted the infection on 2nd July “I was close to death so that I desired toto corde affect (with all my heart) to leave my life out of love for God. However, the Lord was not pleased to take my life because he was not sure that I was well prepared.” (n. 7336).

Even lay people who availed themselves of the services of the friars noticed this characteristic. Doctor Ludovico Zucchi praised the Capuchin Order because “driven by the fervent charity that moved their hearts” they did not hesitate to assign friars to the hospitals and “have them wear the crown of martyrs.” (n. 7347). The surgeon at the old hospital in Venice, Paolo Morandi, asserted “that moved by spiritual considerations the Reverend Capuchin Fathers from Zudeca offered themselves very promptly … This saintly, worthy offering could almost be described as voluntary martyrdom … They considered such offerings as being a grace come down from heaven that should be used in serving God with thanksgiving, and even if it was filled with danger, it ought to be accepted.” (n. 7352).

In some cases, this zeal seemed so much like competing for a “prize” where someone wanted to be the first to serve and was hiding any kind of effort to outdo others and because of this it turned into some kind of holy envy and ended with complaints being made to the Provincial or the Guardian as happened in Padua. The cherished permission for the friars to hear confessions in the hospitals had just arrived from Rome and this was something extraordinary for the Capuchins. When the civic authorities asked for the friars to assist in the hospital for those stricken by the plague, the Father Provincial immediately chose Father Pietro da Sacile, who belonged to the fraternity at Castelfranco and who had often asked to serve those stricken by the plague. Then, “the fraternity in the same place in Padua – as Father Marino da Venice put it – rose up arguing that this was doing the wrong thing by one or the other fraternities in Venice since they were ready to go there.” The Provincial had to offer excuses and withdraw the obedience from the friar from Castelfranco and permit the Guardian of Padua to make the decision. However, the choice was not an easy one. “Everyone wanted to be the first, and some of those who remained at home, were very dissatisfied with the Guardian.” (n. 7354).

Some were still young students and yet they still strongly insisted on going to the hospital. One of these was Father Germano da Venetia who was not easily satisfied. (n. 7365). Another one recalls very emotionally the five friars in his fraternity, (as we read in the report given by Amanzio da Belluno, who was a student at Verona in 1631), who were sent among those stricken by the plague. “All went with great happiness and enthusiasm to die for love of Christ.” He remembered especially the fervent words and actions of Francesco da Ostiglia, a lay brother, who was always “very anxious” to receive “such a gift,” and how he had met him in the corridor “with his arms stretched out” and how he had shared “very emotional and tender words with him … that almost brought tears to his eyes”, and how he expressed his deep contentment “in risking his life in the service of the holy God.” (n. 7369)

– The standard of the service within and beyond the hospitals for those stricken by the plague

The Capuchins worked in many Capuchin hospitals throughout Venice: in the hospital outside the city in Verona, in the hospital of “San Felice” in Vicenza, in the old and new hospitals around Venice at Chioggia, Pordenone, Padua etc.

Their presence, which was mainly spiritual and pastoral, also included administration, disciplinary activity, usually because of internal “bad management” practices. This was not because food supplies were lacking. The Republic of Venice took care of this in a splendid manner. However, the authorities left a lot to be desired in the internal administration of the place as well as in the honest distribution of goods. Because of this the friars in Venice often had to also help “with the distribution of food so that the poor could be kept alive”. (n. 7331). From the outset, they were given authority over the “officials and supervisors”, who were entrusted with suppling such things. They watched “what they were doing not only in the supply of food, but also with regard to the treatment of the wounds and scars on those stricken by the plague,” so as to make those who were providing this service more attentive and dependable. (n. 7333).[117]

In this way they brought about better order, abolished promiscuity, by separating the men from the women, and had those who had fallen repent. Because of the corrupt behaviour, the immorality and crime that was rampant in the hospitals, young women preferred “to die a miserable death without treatment or assistance in their homes”, rather than to be cared for in a situation like this. Brother Celso da Lonato says that later “because of our friars, they came happily and went ahead consoled that their honour had been preserved. (n. 7331). A famous prostitute from Venice was converted “and began to live a quite better way of life. She preferred to go about dressed in grey wearing a hood like a Capuchin friar, and with bare feet.” (n. 7337).

It was the kind of zeal “that had no self-interest”. Therefore, the friars “were held in respect, esteemed, honoured and treated with reverence” by all (n. 7334). The knew how to “lovingly” reprimand those who were doing the wrong things “using affection” and “being gentle” and their authority served “to put right many things that were out of order” … and as Doctor Ottavio Francini who worked in the hospital in Venice explained, without using the severe challenges that the judges used in the courts.” (n. 7374)

Because of this they were admired by the people, the Doctors and the authorities. The Vicar Prior of the new hospital in Venice, Antonio Manzoni, described the service provided by the Capuchins as being “a miracle”, because “the hospital had become a gathering of spiritual people bound together in calm and peace.” (n. 7344). Doctor Zucchi said that the friars “changed what was the public theatre of vice into a temple of health,” (n. 7348), and Paolo Morandi, another Doctor, asserted that “they appeared to be genuinely religious people. Their monastery appeared to be the same.” (n. 7352).

At times the zeal of the friars was so fervent that the leaders of the legal system had to restrain them because they were afraid that the friars “out of the great fervour and desire they had for the salvation of souls,” would all die “in a short space of time”. (n. 7337). They made themselves available without being concerned about becoming infected. At Padua when Father Nicolo da Vicenza and Brother Egidio from Bergamo saw a boat arrive they immediately “went to help those stricken by the plague to come ashore and lifted them up embracing them”. Four days later they died. (n. 7356)

Their style of human and priestly ministry was often described in very striking and creative terms. In the old hospital in Venice, although they had fallen ill, “they did not stop visiting the sick and the pest stricken with two men carrying the sick ones on a bed if they were unable to walk.” (n. 7332). In the hospital at Chioggia, they constructed a small wooden chapel in which they celebrated daily Mass. It had an altar and three very large doorways so that the sick could lie about in “cots” to attend Mass. The friars heard confessions under the large beam. The superintendent, Pietro Vescovi, reported “that they dd not have a moment to rest”, as they wanted to be awake at night when people died so they could pray for their soul. This meant, I believe, that these priests only had ten hours sleep while they lived in this place”.

The secret behind this “great charity” was their spirit of prayer and devotion. “When they stayed in a separate house – he went on to say – it was because they wanted to say their usual prayers at night. I stayed with them on at least four occasions at night, and I always saw Father Andrea on his knees at prayer, crying.” When they fell sick, they continued as much as they could to hear the confessions of the sick. They did not want to sleep on mattresses. They slept on straw and I went and procured pieces of straw for their beds.” (n. 7400).

There were others who did more severe penance, to the point of depriving themselves of food or “if they did not take it into their mouth, (so to speak), they gave it to the poor, and to do this the priests often went looking for poor people to put an end to what they were suffering for the love of God.” (n. 7401).

Their ministry also spread beyond the hospital. Many went to hear Confession and administer the Sacraments “along the streets, through the countryside and in the homes.” (n. 7324). Others took the places of the priests who had died from the plague in the parishes. This is what happened in Vicenza, Castelnuovo, Capodisteria and elsewhere.

Francesco Barbarani da Vicenza was one of those sent to Castelnuovo by his Guardian “to work as parish priest, when the priest who was there had died.” In the beginning nobody wanted to provide him with residence out of fear about the plague. He also faced concerns about performing exorcisms, because he found many men and women in the place who were troubled by spirits.” (nn. 7376-78). He did not deny the comfort of the Sacraments to anyone and he had “more than 600 souls put into to his care and they were spread over an area of three miles from the church and living in danger of death.” He also went in search of the poor people who “having been confined to their homes had nothing to eat,” “many of whom died from starvation.” (nn. 7379-80)

– The religious outlook of the people

From what has been said in the statements just quoted it is possible discern some of the features of the popular piety that the friars themselves had promoted. In fact, in the hospital in Venice Brother Celso da Lonato said that “many became holy because our friars distributed holy cards bearing the name of Jesus or by having some of the ashes from the relic our Father of St Francis.” (n. 7332).[118]

In conjunction with devotion to san Rocco and san Sabastiano, who were the patrons being invoked because of the plague, the Capuchins spread devotion to san Felice da Cantalice, who had recently been beatified, the first one to be beatified in the Capuchin Reform. The friars experienced the efficacy of this devotion within their own brothers and among other people especially in the anointing with “the oil of Blessed Felice” which was brought from Rome where it had flowed out of his tomb. For example, Father Beltrame da Villorba said that when he was weighed down by the labour of hearing the Confessions of about 2000 people stricken with the plague in the hospital in Venice: “the most clement God … gave me supernatural strength through the intercession of blessed Felice, whose protection I had sought, and when I anointed myself each day with his oil, and did the same for many who had the plague, we received a great deal of grace. As soon as I anointed them a large number of then told me that the had been healed from various kinds of illnesses. (n. 7363, and 7380).

Brother Ambrogio da Venezia, who was a lay brother, and who was stricken by the plague in the friary at Capodistria, “rising at midnight, anointed himself devoutly from a flask of the oil of Saint Felice that he had in his room. In the morning he felt entirely set free and cured.” (nn. 7390, 7386). At Castelnuovo, at the peak of the plague, Francesco da Vicenza convinced those in charge of the community to promise “to set up an altar to Saint Rocco and Saint Sebastiano, that also had a picture of Saint Francesco and blessed Felice. When they kept their promise, the sickness began to diminish so that in a few days the village was completely set free and cured” (n. 7381).

Father Martino da Venezia said that at Padua the friary was preserved from the plague through the “prayers of the friars” and by means of “certain special exercises” of popular devotion, such as “the recitation of most holy rosary three times a week behind closed doors, following the way the Dominican Fathers recited it … saying an antiphon as the mothers of the Croce dal Giudeca were being dismissed following Compline: the entire monastery vowing to fast on the vigil of Blessed Felice and seeking his intercession when they said the rosary; singing the litany of the Saints on Wednesdays and Fridays after the conventual Mass, and after the Mass of the Madonna on Saturdays; saying, all together in a loud voice, five Pater and five Ave Maria to the wounds of the Lord following Matins, and other similar devotions.” (n. 7358).

One friar attributed the grace of escaping the plague to his devotion to St Anthony because he had used no “other preservative … except holding an image of St Anthony in his hand by means of whose intercession I firmly believe that the Divine majesty preserved me from this, for next to God and the Most Glorious Virgin, he was the one from whom I sought refuge.” (n. 7367).

– “Happy death”

The last thing that these statements emphasise is the ‘happy death’ of the friars who worked in the hospitals. The expression used in the “information statement” produced in Milan is morte santa. In a picturesque way Manzoni described what happened at a deathbed in a sermon that he said Felice Casati had preached to those who were patients in the hospital.

