BENSOZIA/ON THE DEAD

Thoughts, Ideas, Observations


Fables without Morals

1.  Marseilles, 1721

The last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in Europe took place in Marseilles in 1721.  By that time the European governments were very practiced at dealing with the plague, and the French crown put their standard plan into effect.  The town was quarantined and surrounded, with the army on land and the navy at sea preventing all entry and egress.  But food had somehow to be provided to the effectively besieged inhabitants.  So the authorities turned to the galley slaves, men who had been condemned to life sentences in the galleys for crimes that included assault, "riot", and homelessness (there are whole pages in the galley registers where every man is simply described as "person without residence").  The galley slaves were offered a deal:  if they volunteered to carry food into Marseilles during the plague, any survivors would be freed after the disaster had passed.  About a thousand volunteered.  Their mortality was frightful--according to one account, 800 died--but none of the survivors were freed.  After the plague had passed, all were returned to the galleys for the rest of their lives.  The organizer of the relief was enobled.

2.  Cynewulf and Cyneheard

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, under the year 755. 

This year Cynewulf, with the consent of the West-Saxon council, deprived Sigebright, his relative, of his kingdom for wickedness.  He was allowed to keep Hampshire until he slew the ealdorman who had remained the longest with him.  Then Cynewulf drove Sigebright to the forest of Andred, where he remained, until a man stabbed him at Privett to revenge the ealdorman.  The same Cynewulf fought many hard battles with the Welsh; and, about one and thirty winters after he had the kingdom, he was attacked by a prince called Cyneheard, who was the brother of Sigebright.  Cyneheard, learning that the king was visiting a lady at Merton with only a few men, rode after him, and surrounded him in Merton, before the attendants of the king were aware of him.  When the king found himself besieged, he went out of doors, and defended himself with courage; till, having looked on Cyneheard, he rushed out upon him, and wounded him severely.  Then were they all fighting against the king, until they had slain him.  As soon as the king's men in the lady's bower heard the tumult, they ran to the spot, whoever was then ready. Cyneheard immediately offered them life and rewards; which none of them would accept, but continued fighting together against him, till they all lay dead, except one British hostage, and he was severely wounded.  When the king's men that were behind heard in the morning that the king was slain, they rode to the spot, Osric his ealdorman, and Wiverth his thane, and the men that he had left behind; and they met Cyneheard at the town, where the king lay slain.  The gates, however, were locked against them, which they attempted to force; but Cyneheard promised them money and land, if they would grant him the kingdom; reminding them, that their relatives were already with him, who would never desert him.  To which they answered, that no relative could be dearer to them than their lord, and that they would never follow his murderer.  Then they besought their relatives to depart from him, safe and sound.  Those replied, that the same request was made to their comrades that were formerly with the king; "And we care as little about the result," they rejoined, "as our comrades who with the king were slain."  Then they continued fighting at the gates, till they rushed in, and slew Cyneheard and all the men that were with him; except one, who was the godson of the ealdorman, and whose life he spared, though he was often wounded.  Cynewulf reigned thirty-one winters.

February 11, 2001


From the 
Commonplace Book

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

--L.P. Hartley

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