Caroline Stockford Reads “The Plague in Bergamo”

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior, Strandgade 30, 1906-8. Source:

Old Bergamo lay on the summit of a low mountain, hedged in by walls and gates, and New Bergamo lay at the foot of the mountain, exposed to all winds.

One day the plague broke out in the new town and spread at a terrific speed; a multitude of people died and the others fled across the plains to all four corners of the world. And the citizens in Old Bergamo set fire to the deserted town in order to purify the air, but it did no good. People began dying up there too, at first one a day, then five, then ten, then twenty, and when the plague had reached its height, a great many more.

And they could not flee as those had done, who lived in the new town.

There were some, who tried it, but they led the life of a hunted animal, hid in ditches and sewers, under hedges, and in the green fields; for the peasants, into whose homes in many places the first fugitives had brought the plague, stoned every stranger they came across, drove him from their lands, or struck him down like a mad dog without mercy or pity, in justifiable self-defense, as they believed.

The people of Old Bergamo had to stay where they were, and day by day it grew hotter; and day by day the gruesome disease became more voracious and more grasping. Terror grew to madness. What there had been of order and good government was as if the earth had swallowed it, and what was worst in human nature came in its stead.

At the very beginning when the plague broke out people worked together in harmony and concord. They took care that the corpses were duly and properly buried, and every day saw to it that big bonfires were lighted in squares and open places so that the healthful smoke might drift through the streets. Juniper and vinegar were distributed among the poor, and above all else, the people sought the churches early and late, alone and in processions. Every day they went with their prayers before God and every day when the sun was setting behind the mountains, all the churchbells called wailingly towards heaven from hundreds of swinging throats. Fasts were ordered and every day holy relics were set out on the altars.

At last one day when they did not know what else to do, from the balcony of the town hall, amid the sound of trumpets and horns, they proclaimed the Holy Virgin, podesta or lordmayor of the town now and forever.

But all this did not help; there was nothing that helped.

And when the people felt this and the belief grew stronger that heaven either would not or could not help, they not only let their hands lie idly in the lap, saying, “Let there come what may.” Nay, it seemed, as if sin had grown from a secret, stealthy disease into a wicked, open, raging plague, which hand in hand with the physical contagion sought to slay the soul as the other strove to destroy the body, so incredible were their deeds, so enormous their depravity! The air was filled with blasphemy and impiety, with the groans of the gluttons and the howling of drunkards. The wildest night hid not greater debauchery than was here committed in broad daylight.

“To-day we shall eat, for to-morrow we die!”—It was as if they had set these words to music, and played on manifold instruments a never-ending hellish concert. Yea, if all sins had not already been invented, they would have been invented here, for there was no road they would not have followed in their wickedness. The most unnatural vices flourished among them, and even such rare sins as necromancy, magic, and exorcism were familiar to them, for there were many who hoped to obtain from the powers of evil the protection which heaven had not vouchsafed them.

Whatever had to do with mutual assistance or pity had vanished from their minds; each one had thoughts only for himself. He who was sick was looked upon as a common foe, and if it happened that any one was unfortunate enough to fall down on the street, exhausted by the first fever-paroxysm of the plague, there was no door that opened to him, but with lance-pricks and the casting of stones they forced him to drag himself out of the way of those who were still healthy.

And day by day the plague increased, the summer’s sun blazed down upon the town, not a drop of rain fell, not the faintest breeze stirred. From corpses that lay rotting in the houses and from corpses that were only half-buried in the earth, there was engendered a suffocating stench which mingled with the stagnant air of the streets and attracted swarms and clouds of ravens and crows until the walls and roofs were black with them. And round about the wall encircling the town sat strange, large, outlandish birds from far away with beaks eager for spoil and expectantly crooked claws; and they sat there and looked down with their tranquil greedy eyes as if only waiting for the unfortunate town to turn into one huge carrion-pit.

It was just eleven weeks since the plague had broken out, when the watchman in the tower and other people who were standing in high places saw a strange procession wind from the plain into the streets of the new town between the smoke-blackened stone walls and the black ash-heaps of the wooden houses. A multitude of people! At least, six hundred or more, men and women, old and young, and they carried big black crosses between them and above their heads floated wide banners, red as fire and blood. They sing as they are moving onward and heartrending notes of despair rise up into the silent sultry air.

Brown, gray, and black are their clothes, but all wear a red badge on their breast. A cross it proves to be, as they draw nearer. For all the time they are drawing nearer. They press upward along the steep road, flanked by walls, which leads up to the old town. It is a throng of white faces; they carry scourges in their hands. On their red banners a rain of fire is pictured. And the black crosses sway from one side to the other in the crowd.

From the dense mass there rises a smell of sweat, of ashes, of the dust of the roadway, and of stale incense.

They no longer sing, neither do they speak, nothing is audible but the tramping, herd-like sound of their naked feet.

Face after face plunges into the darkness of the tower-gate, and emerges into the light on the other side with a dazed, tired expression and half-closed lids.