A layman, a doctor, conforms this when speaking about four Capuchins who died in the old hospital at Venice: “While going about their good work they became infected with the plague and all four of them died. They thought nothing of their death except being concerned about having served God and if they had achieved and merited anything small. However, what they had achieved did not amount to what they desired to achieve, even though others thought that it was excellent, it seemed to them to be something of little consequence.” (n. 7352).

Father Giovanni da Lendinara’s death, holding the Cross and a lighted candle in his hand, was remembered quite emotionally by Father Beltrame. (n. 7352). The death of Father Claudio da Venice at Capodistria is narrated by Carlo da Vicenza in moving tones (cf. n. 7383), as is also the death of Brother Zeno da Verona, who called out the name of Mary “in a loud voice.” (cf. n. 7385).

Father Andrea da Vicenza, who was already quite ill, assisted his dying brother Father Emiliano from Bergamo and went “with Christ in his hand, to pray for his soul.” He was lying on a straw bed in a coma for the last four days and “looked as thought he was dead, holding his Crucifix un his hand, but not speaking, or making the slightest movement with his eyes or his mouth that, and to tell the truth – as Pietro Vescovi said – we worshipped him as a saint, and my mother did nothing else than cry for two days, when she saw the saintly Father in that state, wearing a habit lying on straw.” (n. 7396). Then he died holding the Crucifix, with the room completely full of the perfume of violets and “all those who were able to walk came to experience the composure of his dead body.” (n. 7397).

Floriano Pellagrini da Ceneda said that “Father Cipriano d’Amprezzo had a very beautiful death and when he was dying, he looked very happy, holding a small mage of the Most Holy Virgin all the time, often kissing it with the greatest devotion and spirit, and holding it so firmly that after he had died Father Gianmaria da Rovigio had work hard to take it away.” (n. 7399).

Seeing all these friars die left a deep impression of the people in the hospital. Even those who could hardly walk accompanied the funeral “weeping, sighing and following on behind.” (n. 7332). We can understand what a Doctor from the hospital in Palermo during the plague in 1624 said to one of the sick people who asked him how could God allow even the friars who were his faithful servants to die. He replied: “The study of medicine has not taught me how to investigate God’s judgements. However, I can say that by their way of life the Capuchins do teach us what we ought to do, and how when death comes, how we ought to die. They died in front of us. Let us learn to have the same amount of courage, so as to endure what God wants, and die like a Christian who is truly submissive to the Divine will, being contrite and humble, as we have seen the Capuchins, who were his servants, die.”[119]

e) The plague of 1630-31 in Piemonte and the activity of the Capuchin friars

The final document on the plague of 1630-31 that we present deals with what happened in Piemonte and it concludes what we have to offer on the service provided for those stricken by the plague. (doc. 11).

The material was taken from a series of chronicles and correspondence and it differs from the texts that have been quoted so far both because of its length (it covers 172 pages), and because of the candid way it presents evidence gathered in retrospect from a disturbing time in history and from interpreting documents with careful intuition.

There is no concern here with recalling edifying friars just to have their names in the Annali of the Order. All that is intended is to present the anxiety, the fear, the despair, that was part of recent events that happened in the life of a region, a city, a friary. They are both “dispatches from the battlefield”, and death notices, expectations, the venting of mystical fervour, outbursts of generosity, challenges to camaraderie, acts of charity to the point of becoming a holocaust. However, they also portray fragility, embarrassment, fear, tarnished human nature that is seeking to excel, that is certain about the future, that makes excuses, has doubts, that holds back, which just looks on, that festers in its disease-ridden flesh.

In order to appreciate the value of such documentation it is well to start from having some understanding of the history of how it was put together.

– The history of a Capuchin “epistolario” (“collection of letters”) about the plague

When the plague broke out in 1629 the Capuchin Province of Piemonte had been autonomous for about ten years.[120] Before that it had been a Custody of the Province of Genoa since 1599. However, when missionary activity against the heretics increased in the Trans-Alpine Valley, a Visitator General, Father Giovanni da Venezia (+ 1625), was appointed by Paul V. The Duke of Savoy Carlo Emanuele I also supported this appointment since because of his political victories he wanted to be able to have a certain amount of control and influence over the religious initiatives of the Capuchins. Thus, all the friaries in the area controlled by the Duke were set apart and made into an autonomous Province as decreed at the General Chapter in 1618. The decree was dated 20th April 1619 and it encompassed 20 friaries as well as other missionary houses.

As described by Silvestro da Panicale the initial Capuchin presence in the Alpine region in 1632, immediately after the plague, when the new Province was established, consisted of 36 friaries which included three friaries in Vercelli, Biella and Ivera, that were cut off from the Milan Province, and the missionary houses beyond the Alps. It was made up of 373 religious, of whom 52 were preachers, 152 were simple priests, 53 were clerics and 116 were lay brothers.[121]

The first Minister Provincial was Father Giovanni Battista da Vercelli, who in 1621 and 1624, was succeeded by Fathers Paolo M. Pergamano d’Asti and Giovanni da Moncalieri, the latter of which became Minister General of the Order. In 1627 Paolo M. d’Asti was re-elected, and it was during his term that the plague savaged the whole of Piemonte. It was because of this that his companion and secretary, Father Dalmazio da Quargento, said that “he was Provincial for four years and six months, during which time the Province was very disturbed by war, infection and famine with more than one hundred friars dying from infection, causing him incredible heartbreak. He was order by Rome and the Definitors not to visit the Province, nor to provide for any of the cases that he would have provided for in normal times. How often I saw tears flowing from his eyes as he felt compassion for the poor friars.”[122]

It was not until 3rd October 1631 that Paolo M. d’Asti was able to convoke a Chapter at Monte de Torino. This had not been possible during the plague and a decree had gone out from Rome prohibiting “the transfer of friars from one friary to another” (n. 7499) in order to avoid the danger of becoming infected.

At the Definitory meeting held in Turin at the beginning of 1630 (n. 7414) it was unanimously decided that, for the good of the friars, the Provincial should live in the Custody of Monevi, which had not been affected by the plague and was out of the area that was disturbed by war. From there “he would be able “to exercise his office in a better way” and take care of the needs of the members of the Order. When he was leaving Turin he passed through Moncalieri, Carignano, Racconigi, Savigliano, Fossano, Mondoví and Cuneo and chose the friary at Carrú, that was dedicated to St Francis, as his residence. He stayed there from the beginning of July 1630 (n. 7435), “for about seven months”, even though the nearby areas were being increasingly infected by the plague.

The Duke’s court in Turin was moved to Asti, which was a safer place, or that at least seemed to be safer, and the Capuchin Provincial was invited to come to that city. However, Paolo M. d’Asti did not move from Carrú. He wanted to set a good example for his friars and not cause them to panic and wander from one place to another incurring a greater risk.

Not all of the friars were heroes. Many even of those who lived in distant places, such as Saluzzo and Ivrea, took the risk of coming as far as Carrú to meet the Provincial Superior. Some were sent by their Guardians, others fled from places that were infected “out of fear of death”, and they came “without documents” or without health certificates or without a “passport”, risking the danger of being taken and killed by the “guards at the passes” or those along the road (cf. n. 7430) or “by people who were frantic or by soldiers who were heretics.” (n. 7525).

When the Provincial could not greet them because they had been stopped outside the city by the guards, he went to meet them and to speak to them personally and while remaining some distance away he listened to their plight, rebuked them for their foolishness in coming to him, but he did not forgive them, nor could he do anything but ask them to be patient, offer them something to eat and send them back along “the way that they had come”. More often than not he was faced with exhausted friars who had walked a long way through forests and mountains, sometimes drenched with rain “without being able to find shelter anywhere, who had been turned away by all and who were also starving”. (n. 7436).

The most frequently used way of contacting friars was by means of a lot of letters that were received more or less providentially in a number of friaries, though it was impossible to contact all the friaries. In fact, some places did not receive any letters. In other places, when they arrived, they brought news of despair and death. (n. 7435).

The difficulty with the delivering of letters was caused by the fact that the roads were closed, the guards were strict, “especially with regard to religious”, probably for reasons that had been stated 50 years previously by Paolo da Salὸ in his Dialogo,[123] but also because the letters were often destroyed, burnt or opened by the guards. (cf. n. 7736).

On various occasions Paolo M. d’Asti risked becoming infected both by the individuals who had come to speak to him in private and bring him greetings from those far away who were infected, and also through various letters that had been transmitted “as though they had come from nearby places that were healthy” whereas “they had been written by friars who were actually infected.” (n. 7437).

After six months of anxiety, the Provincial went from Carrú to preach the Lent in Fossano in 1631 and, after Easter, he went on to Moncaliere, because in the meantime the city of Carrú had become infected by the plague. Here he met with the Definitors and laid down various measures that dealt with different issues in the Province,[124] and decided that a Provincial Chapter would be held in October.

The first Definitor or Counsellor was Father Michelangelo Sanmartino da Totino (+ 1655). He proposed the bright idea of collecting all of the letters that had been exchanged between the friaries and the Provincial within 1630 and 1631 as being the best way to describe the plague “in a bright mirror”, and commit it “to memory for the present and for posterity.” (n. 7403)

This idea probably first began to develop at gathering of the Definitors at the end of April in 1631. Father Sanmartino arranged the documentary material according to geographical and historical criteria, and having selected what was most important in the collection of letters, he collated them according to where they came from, the topics that involved various friaries, and commented on them by means detailed “notes” which also contained his personal judgement and appraisal of the different events and circumstances that involved the friars, as well as political and military activities.

The manuscript was put together bit by bit over a period of ten years. Every now and again the one who was collecting the material, laid down his pen, and noted a date, so that the text is made up of a collection of different dates beginning in October 1631, on “the vigil of St Francis our father.” (n. 7438). This was perhaps the conclusion of the long introduction which is an overview of all the hardships of the plague in the Province and in the different friaries. (cf. nn. 7403-7438)

However, it seems to be more likely that there was a change in the way the letters were used after 16th May 1635 when Father Michelangelo was elected Minister Provincial.[125] In fact, in the comments on the first group of letters which pertain to the friary at Monte di Torino, when speaking about the various religious, he says that he is the Guardian and adds, among other things, “Now he is actually Provincial.” (n. 7456). Therefore, it would seem that, when he was Provincial, having in hand a draft of the collection of the correspondence pertaining to the friars during the plague, that he added to a preface to his chronicle, by introducing some of these letters according to an order of places which did not coincide with what was in the general introduction.[126] This might mean that when he wrote the first 26 pages of the introduction that he had probable not yet thought of including the rich historical testimony of the letters, but had gathered only news that pertained to the history of the Province.

In the “notes” that accompany the letters pertaining to the friary of Savigliano, there is something else that probably specifies the time that this section of the codex was composed. When speaking about Father Enrico della Valle, who came from the noble family of Biraghi, it says that, after going to France to visit his relatives, and “in the year thirty-seven, just passed, he died while serving our brothers who suffered from the plague.” (n. 7536). Yet we read that in 1638, a year that is associated with another event at Ivrea, that the Guardian of that friary, Father Remigio da Fossano, “died in 1638 in his homeland.” (n. 7525).

