The Romanian historiography has chosen to focus on the consequences of epidemics, especially on those of an economic and demographic nature.
I believe that it is necessary to highlight – besides the consequences of the disease – the attitudes of the people threatened by the epidemic.
These attitudes are based on their views of the plague. By identifying these views, we will understand better the individual or collective actions taken when facing the scourge.
Starting from these attitudes, I have grouped into two main categories the causes believed to have determined the outbreak of plague epidemics: spiritual causes (the epidemic was seen as a consequence of the sins committed) and natural causes. Using as models the methodologies of western historiography, I will analyze the potential role played in the evolution of the disease by deregulations of natural conditions, determined by a series of astronomical factors and by cataclysms (earthquakes, floods) or by longer unfavourable periods characterized by drought and famine.
To the natural factors we must definitely add another one; whereas it may depend on the will of humans, it can extend or deepen the consequences of the aforementioned dark periods: the war.
The noticeable close connection between the propagation of plague and the armed confrontations that affected the Romanian space at the beginning of the 19th century led many to invoke wars as the most important factor in the emergence and dissemination of plague epidemics.
Furthermore, the array of problems generated by wars – supply and accommodation for the troops, organization of military hospitals – often prevented the application of isolation measures that would enable the mitigation of the epidemics (Jean-Nöel Biraben).
Because they did not find out the causes and the way the disease was transmitted, the struggle against the epidemics was not a fair one: authorities had to fight an enemy that was both invisible and very agile. They could only see the traces left by the mysterious epidemic, whose name they sometimes were afraid to utter, for fear of further aggravating the consequences of the scourge at the mental level.
However, analyzing it systematically based on empirical conclusions, the physicians and power factors made efforts to fight this disease. The provisions adopted for the mitigation of epidemic effects included the isolation of the sick, the removal of corpses from localities, the settling of quarantine points, the use of travel passes and health certificates.
By investigating the series of anti-epidemic measures, it will be possible to analyze the extent to which the medical staff of the period was prepared for it, the administration’s capacity to impose a set of coercive rules, as well as the population’s will to observe them.
Unfortunately, many times the measures proposed by authorities did not have the desired effects; hence, the plague spread rapidly. Once it penetrated the community, the disease affected whole families often, while neighbouring houses were unimpaired. Whereas most plague descriptions insist on the fact that this epidemic affected mainly the poor inhabitants, my purpose is to prove that this epidemic was actually not “selective”, starting from certain documents that attest deaths caused by plague among the boyars, clergy and merchants. However, the last category benefited from better hygiene standards than the first category and they had the chance to seek refuge from the scourge, while the poorer inhabitants were forced to remain in the plague-stricken towns or to run to the forests or fields around, where they were exposed to bad weather.
The great number of deaths, the high risk of contamination mostly in human agglomerations (hence the definition of the plague as an urban phenomenon – Daniel Curtis) lead to the absence of funerary rites during plague epidemics: those who died from it were deprived of a “good death” that involved a church and the presence of family and friends. Death caused by the plague was considered dishonouring: the absence of a priest meant that the soul was not ready for the great passage. Furthermore, the burial in a non-sacred land and the lack of an individual grave set an irremediable stigma for the afterlife, too. By studying the cases of people who died from the plague and who were buried on hills, in orchards, gardens or vineyards, corpses caught under the walls and roofs of fallen houses, cadavers left unburied on town roads, on fields or in forests, my goal is to outline the idea of “abolishment of personalized death” (Jean Delumeau). This also explains the inhabitants’ attempt to elude the institutional mechanisms in the attempt to gain a dignified death.
Concerning the demographic consequences of the plague epidemics in the Romanian Principalities, estimates can prove hazardous, but I am persuaded that a systematic analysis of as many documents as possible regarding the victims of the plague can lead to edifying data. Ștefan Scarlat Dăscălescu – one of the boyars charged with combating the epidemics at Focșani in the year 1829 – stated that the plague “killed so many people within a year as it had not killed within 15 years, from 1813 to 1828”. However, how many people died in 1813? What about up to that year? Whereas the authorities did try to record the number of deaths accurately, mostly during the 1829 plague epidemics, the results obtained can only be relative taking into account the rather significant number of plague victims buried without the knowledge of the administration, or the number of people who died from other afflictions, but who were believed to have died from the plague.
Nonetheless, mortality was not the only demographic factor that perturbed the communities stricken by the plague. Regardless of the magnitude of the scourge, human collectives were affected by the sudden change in life standards, because they had to leave their houses and to separate themselves from the rest of the family. When epidemic episodes lasted longer than expected, for instance, marriages were postponed and births were fewer, implicitly. Some authors post that “epidemics alone […] could only disturb for a limited period the foundations of the existence of a certain population on a certain territory”. Taking this reasoning further, Gh. Brătescu stated that the great pandemics only highlighted and aggravated a “pre-existing critical situation”, determined by a complex of social and economic factors that speeded up the end. I believe that it is necessary to nuance these opinions.
Whereas the study of epidemics outbreak is important, it is equally crucial to analyze the factors that contributed to the end of the plague, mostly concerning the 1829 pestilence, which was the last great epidemic to affect the territory north from the Danube; after this period, the plague remained active only in the Ottoman Empire, until around 1838.
What happened starting with the fourth decade of the 19th century? Were the measures imposed by the power factors enough to prevent the spreading of the disease? Were the quarantines established within the Organic Statute sufficient? Did something change in the hygiene of inhabitants? Can the end of the plague be ascribed to a new affliction that affected these territories from 1830: the cholera?
I hope that by exploring the documentary fund and the Romanian and foreign historiography, I will be able to outline relevant answers to the questions scientists have just started asking.
During the project I propose to attain the following working objectives, in close connection to the aforementioned scientific objectives:
1. To study the published and unpublished sources: documents, chronicles, records of foreign travellers and works on the plague written by Russian military physicians. The research activity will be conducted in archives and libraries: the National Archives of Iași and Bucharest, the Romanian Academy Library, the University Libraries of Iaşi and Bucharest; the research activity will be accompanied by the organization and interpreting of the information obtained.
2. To complete the bibliography: methodological novelties and current historiographical debates on the topic. To consult the latest publications within foreign historiography (volumes, collections of studies, thematic issues) regarding epidemics in general and the plague epidemics in particular; to do research internships in the country and abroad; to systematize the theoretical and methodological information obtained for a better valuing of the data obtained within the archive and library research.
3. To synthesize, highlight and promote the outcomes.
3.1. To attend international and national conferences in order to disseminate the outcomes;
3.2. To write papers in scientific journals, included in international databases;
3.3. To organize a workshop on social, political and military developments in Romanian Principalities and the neighbouring areas in the early 19th century, that will be useful to me for a better contextualization of the epidemic phenomenon, the reactions of the society and the anti-epidemic measures adopted by the authorities;
3.4. To write and publish a monograph regarding the plague epidemics that affected the extra-Carpathian space in the first decades of the 19th century (an important part within the economy of the volume will be dedicated to editing relevant documents).