The Ancient Silence

Writing in the 790s, Paul the deacon chronicled a plague that swept through the Lombard territory of  Luguria in what is today northern Italy in about 560. After providing clear signs of bubonic plague and its deadly consequences, he paints a vivid portrait of popular reaction.

“For the common report had it that those who fled would avoid the plague, the dwellings were left deserted by their inhabitants, and the dogs alone kept house. The flocks remained alone in the pastures with no shepherd at hand. You might see villages (villas) or fortified places lately filled with crowds of men, and on the next day all had departed and everything was in utter silence. Some fled, leaving the corpses of their parents unburied; parents forgetful of their duty abandoned their children in raging fever. If by chance long-standing affection constrained anyone to bury his near relative, he remained himself unburied, and while he was performing funeral rites he perished; while he offered obsequies to the dead, his own corpse remained without obsequies. You might see the world brought back to its ancient silence; no voice in the field, no whistling shepherds; no lying in wait of wild beasts among the cattle; no harm to domestic fowls. The crops, outliving the time of the harvest, awaited the reaper untouched; the vineyard with its fallen leaves and its shining grapes remained undisturbed while winter came on; a trumpet as of warriors resounded through the day and night; something like a murmur of an army was heard by many; there were no footsteps of passers by, no murderer was seen, yet corpses of the dead were more than the eye could discern; pastoral places had been turned into a desert, and human habitations had become places of refuge for wild beasts.”

Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards 2.4 [1]

 The ancient silence, a common secular apocalyptic vision that easily spans the 1200 years between Paul the Deacon and us. This odd idea is that if humans were gone everything would lay just as we left it before it slowly decays. Clearly this type of apocalyptic vision didn’t originate with nuclear radiation zones of the 20th century. Just as in a nuclear zone the wind seems loud and haunting perhaps all the more so here because they believed in a miasmic theory of contagion. Death was quite literally in the air. Unseasonable storms and great winds were believed to bring pestilence of all kinds. If contagion was in the wind itself, then disturbed wind carries bad things on an epic scale. In this scenario, the murmur of an army could be the souls of the dead haunting their former homes, or it could be the contagion itself seeking new victims.

It is the rhetoric of desolation. The “common report” may not contain many facts that would pass the muster of modern historians but the sense of catastrophe is palpable and that was the important message. In fact a close reading of the description doesn’t make sense. It has become a “refuge for wild beasts” but the chickens are safe in their pens and the cows in their fields. The “murmur of an army is heard by many”, yet Luguria is supposed to be deserted, indeed “turned into a desert”. This landscape is in Paul’s imagination.

Interesting that Maddicott (p. 197-198) thinks that Paul’s report is “precise” and seems to accept the description of abandonment at face value. He goes on to even wonder if there were “no longer whistling shepherds on the hills of Northumbria?”(p. 198) Yet, Paul is describing flight as much as death. Presumably some of these people came back after a time. Flight is a common problem in assessing the toll of the plague from tax rolls or other demographics including village or estate abandonment. Alternatively, depopulation through death and flight could have been part of the foundation legend for how the land became available for the communities that grew up in the region after the plague. Foundation legends often mask as much or more than the historical nuggets they may preserve.

[1] Paul the deacon quoted in John Maddicott’s “Plague in Seventh-Century England” p. 197-198 in Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750. (2007) Edited by Lester Little. Cambridge.

5 thoughts on “The Ancient Silence

  1. Reminds me of some of the great curses found in the mid-part of Isaiah on the destruction of cities. I wonder if we have some biblical tropes entering into Paul’s language here…

  2. This does indeed echo certain Biblical passages, which themselves are copied from Neo-Assyrian sources. See Ashurbanipal in particular:

    “Susa, the great holy city, abode of their gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed… I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt.”

    “I left his fields empty of the voice of mankind, the tread of cattle and sheep, the merry shout of harvest-home; and in them I made wild asses crouch, and gazelles, and all kinds of wild beasts.”

  3. I thought of the Biblical resonances, but also note the use of sound as an indicator of barrenness, as much or even more than the visual impact. Some recent scholarship on “soundscapes” posits that some cultures express their views and emotions more through auditory imagery (thunder strikes rather than lightening strikes).
    But I was also reminded of 9/11 as experienced from a distance–the eerie silence of no planes landing or taking off, a sound we take for granted in the background of our environment, until it is gone.

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