In all eighty-six letters “were copied faithfully from the original”. (cf. n. 5786). Eleven involved the friary at Carmagnola, nine pertained to Monte di Torino, six to Saluzzo and Nizza respectively, five to Vigone, Moncalieri, Mondoví and Dronero, three to Villafranca di Piemonte, Caraglio and Carrú, two to Carignano, Savigliano and Racconigi, and one to Corgne, Rivoli, Ivrea, Moncalvo, Ceva, Paesana, Casteldelfino and Verzuolo, Livorno, Susa and Villafranca di Nizza.[127] Almost all of them were written by Capuchin friars, usually by the Guardian of the different friaries, by priests and preachers (at least 72 of them) or by lay brothers (only two). Some were written by civic or religious authorities.[128]

Their time span extends from 16th June 1630, the date of the first letter written to the Provincial by Father Francesco da Sommariva, from the friary of Monte di Torino, until 20th September 1631, when three letters reached the Provincial on the same day. These came from the Bishop of Asti, Ottavio Broglia, and the Governor and Mayor of the same city.

For some reason we note that most of this correspondence arrived in the month of July 1630. Thirteen letters came then, 11 in October, 9 respectively in October and November and 6 in August. Beginning with two letters sent in June, the collection includes two letters from December and continues, with seven from January 1631. This decreases to six in July, three in May, four in April and August, three in September and only one in March. This way of proceeding was certainly connected with the development of the plague which reached a climax in the summer and autumn months of 1630. It came back in1631 and eased off in 1632, However, the collection does not contain all the correspondence of the friars with their Minister Provincial, nor even all that was originally chosen by the one who made the collection because, unfortunately, there are at least sixteen pages missing from the codex,[129] which ought to contain notes and important letters with regard to the plague and the friary at Carmagnola, all the friary at Pinerolo and another unidentified place.[130]

– The circumstances of the plague and the activity of the Capuchins

The letters provide us with first-hand information regarding the spread of the plague in Piemonte and the activity of the Capuchins in the different friaries.

Once again, the lethal culprits for the spread of the plague were soldier, most of all the three thousand ferocious Germans that came from Valtellina to take Casale from the French. In addition to the infection, they brought burglary and brutality. The plague, that broke out about the middle of October 1629 in the territory of Lecco, spread rapidly through Lombardy and Piemonte and later infiltrated into Venice, Romagna and Tuscany.

In Piemonte the illness was spread by the French army which, under the leadership of the Cardinal of Richelieu and Louis XIII himself, was advancing to rescue Casale from being besieged by the Spanish. The army broke through the barricades of Carlo Emanuele at the gorge of Chiomonte and occupied Susa. It was here that the infection began to take effect. It then broke out in Vercelli. The army attacked Pinerolo and it fell. The Duke of Savoy, having withdrawn to Savigliano, was the only one left to combat the omnipotent Cardinal of Richelieu, while four armies were fighting over the rest of Piemonte. He fell ill and “racked with pain and anger”, he wasted away abandoned by fortune and friends, he was assisted by a Capuchin friar.” (cf. n. 7533).

Fourteen days later, on 14th August 1630, after the French troops had entered Piemonte, the plague broke out. The illness spread fairly quickly through the surrounding region close to Pinerolo, where people died “alla gagliarda” (at the drop of a hat), as one chronicler put it, or “alla disperata” (at a frantic rate) as a Capuchin put it at the time. The first ones to be hit were those living on the plains, particularly those in Saluzzo, Savigliano, Cavour, Carmagnola and Vigone, and they fled to the mountains seeking to escape from infection. It then penetrated into the valleys of Pellice, Germenasca and Chisone. In Pancalieri death “was so cruel that few were left alive.” In Vigone, which was situated between the troops of the Duke Pancalieri and the French troops who were attacking Vignone from Pinerolo and had captured it, the plague “despatched all the confessors, doctors and specialists.” At Villafranca the slaughter was so great that “four out of five” of the population died. The Frossasco parish register says that “more than a thousand people from the parish perished and that there were no baptisms for a period of fifteen months.[131]

The same dreadful situation prevailed everywhere. Friars in various friaries were turned into unintentional journalists who were sending news-items concerning the bleak situation to the Provincial. Eleven thousand people lived in Torino after it had been abandoned by the Imperial Court. Within a few months eight thousand had died. French and Spanish doctors took control of the household items that belonged to those who had contracted the plague and sold them and this contributed to the spread of the illness.

The situation at Torino was the same. The Vicar General, Bergera, ordered all the superiors of the Religious Orders and Congregations to assemble to ask them to assume the pastoral care of those stricken by the plague. The most generous response came from the Guardian of Monte because he had forty friars in his fraternity at his disposal. He offered four priests with other companions to work in the city, and two priests and companions to go to the mountains. All of these first volunteer charity workers lost their lives. (n. 7414).

This generous Guardian was the author of the manuscript that we are reading and he could relate these things because he was First Definitor. He was at Dal Monte when, on 16th April 1630, he wrote down the sad details of the loss of life. In Torino more than 200 people died each day and “corpses that were decomposing and putrid could be seen all over the city,” and because the air was infected many people “collapsed to the ground still talking, without any illness” as if they had been struck by lightning. More people died from hunger than from the plague because “the mountain passes had been closed, and the soldiers had consumed the little food that there was so that you could no longer buy bread.” (n. 7442).

Father Bonaventura da Torino, who was a missionary in Casteldelfino, worked in the vicinity of San Silvestro and he died there. The Guardian then divided his forty friars into “three groups”, even though it was very late to do so. (cf. n. 7454). One group remained in the friary where those who were infected were already present. A second group consisting of four friars and the Guardian went to the vineyard of a benefactor. The third group, which consisted of another four friars, went to the vineyard of another benefactor. The friary received sustenance from these benefactors. (cf. n. 7443).

Guglielmo da Mondovi, the first missionary in the valle di Pragelato served in the hospital for those stricken by the plague together with Brother Dalmazio da Torino. When he wrote to the Provincial on18th June he predicted that “I shall never see you again in this world.” The hospital consisted of “cabins outside the city of Torino.” The work only lasted fifteen days. After four days they had both contracted the plague. The Guardian wrote that: “by 9th July 1530 the missionary had already died and his lay brother companion hung on as long as he could.” (n. 7441).

In the month of June, Francesco da Sommariva, who was a priest, went to the city to work in “the Church of S. Rocco” where he heard Confession and celebrated the Eucharist. Many people came to the church. In the morning, Brother Felice da Mondovi, served the Mass. In the evening the Blessed Sacrament was exposed along with the relics of san Rocco. (cf. n. 7439). Father Domenico da Piozzasco, would work later on in the same church. (7451).

Father Egidio d’Ivrea worked with the plague-stricken for eight months and spent “eight months … among the corpses at Torino.” (n. 7445). He contracted the plague but recovered and on 4th March 1631 he informed the Provincial that he had completed the period of quarantine and decided to return to the friary “to celebrate the day of festivities together with the friars,” something that he had decided to do “since the Lord had permitted my life to be prolonged so I could make amendment.” Furthermore, he still wanted to “care for the remaining cases” that “he had confined in two hospitals.” (n. 7446).

Because the Guardian had taken ill Antonio M. Lupi d’Asti had to “bear pondus diei et aestus (the burden and the heat of the day) to provide the friars “with food and drink, provisions and groceries and other things,” “for a period of two months.” In his letter he speaks about his gratitude for having been spared from the plague. On 7th January 1631 he wrote that “at times I felt like running away from an infested corpse or turning away from another that was so putrid that it was no use washing the pieces in vinegar or anything else.” (n. 7448).

Father Antonio M da Rivalta, the superior of the friary at Vigone, sent three very long letters containing alarming news. They reported that all the priests and religious with the exception of the Provost, had died. There was an urgent need for confessors. The local authorities, as well as the Provost, requested the assistance of the Capuchins. Because the friars could not contact the Provincial immediately, they decided to send two friars. The infection was at “its peak … People were dying in their homes as they did not want to go into the huts, even though all the houses were infected.”

Up to that point, the Guardian’s far-sightedness had saved the friars from infection. “We have seven friars, all of whom are healthy (through the grace of the Lord) … We have enough provisions … and we are trying to keep on being happy and prepared to die.” (n. 7459). Death came quickly to the friary. Some friars died when it became cold in October and others became ill. Filippo di Susa could not remain “in the huts”, but needed “a room where he could move about”, but there was none in the house. The superior found him a room in a benefactor’s house, but could not allow the friars to take care of him because they were all infected.” (cf. n. 7560).

On 21th November Filippo di Susa himself was able to inform the Provincial that he had recovered “after forty-five days of great suffering,” in isolation and abandoned “to the mercy of the wind and rain in the huts.” Feeling encouraged by the departure of danger, he described all that he had experienced in enduring the infection enumerating with gratitude the number of “carboni” (powders) and “codiselle” (tablets) he had taken. (cf. n.7467).

Father Antonio M. da Rivalta wanted to resign from being Guardian to go and serve as a subject in Pinerolo where the plague was raging because of the presence of “sick soldiers” in the city. It had already attacked the friary. (cf. n. 7463). Out of necessity he also had to accommodate many women in the friary who had asked for their honour to be protected because they were aware of the brutal behaviour of the French soldiers who were menacing the area. Father Michelangelo noted that one of the women gave birth in the Guardian’s cell. This event must have appeared to have been scandalous to someone who read the manuscript and so he crossed it out putting running lines through it with a pen. The presence of women in a friary also happened in other places. A request “was written to Rome asking whether women were permitted to stay in our friaries. The response was yes in the event of war.” (n. 7468).

In the friary at Carignano in the record of calamities that was written by Brother Gregorio da Vernte we see something new. The plague killed all the priests and religious in the city. The friary was then filled with those coming from elsewhere, a third of the family being thrown out, with only three original occupants remaining: a priest, a cleric and a brother. Brother Gregorio complained that the French were forced by necessity to take food from the friary, (even though the soldiers had respected the friars). Their confessor was a French Capuchin, Father Ireneo, who as “camp confessor” did not care about putting a stop to this theft. (cf. n. 7474).

Nine days later, the Guardian wrote that “all of our family caught the infection and all of them were in articulo mortis (at the point of death) … only Father Gregorio and myself were healthy, to take care of the needs of the French army and the crowd of people who were in our friary, a good number of whom were sick” and were in need of the spiritual assistance of the friars. (n. 7476).

On 4th July 1630 Father Nicolo da Ponte, who was the Guardian at Corgne, notified the Provincial about the development of the plague both inside and outside of the friary and about the deaths in both situations and about the great amount of fear among the friars. Six hundred people had died, mainly in the countryside, “with not more that four surviving.” Everyone ran off “which gave rise to a feeling of great alarm.” (n. 7479).

