Medieval Rome

Unit 10 Slides
End of days -- End of Medieval:
Cola di Rienzo, Plague, and Opportunities

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Cola di Rienzo (or di Rienzi) (c. 1313 October 8, 1354) was an Italian medieval politician and popular leader, tribune of the Roman people in the mid-14th century.

Cola di Rienzo's character has been described as a combination of knowledge, eloquence, and enthusiasm for ideal excellence, coupled with vanity, inexperience of mankind, and physical timidity.  As these latter qualities became conspicuous, the eclipsed his virtues and caused his benefits to be forgotten.  His extravagant pretensions only served to excite ridicule.

In the beginning, Cola was a notary and somewhat of an expert on ancient Roman inscriptions.  He was welcomed at functions at the noble Orsini court where, according to some accounts, his ideas about social structure and return to ancient Roman republican ideals caused some mirth.   When his younger brother was killed in the crossfire of an Orsini-Colonna skirmish in Rome he led an active insurrection against all the Roman nobility.  When the nobles fled Rome, he took power, but what he didn't realize was that the nobles had only left to muster their rural followers into militias, which came back and expelled Cola.  Cola wandered Europe for a while until he was imprisoned in Prague (1350) and then sent off to be a Papal prisoner in Avignon.  But a new Pope (Innocent IV) thought he would be useful in Rome and sent him there where he  established a new regime.  Cola's excesses (and the taxed he levied to support them) soon cost him his popularity with the public. 
In the end, Cola was killed by the Roman mob that he had played to.

There is little doubt that in his final sojourn in Rome he was manipulated by Petrarch and by other agents of Pope Innocent IV, who were attempting to lessen the power of Rome's feuding noble families and increase papal influence.  Petrarch first me Cola in 1343 and was impressed by his enthusiasm.  He embraced Cola's revolution of 1347, but then began to have doubts; Cola was naive and pretentious.  Finally, Petrarch became disillusioned and was bitterly disappointed when Cola's own actions led to his fall.

The 1877 statue of Cola was erected between Michelangelo's Cordonata leading up to the Capitoline Hill and the steep monumental stairs leading up to S. Maria in Aracoeli Church, after Rome was integrated into the Italian Kingdom in 1870 by enthusiasts who conveniently forgot Cola's faults.
Quoted and paraphrsed from

Also see
Rienzi fan club
A man is known by the company he keeps -- or in this case by his fan club.  Starting in the 18th century Cola was romanticized as a popular leader against the aristocracy.  A copy of a book about Rienzi was found in Napoleon's effects after Waterloo.  Hitler claimed to have been inspired by his first hearing of Wagner's opera, Rienzi.  Mussolini was so enamored of Gabriele d'Annunzio's poem about Cola that d'Annunzio became the philosopher and poet laureate of Italian Fascism.  Mussolini's monumental copy of the 1877 statue of Cola still stands in Mussolini's modern addition to Rome, the Esposizione Universale Roma (E.U.R.).

None of these guys seems to have read Cola's bio, either the parts about his grandiose pretensions or especially the part about how he was killed by the mob.'sRienzi.jpg'sRienzi.jpg
Rienzi was the war horse of Union General Phil Sheridan. If location is any indication, he is also the most honored horse in America -- occupying his own glass case in the Hall of Armed Forces History at the Smithsonian. It can be argued that without this noble steed, Lincoln would never have been reelected, and then assassinated, and THEN where would we be?
Read Sheridan's Ride at

The plague that swept through Italy and the rest of Europe starting in 1347 was not Rome's first.  In 589 AD, the Tiber overflowed its banks, destroying numerous buildings, among them the granaries of the Church with all the store of grain.  Pestilence followed on the floods, and Rome became a very city of the dead.  Business was at a standstill, and the streets were deserted save for the wagons which bore forth countless corpses for burial in common pits beyond the city walls.  The plague of 589 probably was not bubonic plague -- the symptoms would have been described if it was.  More likely, it was malaria, cholera, or some other disease that was associated with the flooding -- either mosquitoes or backed-up sewage.

