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.