Later on, the same friar moved to Carmagnola where he spent a few days before he died.[132] The friary had been segregated because it was contaminated. Thus, Father Giovanni Battista da Nizza and all the other friars were “afraid”. Whoever was helping those stricken by the plague lived in a house “outside Caramagnola in the village of Monca near the hospital.” Bernardino da Caramagna, who was a preacher, went “to preach to those in the hospital who were sick: two or three times a week. On 28th July he reported that he discovered more than seven hundred sick people in the city … who were isolated in their homes in order not to spread more infection in the community where there were at least three hundred poor people who were infected.” (n. 7483).

The situation was getting worse. There were already more than one thousand two hundred who had died. There was “great apprehension concerning the month of August.” This was based “on the number “of those who had died or relapsed,” and “if God did not withdraw his angry hand, it was certain that most of them would perish because of poor care, and the lack of barbers, because they had died, in addition to another eight specialists … and at present there are a great number of corpses … that have not been buried and they are putrid.’ (ibid.).

Father Cherubino d’Avigliana was taking care of five hundred people who were infected in addition to the ones who lived in Monca while also hearing confessions around the town. He produced a special antibacterial cream by mixing grapes and ground maze which he placed in their ears and nostrils rubbing it in with a drop of vinegar on the head and the hands while a “portion of “corn” was held in the mouth. He went around bravely through the huts of those who had been infected and administered it to them. He stayed there willingly dispensing “the grace of God” rather than medicine. (cf. n. 7486).

The only doctor that attended to those who were sick in Carmagnola was Brother Alessandro da Priè, a lay brother. On 6th October 1630 he begged the Provincial, who had decided to send him and Father Bernardino da Caramagna, to Avigliano, where the plague had broken out, to allow him instead, if possible, to go to Carmagnola because, as he wrote, “I spend the whole day dispensing medicine and do not have time to eat. I hear nothing all day but people knocking on the door. If I had ten arms, I would need more … It would be very worthwhile for nearby places to have more help since they all have no priests or surgeons.” (n. 7488).

Paolo M. d’Asti responded and sent two friars from Carrú to Carmagnolo warning them not to touch those who had been infected. However, they informed him that it was simply impossible to avoid contact. On 9th October Bernardino da Caramagna explained that “we have to touch them just to be able to see the ones who are so affected that if we did not help them especially by giving them something to eat, they would be destitute.” He added that his companion, Brother Alessandro da Prie, was so weighed down with playing the role of “a surgeon” that he did not have time to serve his Mass, and sometimes in order to hear confessions he too had to miss out on saying Mass “for three days because of the number of sick people” (n. 7489). The City “Mayors” also became involved asking the Minister Provincial not to withdraw the two friars because “we would perish without their help.” When they heard the news, the people became anxious about the removal of the brothers as “they did not want these friars to be taken away.” (n. 7492-93).

The most beautiful and lively reportage (reaction) came from the friary at Moncalieri in what the Guardian, Father Giovanni da Rivalta, wrote when he dispatched five letters between 13th July and 8th August 1631. He would rather have written them in tears of blood than in ink. He presented the situation in very colourful language. “Here in the house, we are caught between two extremes: On the one hand, we going to be dispatched soon by the overflowing course of the plague,” or “ are we still a little way off from death. May God help us.” (n. 7479). He wanted to help those who were sick “both where they lay on the ground, in the hospital, and in the hills,” but he felt that he was not strong enough. “Every little puff of wind puts me on the ground.” Therefore, he asked for a few friars who had already freely volunteered to be of service to be sent by way of reinforcement.

The main cause of the irreversible spread of the epidemic was always the soldiers who lived “in the huts” that were still free of infection to which many of the inhabitants of Moncalieri had fled. The soldiers stole all the food that they could find, forcing the people to leave and contact those who were infected “to obtain food”, thus becoming infected. (cf. n. 7499). Those who died numbered about 2000, including many friars. Notification of the deaths could not be sent because letters had been blocked. (cf. n. 7499). On 20th September 1639 he wrote that the German soldiers who were encamped in the mountains between Moncalieri and Totino cause more damage than the hail “that had fallen at harvest time causing a great deal of damage.” (n. 7500). On 12th December he added more details. The city had been stricken at the same time by “three scourges from God: the cruel plague, lack of food” and war. In their raids, the French soldiers, “who came from beyond the Po,” “stole live-stock and caused other damage to other poor peasants. Later on, the German soldiers laid waste the hills at harvest time.” (n. 7502).

The friars had to “accommodate all the families from Arie in their vineyard with their furniture and animals” and every now and again someone died. Nevertheless, in the long run, Father Giovanni da Rivalta was able to sing: Misericordiae Domini quia non consumpti (Because of the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed). (n. 7504).

Every friary was able to tell its own story. At Saluzzo there was famine, because the soldiers took everything, bread, supplies and furniture. (cf. n. 7511). The Guardian kept back only seven friars and Father Francesco da Polone complained that his superior “had sent friars away at a time when the place needed them most in spite of the orders” of the Provincial (n. 75120. On 27th September 1630, Father Silvestro da Torino conveyed the news of the death of Giovanni Battista da Cavallermagiore, who wanted to help those afflicted by the plague in his area. The letter is full of emotion: “Anyone who saw these poor little ones die was broken-hearted with compassion,” and he added: “I have come to a slaughter.” (n. 7515).

On 9th October 1630 Father Cherubino da Torino wrote from Rivoli saying that there was great danger, and he told the Provincial about the damage done by the soldiers when “the door to the friary was battered open and anyone, whether infected or not, came in and out; and that not only locals but soldiers died like flies,” so that as many as 500 died. The friars were literally overcome with panic. They had “the garden full of men and women and a great herd of animals, the noise of which left no one in peace.” Soldiers filled the friary “so that it was hard for the poor friars to have a cell and to eat in the little kitchen.” (n. 7520).

The longest letter in this interesting “collection” was written by Father Francesco da Sandigliano on 21st September 1630. He was Guardian at Savigliano and he had a hut built in the garden for Brother Massimino da Carrú, who had contracted the plague. Because the others could not touch him, this poor friar had “to carry the burden on his own shoulders and take himself off into isolation.” What caused him to become infected was a stray cat that he had picked up, with him being the only one who had touched it. (cf. n. 7528).

Even the old missionary, Isidoro da Busce, who wanted to end his days in working in the hospital, where he gave “spiritual talks to the sick” with great enthusiasm, died within a few days and was taken to the friary “on a carriage,” and was buried in a corner outside the cloister. (n. 7529). The friars were dying one after the other. Father Enrico della Valle was particularly admirable. Without him “things would have been much worse” (n. 7530) for the 400 people in the huts. He had already written to the Provincial on 17th August 1630 concerning the sad situation at Savigliano where “all cry out: “Confession! Confession!” and there is none either for those who are healthy or those who are sick. The religious have left and so have the priests. All that remain are the poor priest at san Pietro and the poor Capuchins holding the fort for the love of God without having a headache and carrying the responsibility of going ahead” (n. 7532).

The infection only came to Ceva in 1631 through “the presence of soldiers” and two friars who served them died. (cf. n. 7539). The friary at Livorno did not remain immune. The Guardian wrote that this happened “because it was an open place, enclosed only by a fence and nothing more. Because the peasants had soldier-like respect for the friars they were confident not only to bring their belongings to the friary but also (owing to the war) bringing their womenfolk.” (n. 7560).

In 1631 the plague struck the places that had remained untouched up to then. The Provincial had established himself for six months in Carrú and now it broke out there. In Nizza it caused dreadful slaughter. On 30th May 1631 the Guardian, Father Gervasio da Torino, wrote a letter telling how the friars organised their pastoral service. The superior remained at the “front door” to hear confession. Father Giovanni da Moncalieri, the future Minister General, heard confession at the door of the church, with two other friars wandering around “the countryside” hearing confessions. (n. 7566). The last two were Fathers Matteo da Liegi and Carlo da Nizza. On 14th June 1631 one of them wrote: “In the morning we went through the countryside, which was almost totally infected, and after lunch, we went through the hospital where there are now two thousand people stricken by the plague. We went in and the poor wretches were calling out: Confession! Confession! This moved us to being lion-hearted in moving among them to hear their confessions, and when night fell, we were forced to leave promising to return in the morning. We now continue this work … We do not know the exact number of those who died, but it is said that between four and five thousand have died in the city and in the countryside et nondum finis. (and it is not finished yet.) (n. 7569).

The situation in the countryside around Nizza was really desperate. It is described dramatically in a letter sent by Father Antonio da Ceva on 10th July 1631:

With divine fervour we went off looking for wool … and it was a miracle that we found wool in the midst of the calamities in the countryside, with the calamity being so great that in some places we came across up to twelve or more people who had died of starvation. In other places we did not find as much as a crumb of bread. In another place there was a priest who had not eaten any bread for three months. In most places that we visited there were four or six people, if that many, who had any bread.

The rest, who were existing on milk and wild herbs, were enduring a miserable and drawn-out death rather than living life. Added to this was the damage done by soldiers who were everywhere in these places. Out of fear of the enemy, whoever had anything hid it in holes or caves. (cf. n. 7572)

The plague also lashed its tail in Asti and the Mayor and officials in the city hurried to ask help from Father Alessandro da Priè, who, after he had served in Carmagnola, found himself unemployed in Chieri. (cf. nn. 7577-79). The friar was allowed to help and, in a letter, dated 18th July 1631, Father Giuseppe da Torino briefly set out his unceasing workload, because of which he “had no rest from sunrise to sunset because there were so many people stricken by the plague and he was moving about on a horse.” (n. 7580). Other friars offered their services and all of them deserve to be officially acknowledged by the civic and religious authorities. (cf. nn. 7582-84).

There was a slight return of the plague to Susu and the friars were worried because they did not want the city to place the hospital next to the friary. Brother Gioachino da Gasso wrote a letter on 18th July 1631 in which he said that he had a concern which was only human and not just an outburst focused on the sacrificial loss of more friars. The citizens themselves reminded the friars that it was the practice of charity that had saved many lives. “Our voices are not being heard … One of the officials told me that it was better for us to die than for the whole city to die.” (n. 7598).

Nevertheless, the infection was increasing and, with the consent of Duke Vittorio Amedeo, Father Paolo M. d’Asti secretly organised a meeting of all the friars who were to participate in the coming Provincial Chapter. It was an event that brought about “extraordinary consolation.” After so many months of isolation, like people who had survived a shipwreck, various groups “of Fathers came together at Monte di Torino, just like the first companions of St Francis had done at the Porziuncola after their missionary apostolic activities. They were no longer afraid of being infected. They talked together, telling one another about the dangers that they had incurred, showing the marks of the scabs and the contusions.” They did not even experience a headache. No one would believe that such a number of friars had come together, until the noise stopped. (n. 7601).

