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A Demonic Disease: The Plague

Our exhibition attempts to give an overview of the main events, effects and consequences of the greatest plague epidemic of European history, the Black Death, which first devastated Europe in 1347-1349.

Three great plague epidemics have been recorded throughout history. First one in the 6th century killed almost 30 % of the inhabitants of Justinian’s East Roman Empire. The second wave of 1347-1350 emerged from the Caspian sea and spread across Europe, North-Africa and the Middle-East, killing one third of the population of the region, returning later from time to time up to the 1770’s. The third great epidemic at the end of the 19th century attacked East-Asia and China, and ran its course only in the 1950s. (The last, although limited epidemic of the plague was recorded in India in the 1990s.)
There are three main types of plague: bubonic, pulmonary and septic plague. Plague is caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, identified in 1894 by a Swiss-French scientist, Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943) This bacterium infects through the blood, its vectors are fleas, living mostly in the fur of rodents, primarily in that of the domestic rat, Rattus rattus. (This small rat was expelled from the human environment in the 17th century by the bigger Norvegian rat – according to some theories the end of the plague was caused by this event.)
Spreading of plague was explained by three different theories. According to the so called contagionists, infection was a consequence of direct contact, so they advocated separation, quarantine and segregation of the ill. According to miasmatists however, epidemic was caused by invisible environmental agents or factors, so they attempted to clean the air and used herbs, scents, fire, while emphasizing the importance of hygiene, dietetics, and the proper burial of the dead. Religious people, on the other hand, held that plague was actually a punishment from God, which might not be fought against without blasphemy.

Our exhibition is organised around three main themes, that is according to the effects of plague 1. on medicine and pharmacy 2. on art, folklore and religion and 3. on public health.
Our journey through the horrible world of the plague begins with general informations on the medical background of our topic, including some repros and installations illustrating the symptoms of the bubonic plague. At the entrance a 10 minutes long introductory film will be displayed on DVD (available only in Hungarian) giving a historical overview on the rise and fall of the plague.
Left from entrance a show-case containing the two types of rats that played a role in our story, with an original, however reassuringly dead flea, with the picture of Yersin and with the first illustraton of the legend of the rat-catcher in Hameln published in a 17th century book written by the Slovenic nobleman, J. W. Valvasor.
Continuing our journey at left we can see a cart used for transporting corpses of the perished and a 17th century painting displaying the horrors of the plague. In the background a contemporary painting recalls the gloom of the plague raging in Naples in the 17th century. Nearby, a medieval plague-doctor stands, with the well-known masque stuffed with aromatic herbs as protection against infection.
Crossing an imaginary gate we enter into a „sacred space”, surrounded by objects which shed light on the relationship between the plague and religion. The deeply religious man of the Middle and of Early Modern Ages saw in the plague a punisment of God which could be averted by magic and religious objects. Medals coined for the memory of the temporary recession of the epidemic, magic Zacharias-crosses, talismans, amulets, so called „breverls”, paintings and etchings, portraits of patron-saints (most importantly, those of Saint Sebastian, Saint Rochus and the Virgin Mary) are to be seen here. Plague altered even the imagery and symbolism of contemporary art and created the famous motive of dance macabre. So unit of „sacred space” includes some ancient illustrations of this topic as well.
At left a contemporary itching illustrates the horrors of the last great plague of the 18th century Marseille.
Further we can have an insight into a medieval pharmacy with herbs and medicines used for prevention or for healing of the disease. In these show-cases are beautiful 17-19th pharmaceutical jars and dishes, and old pharmaceutical books containing remedies used for healing or treating plague-infected patients. Nearby are medical books and manuscripts containing prescriptions against the epidemic.
On the opposite side a small installation represents some tools of folk medicine against plague.

The next unit includes objects and pictures illustrating the impact of the plague on public health. For prevention, only two main measures could be effectively used: escaping (fuga pestis) or the quarantine – introduced first in Venice or in Ragusa in 1348 – combined with the so called cordon sanitaire, a strictly controlled system of frontier-zones. On the walls are original itchings of quarantine-institutions built in the 18th century in South Hungary, now Slavonia. As a consequence of the plague, the state faced problems it never had had before. The unit contains also some original printed and manuscript orders and decrees against the plague from the royal and local administrations of Hungary.
Since people had to be informed on measures for preventing and surviving attacks of the plague, a new medical genre emerged in the 14th century, the plague-treatise. These works were mostly written in native tongues for better understanding, thus playing an important role in the creation and development of native medical languages.

Our most recent temporary exhibition entitled Shades was opened in the Arcade House on Saturday, 24 June 2023.[ details ]
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Our exhibition attempts to give an overview of the main events, effects and consequences of the greatest plague epidemic of European history, the Black Death, which first devastated Europe in 1347-1349. [ details ]
Holidays and Encounters II. – Ethnographic exhibition and Europe in Miniature cultural program in the Székely National Museum[ details ]
Executive editor: Vargha Mihály.
© Copyright: The Székely National Museum, 2023.