Then the singing begins again: a miserere; they grasp their scourges more firmly and walk with a brisker step as if to a war-song.

They look as if they came from a famished city, their cheeks are hollow, their bones stand out, their lips are bloodless, and they have dark rings beneath their eyes.

The people of Bergamo have flocked together and watch them with amazement—and uneasiness. Red dissipated faces stand contrasted with these pale white ones; dull glances exhausted by debauchery are lowered before these piercing, flaming eyes; mocking blasphemers stand open-mouthed before these hymns.

And there is blood on their scourges.

A feeling of strange uneasiness filled the people at the sight of these strangers.

But it did not take long, however, before they shook off this impression. Some of them recognized a half-crazy shoemaker from Brescia among those who bore crosses, and immediately the whole mob through him became a laughingstock. Anyhow, it was something new, a distraction amid the everyday, and when the strangers marched toward the cathedral, everybody followed behind as they would have followed a band of jugglers or a tame bear.

But as they pushed their way forward they became embittered; they felt so matter-of-fact in comparison with the solemnity of these people. They understood very well, that those shoemakers and tailors had come here to convert them, to pray for them, and to utter the words which they did not wish to hear. There were two lean, gray-haired philosophers who had elaborated impiety into a system; they incited the people, and out of the malice of their hearts stirred their passions, so that with each step as they neared the church the attitude of the crowd became more threatening and their cries of anger wilder. It would not have taken much to have made them lay violent hands on those unknown flagellants. Not a hundred steps from the church entrance, the door of a tavern was thrown open, and a whole flock of carousers tumbled out, one on top of the other. They placed themselves at the head of the procession and led the way, singing and bellowing with grotesquely solemn gestures—all except one who turned handsprings right up the grass-grown stones of the church-steps. This, of course, caused laughter, and so all entered peacefully into the sanctuary.

It seemed strange to be here again, to pass through this great cool space, in this atmosphere pungent with the smell of old drippings from wax candles—across the sunken flag-stones which their feet knew so well and over these stones whose worn-down designs and bright inscriptions had so often caused their thoughts to grow weary. And while their eyes half-curiously, half-unwillingly sought rest in the gently subdued light underneath the vaults or glided over the dim manifoldness of the gold-dust and smoke-stained colors, or lost themselves in the strange shadows of the altar, there rose in their hearts a longing which could not be suppressed.

In the meantime those from the tavern continued their scandalous behavior upon the high altar. A huge, massive butcher among them, a young man, had taken off his white apron and tied it around his neck, so that it hung down his back like a surplice, and he celebrated mass with the wildest and maddest words, full of obscenity and blasphemy. An oldish little fellow with a fat belly, active and nimble in spite of his weight, with a face like a skinned pumpkin was the sacristan and responded with the most frivolous refrains. He kneeled down and genuflected and turned his back to the altar and rang the bell as though it were a jester’s and swung the censer round like a wheel. The others lay drunk on the steps at full length, bellowing with laughter and hiccoughing with drunkenness.

The whole church laughed and howled and mocked at the strangers. They called out to them to pay close attention so that they might know what the people thought of their God, here in Old Bergamo. For it was not so much their wish to insult God that made them rejoice in the tumult; but they felt satisfaction in knowing that each of their blasphemies was a sting in the hearts of these holy people.

They stopped in the center of the nave and groaned with pain, their hearts boiling with hatred and vengeance. They lifted their eyes and hands to God, and prayed that His vengeance might fall because of the mock done to Him here in His own house. They would gladly go to destruction together with these fool-hardy, if only He would show His might. Joyously they would let themselves be crushed beneath His heel, if only He would triumph, that cries of terror, despair, and repentance, that were too late, might rise up toward Him from these impious lips.

And they struck up a miserere. Every note of it sounded like a cry for the rain of fire that overwhelmed Sodom, for the strength which Samson possessed when he pulled down the columns in the house of the Philistines. They prayed with song and with words; they denuded their shoulders and prayed with their scourges. They lay kneeling row after row, stripped to their waist, and swung the sharp-pointed and knotted cords down on their bleeding backs. Wildly and madly they beat themselves so that the blood clung in drops on their hissing whips. Every blow was a sacrifice to God. Would that they might beat themselves in still another way, would that they might tear themselves into a thousand bloody shreds here before His eyes! This body with which they had sinned against His commandments had to be punished, tortured, annihilated, that He might see how hateful it was to them, that He might see how they became like unto dogs in order to please Him, lower than dogs before His will, the lowliest of vermin that ate the dust beneath the soles of His feet! Blow upon blow—until their arms dropped or until cramps turned them to knots. There they lay row on row with eyes gleaming with madness, with foam round their mouths, the blood trickling down their flesh.

And those who watched this suddenly felt their hearts throb, noticed how hotness rose into their cheeks and how their breathing grew difficult. It seemed as if something cold was growing out beneath their scalps, and their knees grew weak. It seized hold of them; in their brains was a little spot of madness which understood this frenzy.