– The plague and the missionaries in the Alpine Valleys

The Capuchin missionaries who were scattered throughout the valleys beyond the Alps to preach against the heretics and to carry out the challenging restoration of the Catholic faith and who worked for more than thirty years and were supported by the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith[133] wrote a chapter in Capuchin history that was filled great suffering and superb charity. The author of the manuscript summed up their activity during the plague in these words: “The missionaries conducted themselves in a consistent and worthy manner and although they lacked the support of the Papal Treasury, they continued to assist souls without financial backing.” (n. 7429)

Angelo da Carignano, who was a missionary in Dronero, reported the death of the lay brother Ugo da Novara. The Consul of the city was opposed to Catholic missionaries and was anxiously awaiting the French assuming control so that he could regain “his former freedom to do evil” and there were many – as a missionary wrote with much bitterness – “who pretended to be devoted to us who threw the mask off their faces.” In this difficult situation and with the number of those dying from the plague increasing each day, the Capuchins decided to stay in the friary and defend it. (cf. n. 7541). On 16th October 1630 he wrote to the Provincial saying that “things in Dronero have already come to the point that there is not one home that is not affected or overtaken with serious infection, and there are no city officials, specialists, doctors, surgeons in attendance and Dronero is uninhabited.” (n. 7543).

Brother Francesco da Fossano, who accompanied the missionaries, contracted the plague by entering a home “to console a poor widow who was crying over her dead husband.” When he returned to the friary, the young cleric, Brother Pietro da Rivara, went to him immediately, washed and dried his feet, as they were also infected. Both of them died within a few days. The missionary remained on his own, with one other healthy priest, like “a fragile glass vase” without “human assistance, without a doctor, a surgeon or specialist and most of all without any money.” He ended the letter in tears. It would be his last because a few days later he received a visit from sister death when, being exhausted, “he fell asleep in the refectory.” (cf. nn. 7543-44)

Father Francesco da Moncalieri was the missionary at Carglio and his companion was Brother Angelo da Savigliano. The letters that he wrote are among the most touching and interesting in the collection because of how they describe events and because of their lively style. “We are surrounded by many worrying circumstances and in a state of panic because of the army.” He said this in a letter to the Provincial on 26th July 1630. Because they were afraid, “a great number of people” fled “into the hills, or the mountains with all of their belongings.” The missionary’s house became a safe place to put furniture and other things and an asylum for many terrified children and girls. “The house is full of young girls and I do not know what to do with them.” (n. 7548).

On 7th September he contacted the Provincial once again in a very animated letter that was simply dripping with sorrow. “Death is gaining ground swiftly in this place and in all the homes.” Eight hundred have died with often a dozen of them remaining unburied, “and there is no one to bury them.” He and his companion withdrew to a small cabin outside the town that belonged to a friend, and then the priest joined them, but the plague arrived. He then fled to another cabin on the mountain. However, in the end, ‘pulling himself together”, “after many setbacks and dangerous situations, we retreated into the woods and constructed a straw cabin where we are doing penance for our sins and took shelter the other night under an Oaktree when we were exposed to heavy rain.” (n. 7549). However, they did not let the people to go without the spiritual comfort of the sacraments and the Eucharist. They then returned to the woods where they “could hear the cries of the wolves.” He also knew how to make a play on words as he traced the progress of the epidemic in various places:

In Valgrana the grana (seed) of the plague began to bud forth. In Monte it blossomed. In Dronero the dragon spread the poison of infection. In Busca death had buscato (smacked) almost everything. In Casaletti it threw everything onto the ground. In Bernezzo 1050 died. Death spread its mantle over Cunio with infection moving from house to house so that no one knows what to do or where to hide. The doctors and surgeon have died. You can no longer find a baker or miller who can provide bread. We do not know how we will survive, nor where to turn to go on living, because from every point death could swallow us up. In short, everything is getting worse, and, humanly speaking, we do not know what can put an end to the great slaughter. (ibid.)

On 5th November he completed the picture: “We have moved four times … and after being isolated in the forest in a poor cabin, we were forced to move into a field and live in a stable that served as our cell and kitchen and we were forced to live like a Carbonaro (coal merchant).” (n. 7551). There were also economic troubles, since the missionaries lived off stipends from the Papal Treasury. However, in three months they had received only 417 florins to be shared out “over three missions,” namely, Dronero, Acceglio and Carglio. The humble missionary wanted to make the Apostolic Nuncio understand the he had to provide “the ship” with more help. (n. 7552). Even this money would not have saved a life that was being spent to serve people who had been abandoned.

On 28th November Father Ippolito da Torino sent word from Parsana, another missionary town, saying: “I thought it better to put my life at risk than to abandon a mission that was needed so badly and not allow people to die without confession while I was healthy”. (n. 7554)

After they had withdrawn to Brozzasco, the missionaries from Casteldelfino reported that “people are dying from despair all over Casteldelfino … It is at least six months since we had the slightest relief from the Nuncio.” (n. 7556).

Father Pietro da Pianezza, who was a missionary at Pancalieri, had to endure much psychologically because of being misunderstood since he was “sombre and reserved” whereas the people expected him to be more dynamic. He offered to serve those who were stricken by the plague but the local authorities provided him with nothing. The author of the manuscript says: “He took pity on the women … and allowed them to withdraw into the church and the rooms that he had and these became so overcrowded that he had hardly enough space for his bed, and thus with the stench, fear and the advance of the infection they began to die.” (n. 7469). He had to retire to Vignone filled with “melancholy,” as Father Anton M da Rivalta put it on 2nd October. He wanted to go back to serve on the mission but his companion did not want to go with him, nor did the authorities in Pancalieri want him back. (cf. nn. 7461-62). In the meantime, they asked the Provincial for help because “it has been four months or more that we have had neither Masses nor Confessions and we do not expect to have any spiritual assistance apart from that which is offered by your Order” (n. 7466).

We should say that the suffering that the missionaries went through, which is only hinted at here, was increased because by the solitude, the difficulty of the circumstances, the lack of economic support and the lack of gratitude and understanding.

– Problems with the observance of the Rule during the plague

One of the most delicate and difficult problems for Paolo d’Asti during the time of the plague was the observance of poverty. How was the Franciscan Rule which prohibited the use of coinage and having recourse to money to be observed? In such extreme circumstances, where the demands of daily needs prevailed, no one was prepared to make donations. Because of this the author of the manuscript noted that “in some places the friars had become so desperate that it was legitimate to have recourse to money in order to survive. However, it was also true that when the emergency ended the Father Provincial immediately returned the Province in pristinum (to what it was before) and to the original way of observing poverty.” (n. 7473).

Many people had left Mass stipends to the friars. These were so abundant that in many places the money had been used to complete the construction of friaries which was work that had been delayed because of the epidemic. The Province was young and expanding. Thus, at Corgne “such an abundant of stipends remained that all the projects were able to be finished.” (n. 7480), The Guardian at Vigone was forced to “have recourse to money in order to show charity to the infected friars.” (n.7468).

The cost of living was high and the superiors had to carry out their duties with great foresight: “As I have already written, the cost of living works out to be very costly: the cost of an egg is between 28 farthings and a florin, butter is five florins, meat is in short supply and enduring all this is a real pain in the neck.” (n. 7471).

The Guardian of Vigone was confused about the use of monetary alms if “used to buy olive oil, because it cost seventy-two florins … oil from nuts is clearly harmful to the friars, butter is easily available when purchased with money.” (n. 7460).

On 9th October 1630, the Guardian of Rivoli described the financial situation like this: “We are doing our best with regard to the cost of living, and although there are pecuniary alms, except for the cost of butter to make minestra, we have spent about a quarter of a florin. Thank God we were able to do this. However, I found that I was short of corn, with only two bags left. There is little hope of getting more from the fields because there is none there. With regard to wine, when the soldiers that are here go away, I hope to obtain some. For the rest we will have to be unusually careful.” (n. 7519). The superior of the friary at Ivrea also asked to be able “to use money” since the city “was very poor” and there was no bread (cf. n. 7524). However, there were others, such as the zealous Francesco da Sommariva who was at Torino who were more persistent and who did not want to buy things and who complained about the use of money: “We are staying in the residence of the Carelli, and we lack nothing in the way of provisions and up to now we have accepted this willingly. … We have found that this is better, unlike those who buy things.” (n. 7439).

At Moncalieri, Giovanni da Rivalta was happy that he had been able to solve various economic problems “without having recourse to money.” (n. 7504).

When he was first Definitor, Father Michelangelo da Torino was very open and liberal with regard to pecuniary transactions. One of his “observations” sounds like a perfect excusatio non petita (unsolicited excuse) for having accepted bequests in the Province. He wrote “When the Province has been set up for only a few years the plague struck in 1619 and many buildings had to be refurbished, others enlarged and others newly constructed and it became necessary to accept many bequests that would not have been accepted were it not because of the circumstances. Because of the love our benefactors had for us and the kindness of many devout people we received many bequests and because of this we were able to provide for the needs of the Province. Thus, the Father Guardian of Monte prudently advised the Guardian of Moncalieri not to refuse the bequests that were being offered but to accept them in the usual way” (n. 7510).

As soon as he was able to recommence visiting the friaries near the end of the plague, Paolo M. d’Asti, took up the problem of the observance of poverty during the Definitory meeting in May of 1631 and established precise rules based “on experiences of things that had never happened before” (n. 7601) as reported by Father Dalmazio da Quargnento in these words:

Because at the time the friars could not go out to quest for bread and wine, they accepted the provisions that a number of individual benefactors gave them. When the plague had eased off a little and peace had been declared they started to go out immediately and wherever they found what was left of the flour and the wine or anything else they took it although it was very little.

When the Fathers came together at Moncaglieri to deal with the confused situate that already existed or was still to come they laid down the following regulations:

1: No Guardian or Vicar could send anyone beyond the questing area of the friary, even under the pretext of going to the Minister Provincial, without the personal permission of the Provincial or Custos of the Custody, under pain of having to take the discipline in the refectory at the time of chapter, and, in the case of a subject who went without having permission, being obliged to wear the caparone for thirteen days.

2: If a secular gives any individual friar money to spend, the friar is not to spend it just as he likes, but let the superior assess the needs of the friar and help him either with that money or by means of other alms, under pain of him becoming a proprietor or owner.

3: If the gift is money for the benefit of the friary, nobody may accept it without the permission of the Superior of the house, who is to accept it in accordance with the need according to his conscience. Whoever accepts it without permission is to be punished as being a proprietor and take the money and place it in the hands of some benefactor and not keep it in the friary.

4: So that it will not be all that easy for a friar to possess and handle money, to keep it in his cell and to take it from place to place, in addition to all that has been said, we command that the friars abstain from doing this under virtue of obedience and under the pain of wearing the caparone for a month if they are subjects, or if they are superiors for a year. If the friar was under a moral obligation to touch, keep or transport money as mentioned above, and if the friar had the approval of the Father Provincial or the Definitory, he shall be free from all error.

5: If because of the disastrous events of the war or of the plague a friar had been placed in charge of some money or jewellery or something else, if the friar is a subject, he is not to receive it without the permission of the Superior. Later on, he is to return it to the Superior.

