Carole Pietrzak

The history of Birgu - Part 3

In the third part, the history of Birgu Ms Pietrzac talks about the harrowing periods of the Black Death.

One must keep in mind that in the Middle Ages in Europe, medicine and religion were strongly connected as the Church played a dominant role. The period served to amalgamate Ancient medical practices of the Greeks with Arabian, Jewish and Latin concepts until the last half of the Middle Ages when a vigorous impulse was made to finding a new science of medicine.

The Maltese islands were peopled with Muslims, Jewish and Christians at that time and the exchanges of practices of each group gave an impulse to the development of modern medicine. The Middle Ages were not then the barbaric times that are often described to us but more a period of confrontation of practices, new elaboration and change in medical treatment.

« The first hospital recorded in Malta was already functioning by 1372, while in Gozo a hospital was founded in 1454. Both hospitals were on occasion referred to as Santo Spirito Hospital. The name of Santo Spirito was given to several medieval hospitals which were particularly intended for foundlings and maternity cases. »[1]

The Middle Ages had their lot of outbreaks of widespread epidemics and the plague or the Black Death probably was the worst, almost totally devastating the archipelago.

« In 1348, the Black Death is known to have reached the islands in its march across Europe, while other epidemics are recorded in 1427-28[2] and 1453. »

Like all maritime cities in the Middle Ages, Birgu with its busy harbour and Arsenale in the Porto Delle Galere was much exposed in the pre-knights period to outbreaks of the dreaded plague.

The information in the following part comes from The Plague of 1676 by Joseph Micallef.

Birgu was the first hit: the first victim died on March 11th and the last on August 12th. In between, so many people lost their lives. It was looked upon as an « incredible carnage of men ».

Both the civil and religious authorities of Birgu did their utmost to help the population.

The Dominican Fathers opened the doors of the Annunciation Monastery to give shelter to the sick and the Old Convent of Santa Scolastica was turned into an emergency hospital. From May to mid-June, the plague raged savagely in Birgu. Only ten families, forty people in all – and all elderly- remained untouched by the plague. Two hundred and four families were entirely wiped out and Birgu lost thirty-seven priests. In a Census taken on August 21st, only 980 survivors were counted. There were two medici and seven chirurghi in Birgu. According to L. Hasciac, only one chirurgo Nicolaus Carraeutta survived the ordeal more by the grace of God than by any precautions he took. Birgu was abandoned and deserted at the time of this terrible epidemics.

In the fourth article on the history of Birgu Ms Carole Pietrazc talks about probably the most important period in Birgu’s history, the arrival of the Knights of St. John.


[1] These quotes are taken from http://staff.um.edu.mt/csav1/history/medieval.pdf

[2] This outbreak was a harsh blow on a Malta which had just seen a savage siege by the Ottomans who destroyed most of the island’s resources.

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