According to legend, when Pope Elect Gregory led the "Sevenfold Procession"(processions from Rome's seven great churches of those days, joining together) in prayer for an end to the sin-caused "plague", the archangel Michael appeared on the top of Hadrian's tomb sheathing a sword, which signaled the end of the plague.  Since then the tomb has been called Castel Sant'Angelo.
Priming the population for the plague.  The population of Rome and the rest of Europe was primed for an epidemic of some kind.  Famine was already prevalent due to a European, indeed world wide, climate change.  Temperatures had risen starting around 800 AD  and reached a peak in the 1100s.  During the "Medieval Warm Period", which lasted well into the 1300s, more and more land was brought into cultivation as temperate climates moved both northward and up slope (i.e., Greenland, Iceland, Labrador, etc. and many mountain valleys that had previously been too cold to farm).   Also, the growing season in Europe lengthened perhaps 20 percent.  As more food became available, populations grew and prosperity increased.  Prosperity and larger populations led to growth of towns and cities where population density increased.

But as the warm period wound down -- global cooling -- the larger populations were unsustainable.  At first, the climate change brought heavy rains to Europe, which flooded fields and cause crop failures.  Populations can last through one crop failure, but when it happens for several years, famine becomes inevitable.  After the rainy years there was a period of drought years which further limited food supplies.  Those who didn't starve were malnourished.  Even before the plague arrived, the die-off had started in Europe, and the general population was weakened and more susceptible to disease.

Europe was primed for an epidemic.

Is global warming happening today?  Yes.
Will it continue?  Yes.
Is it caused by human activity?  Probably some of it.
How much of it is human caused?  Ten percent or so, but perhaps decisive.
Is it such a bad thing?  Nobody knows.
Blame it on Djengis Khan.  The Pax Mongolica (similar, except for geography, to the European Pax Romana) was a result of conquests by Djengis and his armies.  Their military marches unified territories from the Pacific Ocean to Europe and made trade and transport easy.  The Silk Road was stabilized and open to travelers, goods, rats, and bugs.  At the same time, global cooling, earthquakes, and a few volcanic eruptions were making Central Asia inhospitable to Asiatic rats, which theretofore had munched happily on wild seed and grain.  The rats moved westward in waves following the trail of trash on the Silk Road and hitching rides whenever possible.  Many theorists think they made it into Europe first through Black Sea ports and Istanbul. 

Westerners  tend to think of the plague as a European phenomenon.  We need to note that those rats also headed into Asian cities.  Before the plague ever reached Europe, Asia was already well on the way to a population implosion. 

Rats are one of the hosts of a bacillus called yersina pestis.  Fleas bite the rats and then bite people.  Plague is spread.  More about this later.
European plague spread patterns
, followed established trade routes.  Entry was probably from the Crimean Black Sea ports (1346), then by ship down to Istanbul('47), then to Sicily ('47), Naples ('47), Genoa ('47), along the Italian Peninsula ('47 - '48), and up and throughout Europe over land and by sea ('48, '49, '50).  A single ship or wagon or traveler could infect a country.  Cities, with their own burgeoning rat and flea populations waiting to be infected, were prime targets.

Today, epidemiologists are extremely worried about the spread of disease over modern travel and trade routes.  The ancient quarantine island in the Tiber River no longer has that function, nor does Ellis Island in New York.  But entry inoculations and quarantines and border closings made headlines during recent SARS and Swine flu scares.

One of the largest annual population movements is the Haj (pilgrimage) to Mecca and Medina.  Saudi Arabia ensures that all pilgrims are inoculated against diseases at their points of origin.  The refugee crisis in Europe has also led to widespread preventative efforts.

Imagery of the plague times was stark.  It was during the plague years that Death was personified as a skeletal reaper, his scythe capable of cutting down whole populations.  Some plague images showed death dancing with members of all social classes and others showed death taking all ages.  Even the literature of the times was plague oriented; Boccaccio's Decameron tale-tellers were all escapees from the urban death sinks.
The great preoccupation was treating the sick and disposing of the bodies.  Courageous doctors, often shown wearing the schnabel (beaked mask), did what they could, but the situation often deteriorated when there were to few of them or when the doctors themselves fell victim to the disease.  In those cases, houses were sometime just boarded up with the dead and alive inside.  Sometimes houses were burned to prevent the spread of contagion, but that was usually impractical in densely packed housing areas.  The best protection was to flee dense populations, but that could also carry the disease to a new area.
Dance your troubles away. 
In some areas, people appear to have thought that the plague was associated with tarantula spiders, and a dance, the tarantella, was invented to ward off the danger.  Popular mythology and some dictionaries say that both the dance and the spiders got their names from the Italian port of Taranto at the upper end of the inside of the heel of the Italian boot.