6: Where because of the plague it was impossible to live from begging, the friars can spend money for what they need to survive. Let them remember our state of poverty, that in conscience we are not allowed to buy more than a pittance in the morning and at night, that such pittance does not include expensive or delicate food, but covers what is more in conformity with out state and what is sufficient for our needs. Therefore, no Superior is to go against his conscience in this regard.

7: With regard to when the need arises to hear the Confessions of those who are infected or are suffering from the plague, let it be remembered that this cannot be done without permission from Rome, which cannot be obtained so far. What remains is just the faculty given to us by the supreme holy doctors. It only extends to cases where the person is in danger of losing his life, and there are no other priests who are able and willingly to perform this work of charity. Therefore, in such cases friars who have been sent by the Superior may hear Confessions. However, Superiors should not do this except when it is the case the Sacrament cannot be delayed.

8: However, while the Superiors of the houses have been commanded not to go out to help seculars, when subjects are available to perform this ministry, they are obliged to act out of love for the Lord in doing charity, but should also take care of the needs of their religious family.

9: Where (God forbid) the Plague had come into the friary, we command that the Superior is not to flee or be absent from the friary in accord with the teaching of the holy Council of Trent and the sacred doctors unless, for some valid reason, he has the written (in scriptis) permission of his Father Provincial or Custos and he provides a suitable person to take his place.

10: We command that if any friar falls ill with a contagious sickness, he is not to be sent to the huts at the secular hospital for those stricken by the plague instead of being kept in an open place in the friary.

11: We command that where infection has ceased and the friars can go questing, they are to live by begging and in no other way.[134]

– Magnificence of Franciscan- Capuchin spirituality

Even in the short amount of documentation that we have used, one can sense the same delicate tones of spirituality in the service that the Capuchins offered to those stricken by the plague in Piemonte. It was the same as that offered by the friars in Lombardy, Sicily and Venice.

The volunteers who offered themselves to the Provincial to do this work expressed their zeal and desired to die for their brothers though always acting “out of obedience.” This was what made this sacrifice authentic, meritorious and valuable. The spontaneous expressions that can be picked out, like flowers from a flowerbed, are indicative of a common spiritual frame of mind and resolve:

“Reverend Father and my sponsor. (to put it this way), I want to die, and to die to give honour to God, and for love of holy obedience.” (n. 7465). “As I go to serve those stricken by the plague, I am going to put holy obedience into action.” (n. 7440). “There is always the danger of dying, and so I put my trust nonetheless in the merit of holy obedience that chose me for this work, that my Divine Majesty will grant me the grace to carry it out in accordance with his divine will.” (n. 7451). “For me … this would be a very special favour and an indescribable consolation to serve God through genuine obedience.” (n. 7464). (Two friars) “to experience greater consolation both wanted to receive a couple of lines from your Reverence to grant and to confirm the merit of obedience for us.” (n. 7458). “By the grace of the Good Jesus, by the merit of holy obedience I am still on my feet.” (n. 7486). “I shall not only go where the plague is … but also to death itself, which are not frightening because of holy obedience which I believe can save me more than anything.” (n. 7487).

While he was waiting for word from the Bishop concerning the administration of the Sacrament to those afflicted by the plague, Father Matteo da Liegi thought about obedience and the blessing of the superior: “I have already presented myself to Father Superior for his blessing, although I am not worthy of such a gift, and I hope to perform this charitable work and for this reason I ask, going down on the ground on my knees, for his blessing and the merit of holy obedience, which I shall receive from the Guardian. When you hear the news that I have passed onto the next life, pray for me.” (n. 7565).

The brother expanded his heart with the spirit of obedience motivated by charity abandoning himself entirely to the will of God as if he were about to die. This spiritual way of seeing things are also expressed in many beautiful phrases in the letters:

“Still, let God do the work, I have given everything over to his will from the beginning.” (n. 7503). “In God’s name, I hope to die engaged in this work and from my heart I wish to do what is pleasing to God, whether I am healthy or sick.” (n. 7491). “May our Lord be blessed and thanked a thousand times who, of goodness and mercy has deigned to visit our friary and family and everything by means of the grace of the Lord. May I place myself entirely in his hands, and be resigned to do what pleases him, and not cry every time that I think about it.” (n. 7528).

Feeling upset about the fact that omnes fugerant (all are running away), and that even the Archpriest of Carrú was afraid to hear Confessions, Father Cherubino a Pinerolo said that he experienced the call of charity: Charitas urget me (charity constrains me) to go down on my knees and beg Your Lordship to give me your fatherly blessing to risk my life for the love of God and the welfare of souls.” (n. 7562).

This act of service was a gift, a special grace, something like a new calling and religious profession. This thought comes up again and again: “I come to beg you Very Reverend Father to grant me the favour that when you send a friar here or there to serve those stricken by the plague that you assign me to be his companion and oblige me to stay there perpetually.” (n. 7563).

Father Enrico della Valle felt unworthy: “Unde hoc mihi (as for me) may God by means of my superiors grant me the great favour and honour that is beyond anything in this world that I could wish for … I hope that God will give me the necessary help, and accept my life as a sacrifice” (n. 7532, 7541).

Egidio d’Ivrea ask to be allowed to help those stricken by the plague and was not concerned whether they were friars or people from the town, “because I am offering my life for the love of God and for my neighbour”, and just as “you did me the favour of receiving me into the Order and received my Profession, it will just as big a favour if you commit me to being of service” (n. 7445).

Nicolὸ da Ponte wrote it down more clearly and with greater mystical fervour: “I go with such happiness of soul in the Lord as a person who has found what his soul desired, and I hope in the Lord to carry it out faithfully … and that I will never stop thanking you for this special gift that I regard as being greater than the gift I received when you accepted me into the Order.” (n. 7481).

Francesco da Moncalieri abandoned himself to the Crucifix: “I no longer know to what I ought to be committed except that that, for the love of God, I should give my life to the Creator, seeking his blessing” (n. 7550).

As well as asking for forgiveness and a blessing, many friars gave the superior all their personal belongings, dispossessing themselves of everything. For example, Father Michelangelo Sanmartino da Torino said: “The friars were very prepared and in anticipation freed themselves of everything.” (n. 7597). It was a gesture of being detached from everything and of never owning anything in future.[135]

The same author wrote a letter to the Provincial in which he said that he had little hope of surviving and, as he was at the point of death, he added: “I come to you to humbly ask for your blessing, placing all that I have in this world into your hands, after leaving in the house everything that had been given to me for me to use, because I want to die as a genuine friar with just the habit and the cord, and I ask you to grant me this in charity as you know that I am unworthy of such a favour, and asking for your forgiveness, … (n. 7444). Certainly, his clearly shows a wish to imitate the dying Francis whose spirituality of mercy towards lepers is being repeated in what Brother Alessandro da Prié said in an outburst of charity when he wrote: “I shall go to serve the poor people who have been stricken by the plague and I can honestly say that what seemed to me to be bitter has been changed into sweetness of soul and body. May God be glorified in everything, who has allowed such a miserable subject to serve him” (n. 7579).

Commitment to the Provincial and to the will of God, sharing in the physical and spiritual sufferings of the poor people who were stricken by the plague and the splendour of the holocaust of charity inspired Father Michele da Vercelli to write a brilliant reflection on 7th October 1630. We might consider it to be a summary of all these experiences as well as of the spirituality of the service that was offered to those suffering from the plague and of the pastoral approach to suffering:

This year I have witnessed great things, war, famine, plague … However, out of these three things a fourth emerged which amazed me and that was the spirit that accompanied the events and became flesh and the flesh that reached out in spirit to help one’s neighbour at the risk of falling sick. May God be praised” (n. 7471).