To feel themselves the slaves of a harsh and powerful deity, to thrust themselves down before His feet; to be His, not in gentle piety, not in the inactivity of silent prayer, but madly, in a frenzy of self-humiliation, in blood, and wailing, beneath wet gleaming scourges—this they were capable of understanding. Even the butcher became silent, and the toothless philosophers lowered their gray heads before the eyes that roved about.

And it became quite still within the church; only a slight wave-like motion swept through the mob.

Then one from among the strangers, a young monk, rose up and spoke. He was pale as a sheet of linen, his black eyes glowed like coals, which are just going to die out, and the gloomy, pain-hardened lines around his mouth were as if carven in wood with a knife, and not like the folds in the face of a human being.

He raised his thin, sickly hands toward heaven in prayer, and the sleeves of his robe slipped down over his lean, white arms.

Then he spoke.

Of hell he spoke, that it is infinite as heaven is infinite, of the lonely world of torments which each one of the condemned must endure and fill with his wails. Seas of sulphur were there, fields of scorpions, flames that wrap themselves round a person like a cloak, and silent flames that have hardened and plunged into the body like a spear twisted round in a wound.

It was quite still; breathlessly they listened to his words, for he spoke as if he had seen it with his own eyes, and they asked themselves: is he one of the condemned, sent up to us from the caverns of hell to bear witness before us?

Then he preached for a long time concerning the law and the power of the law, that its every title must be fulfilled, and that every transgression of which they were guilty would be counted against them by grain and ounce. “But Christ died for our sins, say ye, and we are no longer subject to the law. But I say unto you, hell will not be cheated of a single one of you, and not a single iron tooth of the torture wheel of hell shall pass beside your flesh. You build upon the cross of Golgotha, come, come! Come and look at it! I shall lead you straight to its foot. It was on a Friday, as you know, that they thrust Him out of one of their gates and laid the heavier end of a cross upon His shoulders. They made Him bear it to a barren and unfruitful hill without the city, and in crowds they followed Him, whirling up the dust with their many feet so that it seemed a red cloud was over the place. And they tore the garments from Him and bared His body, as the lords of the law have a malefactor exposed before the eyes of all, so that all may see the flesh that is to be committed to torture. And they flung Him on the cross and stretched Him out and they drove a nail of iron through each of His resistant hands and a nail through His crossed feet. With clubs they struck the nails till they were in to the heads. And they raised upright the cross in a hole in the ground, but it would not stand firm and straight, and they moved it from one side to the other, and drove wedges and posts all around, and those who did this pulled down the brims of their hats so that the blood from His hands might not drop into their eyes. And He on the cross looked down on the soldiers, who were casting lots for His unstitched garment and down on the whole turbulent mob, for whose sake He suffered, that they might be saved; and in all the multitude there was not one pitiful eye.

“And those below looked up toward Him, who hung there suffering and weak; they looked at the tablet above His head, whereon was written ‘King of the Jews,’ and they reviled Him and called out to Him: ‘Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ Then He, the only begotten Son of God was taken with anger, and saw that they were not worthy of salvation, these mobs that fill the earth. He tore free His feet over the heads of the nails, and He clenched His hands round the nails and tore them out, so that the arms of the cross bent like a bow. Then He leaped down upon the earth and snatched up His garment so that the dice rolled down the slope of Golgotha, and flung it round himself with the wrath of a king and ascended into heaven. And the cross stood empty, and the great work of redemption was never fulfilled. There is no mediator between God and us; there is no Jesus who died for us on the cross; there is no Jesus who died for us on the cross, there is no Jesus who died for us on the cross!”

He was silent.

As he uttered the last words he leaned forward over the multitude and with his lips and hands hurled the last words over their heads. A groan of agony went through the church, and in the corners they had begun to sob.

Then the butcher pushed forward with raised, threatening hands, pale as a corpse, and shouted: “Monk, monk, you must nail Him on the cross again, you must!” and behind him there was a hoarse, hissing sound: “Yea, yea, crucify, crucify Him!” And from all mouths, threatening, beseeching, peremptory, rose a storm of cries up to the vaulted roof: “Crucify, crucify Him!”

And clear and serene a single quivering voice: “Crucify Him!”

But the monk looked down over this wave of outstretched hands, upon these distorted faces with the dark openings of screaming lips, where rows of teeth gleamed white like the teeth of enraged beasts of prey, and in a moment of ecstasy he spread out his arms toward heaven and laughed. Then he stepped down, and his people raised their banners with the rain of fire and their empty black crosses, and crowded their way out of the church and again passed singing across the square and again through the opening of the tower-gate.

And those of Old Bergamo stared after them, as they went down the mountain. The steep road, lined by walls, was misty in the light of the sun setting beyond the plain, but on the red wall encircling the city the shadows of the great crosses which swayed from side to side in the crowd stood out black and sharply outlined.

Further away sounded the singing; one or another of the banners still gleamed red out of the new town’s smoke-blackened void; then they disappeared in the sun-lit plain.

— from Mogens and Other Stories (1882) by Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885), translated from the Danish By Anna Grabow (1921)