Modern estimates -- not more than educated guesses; nobody had a hard count -- of total European population leading up to and through the plague.
Parts of the cycle.  The diagram is self explanatory and shows the ways the disease can enter human populations.  Wild rodent populations can be immune to the disease either because they carry antibodies or because the co-evolved with the bacillus.  In order for a flea to transmit the bacillus to a new host effectively, it also has to have gut-blocking indigestion that causes it to regurgitate fluids into the bite after it feeds (which is pretty gross).  The bubonic form of the yersina pestis infection is the kind caused by the flea bite.  Once a human or human-associated animal population is infected, the disease can be passes more efficiently by inhalation of aerosols (from sneezing or coughing) or by ingestion of disease-contaminated substances. 


Both the pneumonic and enteric kinds of plague killed a lot faster than did the bubonic form.  In places where groups of people slept together -- university and monastery dormitories -- everyone could be infected and die overnight.

After the first sweep of plague through Europe, the survivors had received a measure of immunity.  The next wave in 1361 took out mostly young people, who had not been alive and therefore were not exposed in the 1347-50 epidemic.  It hit England hardest. It was therefore called the "Children's Plague". 
It hit England hardest.  Recurrent disease epidemics often hit children hardest.  That's why "Swine flu" epidemic worries also centered around younger people; the swine flu bug seems to be similar to the "Asiatic flu" of the 1950s, to which most older Americans were exposed and for which they carry antibodies.  Similarly, persons who survived the 1918 flu epidemic were less likely to catch the Asiatic flu of the 1950s.

An anti-plague serum was developed in 1894 by Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin, after whom the plague bacillus was named.  Modern antibiotics can cure plague if it is diagnosed early.

In the United States, the last urban plague epidemic occurred in Los Angeles in 1924-25 (280 cases, 172 died). Since then, human plague in the United States has occurred as mostly scattered cases in rural areas (an average of 10 to 15 persons each year). Globally, the World Health Organization reports 1,000 to 3,000 cases of plague every year. In North America, plague is found in certain animals and their fleas from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains, and from southwestern Canada to Mexico. Most human cases in the United States occur in two regions: 1) northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, and southern Colorado; and 2) California, southern Oregon, and far western Nevada. Plague also exists in Africa, Asia, and South America (see map).



Connections to the Bubonic Plague (Black Death)?
The words to the Ring around the rosy children's ring game have their origin in English history . The historical period dates back to the Great Plague of London in 1665 (bubonic plague) or even before when the first outbreak of the Plague hit England in the 1300's. The symptoms of the plague included a rosy red rash in the shape of a ring on the skin or around the mouth (Ring around the rosy).  Pockets and pouches were filled with sweet smelling herbs (or posies) which were carried due to the belief that the disease was transmitted by bad smells.  "Ashes Ashes" refers to the cremation of the dead bodies or to sneezing associated with pheumonic plague.  "Fall down" is what you do when you're dead.  The death rate for the London plague was estimated to be over 60% and the plague was only halted by the Great Fire of London in 1666 which killed the rats which carried the disease which was transmitting via water sources.

Views of the Skeptics:
Some scholars are skeptical of the plague interpretations of this rhyme, many stating that words in the rhyme cannot be found in Middle English. The skeptics must be referring to the later version of the rhyme, possibly with American origins, the English version is "Ring a ring o' rosies" using the Middle English "o" as a shortening of the word "of". The written word "posies" is first mentioned in a poem called 'Prothalamion or A Spousal Verse' by Edmund Spenser (1552-1599).
After the plague reduced
Europe's population, food supplies were no longer a problem, and in some markets there were surpluses (ergo lower prices).  Prosperity returned and hunger for survivors were less of a problem. 

Post-plague consolidations fed right into the renaissance.  This was particularly true in universities, in monasteries, among the clergy, and in the Roman papal curia.  In all these organizations, "humanists", who had been held outside the walls by "scholastics" and "theists" were suddenly welcomed inside to fill wide personnel gaps.