  1. Ct. Const. 1536, n. 6 (n. 156).
  2. Cf. Test. 1-2 (Francis and Clare, The Complete Works (FCCW) p. 54. “The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way. While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them.”
  3. Cf. C. Urbanelli, Storia I/1, 222s and note 35.
  4. Cf. Camilo Lihi, Dell’historia di Camerino II, Macerata 1652, 301s.
  5. Cf., MHOC I, 181s.
  6. Cf., MHOCII, 102. – Because he had done this and many other things for two nobles who belonged to the Court at Camerino, he won the respect and generosity of Caterina Cybo. (ibid., 102a).
  7. Cf., MHOC I, 191s. Bernardino da Colpetrazzo, Mattia da Salὸ and Paolo da Foligno say the same thing. Cf., ibid. II: 101, V: 79s, VII: 9 and above nn. 2903-2904.
  8. MHOC II: 222; Cf., n. 2904.
  9. Cf., G, Albini, Guerra, fame, peste, (Studi e testi di Storia medievale, 3), Bologna 1982; Johannes Nohl, The Black Death, A Chronicle of the Plague compiled from contemporary Sources, Trad. Dated., London 1971.
  10. MHOC , 223; see also n. 2905.
  11. Ibid., 225; nn. 2906-2907.
  12. Cf., Melchior a Pobladura, Historia generalis I, 27s..
  13. Cf., Storia dei Papi IV/2s, Roma 1956, 597.
  14. Cf. MHOC IV, 122s. The story is the same in the chronicle by Ruffino da Siena, in IF 3 (1928) 306. – See alo C. Cargnoni, Alcuni aspetti del succsso della riforma cappuccino nei primi cinquant’anni (1523-1574), in Le origini della riforma cappuccino. Atti del convegno di studi storici (Camerino 18-22 sett. 1978), Ancona 1979, 239s.
  15. Cf. Alb. 56 (n. 137).
  16. Const. 1536, n. 89 (n. 280). – Colpetrazzo mentions a practical example of this rule in the biography of Fr. Bonaventura da Cremona (+ 1571): “As he once told me, he once found himself in a city where there was a great outbreak of the plague, and because this was a long time ago, I do not remember where it happened. But I do remember clearly that he told me this in our friary in Furli, that, with the permission of the superiors, he went to where the plague was and did a lot of good and brought great fruit to souls by administering the most holy Sacraments, and that he helped many who had been abandoned and buried many who died who were too poor to have afforded burial. He always wanted to die for Christ.” (MHOC III, 241).
  17. Const. 1536, n. 85 (n. 272).
  18. Cf., Conferenza di p. Ilario da Milano durante la liturgia penitentziale ed eucaristica nel 450° anniversarrio della bolla Pontificia “Religionis zelus”in Atti dei Frati Minori cappuccino della Provincia di S. Carlo in Lombardia 15/n. (9 genn, giugno 1978) 907, the entire paper 891-908.
  19. Const. 1536, n. 85, (n. 272). English translation by Paul Hanbridge OFM Cap.
  20. For example, this has been done by J. N. Biraben in a few of the pages in his volume, Les homes et la peste en France et dans les pays européens et méditerranées, 2 voll., Paris-La Have 1976, I, 456; II, 416.
  21. In 1894 Alexandro Yersim discovered the plague bacteria and demonstrated that the human illness was like that of mice. In 1889 P. L. Simond the role of fleas in transmitting the sickness, Cf, H. Mollaert, Presetatazione della peste, in Venezia e la peste, 1348-1797, Veneaia 1980, 17.
  22. The sporadic nature of the plague was also noted by Paolo Belllintani da Salὸ in his Dialogo della peste. 18: “This kind of disaster comes every now and then so that nobody can be prepared because it comes to our lands (so to speak) every fifty or sixty or more years so that a person is no longer alive when it comes back, or if he I alive he does not remember how it was,” (ed. I. Aliverti, in IF 3 [1938] 229).
  23. This copy which was used by Father Ildefonso Aliverti for the edition that he published in IF, has been updated by Validemiro Bonari who wrote: “The original, or at least a copy, of the Dialogo sulla peste , by Father Paolo is held by Signor Fossati, doctor Claudio, the Mayor of Toscolano. It consists of 56 pages written in large, clear writing. There are many copies of this, one of which we have with us.” Cf I conventi ed I cappuccino bresciani. Memorie storiche, Milano 1891, 140.
  24. Cf., L. Besozzi, Le magistrature cittadine milanesi e la peste del 1576-1577, Bologna 1988. P. Borghi, Antidoti contro la peste a Milano, Milano 1990. The article by Elena Pentiggia (see below, note 77) is guilty of the same omission.
  25. He said as much in the Dialogo cap. 18L IF 3 (1928) 229.
  26. Cf, G. Bogati, I fatti di Milano al contrasto della peste, over pestifero contagio. Dal primo d’agosto 1576 fin a l’ultimo dell’anno 1577. Particolarmente cavati dall’aggiunta dell’Historia del reverend P. Bugato Milanese,strinataments posti, Milano 1578. A Centorio, I cinque libri degl’avvertimnti, ordini, gride et editti fatti et osservati in Milano ne’ tempi sospettosi di pests degli anni MDLXXVI, et MDLXXVII, Venezia 1579, 2ᵃ ed. Milano 1631. G. F. Besta, Vera narration del successo della peste,Milano 1578.
  27. Dialogo della peste cap. 18, ed. I. Aliverti, in IF 3 (1928) 230.
  28. When explaining “how difficult it is to understand this misfortune” in chapter 18 of the Dialogo, Bellintani lends support to this assumption by saying that “as God wanted to punish his people with this scourge, he permitted that they would not know what to do to stop the scourge going ahead, and when they came to know they would return to his Divine Majesty.” (IF 3 [1928] 229). Furthermore, he was convinced that it was “a scourge from God” because of the fact that there had been no effective medicine to prevent catching the plague. “Only God can save anyone from catching it, and if there are some who have not caught it this was because of the special grace of God’s providence. … We have seen in our time that the great man, Andres Mattiolo, who was a great doctor and specialist, did not know how to find a remedy for this illness in the city of Trent where he lives. If anyone tells me that there are plenty of remedies [that will cure it] I shall reply that even the carpenters and ironmongers in Milan would not have the remedies. I have seen that those who took nothing and were cured, and those who took everything and died. Let simple people say what they will but I will not believe it. The plague has been about from ancient times, not to say since the beginning of the world, and there have always been outstanding people and in spite of all that no remedy was ever found to assist those who came after them. The reason is (as I have said before) that this is a scourge from God who wants us to find no other remedy except in prayer, fasting and giving alms.” (Dialogo cap. 47: IF5 [1930] 92.
  29. Cf. C. Borromeo, Menoriale au Milanesi, in Acta Eccl. Mediolanensis, ed. A cura di A. Ratti, III, 710. This opinion, which the Saint repeated and emphasised many times during the final years of his life, is also contained in a letter written by Crescenzago on 9/7/1577 to the Bishop of Brescia, in which he says: “It is true that I, as well as many others, have been sent things that will prevent or cure the plague. Almost all of these have proved to be useless and of no benefit or to be specious. Even those that were sent by the Grand Duke of Tuscany were not a success. Therefore, it has become more evident and easier to understand that God is holding this scourge and its cure in his hands as it says in Sacred Scripture and that this evil thing has been sent by God to correct our sins by calling us to do penance. Thus, the real antidotes and remedies for this are for us and the people to genuinely change society from what it is today when it is full of vane abuses and evil conduct and emphasise warm, persevering prayer, as well as other works and exercises of Christian mercy, while not putting aside human remedies that are not in opposition to what is spiritual”. Cf. P. Guerrini, La peste di Breacia e Paolo Bellintani in un carteggio inedito di S, Carlo Borromeo, in IF13 (1938) 425. This way of thinking is identical to that of Paolo de Salὸ in his Dialogo (cf. note 28).
  30. See especially P. Borghi, Antidoti contro la peste a Milano cit. 58-65.
  31. Cf. A. La Cava, La peste di san Carlo. Note storicomediche sulla peste del 1576, Milano, 1945, 169-171.
  32. Cf. Acta ecclesiae Mediolanensis, a cura di A. Ratti, II, parte II, 555s. for the Fifth Provincial Council, vol. III, 581-604, in various editions.
  33. Ibid.581s
  34. Ibid. 582.
  35. Ibid. 584.
  36. Ibid. 585s, 604
  37. Ibid. 604.
  38. Cf. Literae de pietate devotionusque exercitationibus tempore quarantenae, in Acta Eccl. Mediolanensis III.
  39. Cf. C. Bascapé, De vita et rebus gestis Caroli card. S. Praxedis, ed. A cura della Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo, Milano 1965, 339 (lib. IV, cap. IV).
  40. Here he includes an interesting personal episode. CF. n 7239.
  41. Cf. Jacqueline Brossollet-Andreina Zitelli, La disinfezione delle lettere, in Venezia e la peste cit., 155.
  42. For the details of this story see further ahead in this introduction. – The president of the hospital for those stricken by the plague in Brescia, Antonio Cavallo was praised by Bellintani for being a “very capable man and for being kind to the poor, especially in the way that he cared for those who were undernourished.” (n. 7237) This is the same person mentioned by Bishop Bollani in a letter to St Charles that is dated 13/9/ 1577. However, in this letter where he is given the name Canali, which might be more correct. “… vengono … ogni altro giorno a raggionar meco di ogni bene e di ogni bisogno il Presidente del luogo, di Casa di Canali, che è un’anima santa, insieme col padre, onde ne resto molto consolato,” Cf. P. Guerrini, La peste di Brescia e Paolo Bellintani cit. IF 14 (1939) 19.
  43. See what Bellintani wrote to Cesare Speciano on 28th August 1577: cf. vol. II, 1059-61, nn. 2606-2607.
  44. See also below, in chapter 48 of the Dialogo, where Bellintani includes the practice of chastity among his recommendations for avoiding the plague. “Above all the practice of chastity, since there is nothing more pest-ridden than having dealings with a woman. It seems that this vice brings this evil thing with it and transmits it. I could add many examples. (ed. Alivrti, in IF 5 [1930] 91).
  45. Cf. doc. 2, nn. 7266-67.
  46. When dealing with this J. Delumeati says: “those who were potentially guilty [of spreading the plague], who might have made it aggressive, were, first of all, foreigners, those travelling, those living on the margins of society and all those who were not part of a community either because they were not believers – such as the Jews, – or those whom it had been necessary to place outside the community – such as lepers, – or those who simply came from another district since foreigners were suspect to a certain degree.” (La peste in occidente cit., 199). Paolo da Salὸ also reflects this mentality concerning the social practices of the day which gave rise to a certain anxiety concerning outsiders and those from far away.
  47. Bellintani treats this subject in chapters 35-38 as well as in the final chapter where he gives more details concerning how the clothes and the cutlery, the furniture, were disinfected. Cf. Dialogo della peste (ed. I. Aliverti, in IF 4 (1029) 185, 363-365: 5 (1930) 275-78.
  48. Ibid., 39. IF 4 (1920) 366.
  49. Ibid., cap. 21. IF 3 (1928) 402.
  50. Ibid., chapters 21-24. IF5 (1928) 401-404.
  51. Ibid., cap. 25; IF 3 (1928) 404s.
  52. Cf. cap. 34 in the Dialogo: IF 4 (1929) 183-85.
  53. Ibid., chapters 26-27; IF 4 (1929) 72s.
  54. He says this in chapter 28 of the Dialogo.
  55. He speaks about this in chapter 31 of the Dialogo. “In Milan this was the method that was adopted. Though remaining outside they went up close to the hospital. I appointed someone inside to go from room to room and visit all those who were sick and report: Margaret del Toni has had a temperature for many days. She is suffering from discharges every day. She has had a headache for two days and so on. The doctor would then consult the specialist who would write the prescriptions writing down the first name and family name of the person and the number of the room. To assist with this, I had the same number written on every window that was written on every door. This number was then put on the medicines and syrups so that they would not be taken outside by mistake, by those who went to get them from the specialists who were at the window. This meant that matters pertaining to the body would go well and those who were sick would be faithfully attended to in an easy manner.” (ed. I. Aliverti IF 4 (19290 180).
  56. Cf. Dialogo della peste, cap. 46 and 48. IF 5 (1930) 89-91 and 273.
  57. Cf C. Casati, Il Lazzaretto di Milano, Milano 1880, 135, doc. XIII.
  58. Cf. C. Marcora, Il diario di Gianbattista Casale (I 1554-1698), in Memorie Storiale della Diocese di Milano, XII, Milano 1965, 290s, 297s.
  59. Cf. Leonida Besozzi, Le magistrature cittadine milanesi e la peste del 1576-1577, [bo;ogna] 1988, 45.
  60. Cf. A. Centorio. I cinque libri degl;avvertimenti, ordini, gide et editi …, II, Venezia 1579, 133.
  61. Salvatore da Rivolta gives a good summary of the warnings issued by Bellintani cf n. 7265.
  62. Cf. vol. II, 103, n. 2598.
  63. For the number of Capuchins who served those stricken by the plague and those who died cf. Motodio da Nembro, La peste di S. Carlo in Lombardia cit. IF 40 (1965) 70s.
  64. Cf. Dialogo della peste, cap. 16: IF3 (1928) 227.
  65. Ibid. 228, cap. 17.
  66. “As I have seen done in many places” is what he wrote in the Diologo. With regard to the situation in Brescia, in a letter to C. Speciano that was written on 28th August 1577, he said that “with regard to the burial of the dead, they are being placed in a grave in a place that has not been consecrated and without any Christian ceremonies”.
  67. Dialogo, cap. 17: IF 3 (1928) 228.
  68. Ibid., cap. 21: IF3 (1928) 402; cap. 37 IF 4 (1929) 364.
  69. Ibid., cap. 24: IF 3 (1928) 404s.
  70. Ibid., cap. 42: IF4 (1929) 368.
  71. Ibid., cap. 28: IF 4 (1929) 74.
  72. Ibid.
  73. Ibid., cap. 38: IF4 (1929) 365.
  74. Ibid., 367s
  75. Cf. n. 7255, note 43.
  76. Ibid., cap. 29: IF 4 (1929) 79.
  77. Regarding the plague in Brescia cf. P. Guerrini, La peste a Brescia e Paolo Bellintani in un carteggio inedito di S. Carlo Borrpmeo. In IF13 (1938) 365-74, 424-36; 14 (1939) 14-26, 306-309); Metodio da Nembro, La peste di S, Carlo in Lombardia cit., Iiid.40 (1965) 61-68; Elena Pontiggia, San Carlo Borromeo e fra Paoo Bellintani (Lettere inedite), in Brisia Sacra 11 (1976) 47s.
  78. A letter sent from Milan on 7th August 1577. Cf. P. Guerini, La peste di Brescia e Paolo Bellintani cit. IF 13 (1938) 426; n. 11.
  79. Cf. P. Guerrini, La peste di Brecia cit., 428.
  80. The text of this “Letter of Congratulations” was published by V. Bonari, I conventi ed I cappuccino bresciani. Memorie storiche,Milano 1891, 541.
  81. Dialogo della peste, cap. 34: IF. 4 (1929) 183.
  82. Letter to St Charles. Cobbiasto 28/8/1577. Cf. P. Guerini, La pesta di Bresciacit., 429. 431.
  83. Ibid., 16.
  84. This letter criticising Bellintani carries the date of the last day in August 1577: ibid., 18s.
  85. Ibid., 22.
  86. The letter is dated January 1578. Cf. F. Pontigga, San Carlo Borromeo e fra Paolo Bellintani cit., 53.
  87. MHOC vi, 344.
  88. I. Delumeau, La paura in Occidente (secoli XIV-XVIII). La città assediata, tr. Dal francese, Torino, 1979, 194s
  89. See volume IV of this collection of documents which is entitled Espansione e inculturazione, and which deals with the establishment of the Capuchin Friars in different European countries.
  90. Cf. Mariano D’Alatri, Reformationis capuccinae implantation per Italiam saeculo XVI, in Reformationis capuccinae recurrente anno 450 fasciculis memorialis. Numero speciale di AO 94 (1978) 325-335.
  91. Cf. L. Besozzi, Le magistrature cittadine milanesi cit., 42-44.
  92. This is a file of 11 pages 21×15 cm., with the title Breve raguaglio della peste, che si scoperse nella città di Palermo nell’anno 1624. Descritta di un religioso, che vi si trovὸ presente. In Modona, per Giulian Cassiani, 1630. The content repeats much of what is in the Dialogo della peste by Paolo da Salὸ, because of which we think that the author is a Capuchin friar. Note, for example, the topics treated in eight short chapters: Origine di detta pesta (I); Quello che fece la città di Palermo per ovviare al male della peste (II), Acresecimento del male (III); Altre cose fatte per aiuto dell’anime nella città in questo tempo (IV); De’ contrasegni della peste (V); Rimedii per prevenire la peste (VI); Remedii per estinuere la pesta (VII); Remedii per il tempo della Peste (VIII). 1. [Modo di vivere commune]. 2. Modo di curare curare gli appestati. 3. Modo di servire glu appestati, 4. Del modo di purificare le robbe o case appestate.
  93. Ibid., 4
  94. Ibid., 4s.
  95. Cf. AO I I1885) 349b
  96. Cf. Breve raguaglio cit., 9.
  97. Cf. Notizia di quei cappuccino che servirono agli appestati nel 1624 a Palermo in AO I (1885) 350s.
  98. Ibid., 368.
  99. Ibid., 369.
  100. Ibid., 404.
  101. Ibid., 405.
  102. Ibid., 405s
  103. Ibid., 367.
  104. Cf. Modena, Arch. Di Stato, Sanità b. 9.
  105. For all these events, and especially for what happened during the plague in Modena in 1630 see the well-documented, detailed, unpublished study by Odoardt Rambaldi, Il retroterra amministrativo: le fuzioni della Comunità, in Il buon usa della paura. Per una introduzione allo studio del tratto muratoriano “Dei governo della peste. Firenze 1990, 21-54.
  106. Cf. Alfredo Bosisio, Storia di Milano, Milano [1958] 306s.
  107. Cf. P. Preto, Le grandi peti dell’età moderna cit., in Venezia e la peste, Venrzia 1980, 124s.
  108. For the development of the plague see A, A, Frari, Della peste e della pubblica amministrazione sanitaria: II Storia general della peste, Venezia 1840, 143-134. See also Pestis, in Lexicon cap., 1338-1443.
  109. Cf. Ubaldo da Montegiberto [Giuseppe Santarelli], Un manoscritto inedita su Felice Casati al Lazarretto conosciuto e forse annotato dal Manzoni, in IF, 43 (1966) 361-382; id., I cappuccino nel romanzo manzoniano, Milano 1970; id., Il P. Cristofono manzoniano nella critica, Milano 1971; Documenti cappuccino di interesse manzoniano, a cura di …, Ancona 1973.
  110. Ottaviano da Alatri published it under the title of “Processo autentico:. Cf. G. Santarelli, Documenti cappuccino cit., 25.
  111. Cf. the instructions of the Generalate in n. 7287 note 3.
  112. Th questionnaire may have contained what we can read in Avvertimenti o istruttione per la racolta della materia delle Croniche cappuccine, the text of which is contained in vol. I, 1862-1879, doc. 18, nn. 3702-3741. Where that document treats of the plague three things are proposed: “administration of the Sacraments to the people, the running of the hospital, care of those stricken by the plague,” (n. 3739).
  113. Cf. Francesco Di Ciaccia, La parola e il silenzio. Peste, carestia ed eros nel romanzo manzoniano, Pisa [1987], 58-74. The entire work is very interesting for its philosophical and spiritual analysis.
  114. Cf. G. Ficara, Le parole e la peste di Manzoni, in Lettere Italiane I (1981) 20-26, cit. by F. Di Ciaccia, La parola e il silenzio 60s.
  115. Cf. Ordini di Capitoli generali confirmati e riformati con altri di nuovo aggiunti nel presente capitolo generale celebrato in Roma l’anno 1633, n. 40. Cf. AO 6 (1890) 144. We presume that this refers to the ordinances of Montecuccoli and perhaps also to the way it was written, which is not to say that it is not an inquiry, but, as it says in the text, that it is “giving a trustworthy account in what follows.”
  116. With regard to the infection that was propagated by the Imperial forces when they came to Italy by way of Valtellina and Milan, there were already many cases in Mantua dating from November 1629. The city necrology tells us that “it was a fever that caused death “malignant fever”, but that this was underrated by the doctors and concealed for political reasons. A contemporary chronical says: “At the end of the month of March in 1630 sick people were discovered who were suffering from symptoms without looking for a cure with some dying within four days. The illness was kept secret for some time, but as it increased news spread everywhere. Therefore, the whole of Italy cut off Mantua and its surroundings.” Cf. Due corniche di Mantova dal 1628 al 1633 …, in Cronisti II, ed. Mṻller, Milano 1857, 537s.
  117. See also what Father Beltrame has to say at the end of his report in n. 7359.
  118. The Capuchin friars made wide use of such devotions. They distributed Agnus Dei cards and small crosses. We know that san Felice da Cantalice and san Stefano da Monte Granaro did this. We read in their chronicles how they mention the graces that were obtained by the “legno di san Francesco” (the wood of St Francis), and the rosary of Francesco Pizzetta da Venezia, Relatione dale vite esemplari, f. 128r ( APC di Venezia-Mestre): Come si risanὸ un puttino colla polvere del legno del padre san Francesco; or in the Milan chronical by Rasari which is full of information about these favours. (cf. ed. Metodio da Nembro, Milano 1973, 17-23, 220s, 227, 282, 382, 403, 415s, 429, 438s, 459s 474-479, 321 etc.)
  119. Cf. AOI (1885) 405a
  120. Cf. Melchior a Pobladora, Historia generalis O.F.M.Cap. Pars prima (1525-1619), Romae 1947, 78s.
  121. Cf. Altante cappuccino. Opera inedita di Silvestro da Panicale. 1632. A cura di Servus Gieben, Roma 1990, 26 e tav. 3.
  122. Cf. Vita, costume et opera del rev. padre fra Paolo M. d’Asti … racolta … da me fra Dalmatio da Cargniento, p. 88. Ms. Nell’Arch. di Stato di Milano, Religione 6503/4.
  123. Cf. above in connection with note 40.
  124. With regard to these problems see below in note 133.
  125. With regard to the election cf. P. Molfino, Memorie autografe del P. Giovanni da Moncalieri, generale dei Cappuccini (1628-1655), in Rassegna Nazionale (estratto), Firenze 1909, 20.
  126. In fact, the places specified at the beginning number 34, with a further three being mentioned. In the collection of letters the places named are only 26. Some important places are missing such as Vercelli, Cuneo, Peré, Perosa, Pancalieri, Chivasso, Masserano Bra etc.
  127. These letters were catalogued according to place names but not always the name of where the event took place.
  128. Three letters were written by Mayors and Governors of Assisi (nn. 71 76, 77), one by Pancalieri (n. 13), two by the Bishops of Nizza (n 59) and Assisi (n. 75), one by the Vicar General of Turin (n. 9).
  129. The missing pages are 44-55,82-83 and 231-232. We note that there are mistakes in numbers here and there: instead of 110-119 there is 119-109; page 145 becomes 148; 149 becomes 150 and likewise numbers are skipped till page 130. From there it jumps to 233 (where a page is missing) and it finishes up with page 251.
  130. In all probability the mixing of these pages is due to a disagreement that broke out between lay brothers and clerical students with respect to precedence. Father Michelangelo spoke about this, as did a lector later on. We think that the process took place in Rome at the end of the last century when the General Archivist, Edoardo d’Alençon asked to have the codex from the archives at Monte di Torino to have the letter of praise by the Bishop of Nizza published in its original form in AO (cf. n.1558, nota 174) and a Definitor tore out the pages. We also note that a few phrases have been censured and cancelled with a pen.
  131. Cf. Arnaldo Pittavino, Ztoria di Pinerolo e del Pinerolese,Milano, 2 1964, 180-182.
  132. Cf. below n. 7480 and note 147.
  133. Regarding these missionaries cf. below in section II/6: Missions and missionaries, which contains many letters and reports sent by the missionaries (nn. 7620-7787).
  134. Cf. Vita costume et opera del rev. padre fra Paolo Maria d’Asti cit., pp. 88-91.
  135. There are numerous expressions of this kind of readiness, for example, “I am well and taking care to prepare myself for a happy death,” (n. 7482), “we are all living as if we were about to die,” (n. 7530), “we are all prepared to accept God’s will,” (n. 7590), “I go prepared even for passing over to the Lord, (n. 7596), “when you receive the news of my death I ask that you pray for my soul and ask all the friars in the Province to pray for me as well as the friars in Milan.” (n. 7581). When Father Guglielmo became aware of his imminent death, before he began to serve in the hospital at Turin, he made an examination of conscience, asked for pardon and prayers and saw that he was near God’s judgement, “because of this I had to render an account of all of my actions,” (7440) etc.