The Plague in Seville

For Mother Prioress of the Carmel of St. Joseph. The discalced Carmelite nuns behind San Francisco. Postage, one half real.

Jesus. The grace of the Holy Spirit be with your reverence, amen, amen. Yesterday I received a letter from you which, although there were only a few lines, brought me the greatest delight, for I was very afflicted over what they told me about so many people dying. I am praying urgently to God for you, as they are doing in all these houses, for I sent to ask them for their prayers. I feel anxious at every moment to think of you amid so many trials.

I already knew of the death of Padre Fray Diego, and I praised God that Padre Fray Bartolomé remains, for I was very grieved that he might die, for this would have been a great loss to you. May God be praised for all that he does.

I would have liked to have been told of this letter so that my answer could have been in my own hand, but I was informed only now when the letter carrier is ready to leave and my head is very tired, for I have been writing the whole afternoon. But even if they aren’t in my own hand, I didn’t want to neglect sending these few lines…

Saint Teresa of Avila

Letter 455 to Madre María de San José, Seville (excerpt)
Burgos, 6 July 1582

A Man Holding His Nose to Avoid Breathing in a Miasma
Wellcome Collection, London (Public Domain)

Historian Kristy Wilson Bowers, Ph.D. has conducted extensive research concerning the plague in Seville — St. Teresa calls it a “pestilence” — that led to the deaths of so many residents. Professor Wilson Bowers has generously shared with us her knowledge of the 1582 plague’s impact on religious communities. We wish to share this background with you because one of the victims of the plague in Seville was Padre Fray Diego de la Trinidad, the Vicar Provincial whose assistance was so invaluable for Father Provincial Jerónimo Gracián. St. Teresa first mentions the plague in correspondence to the Provincial on 25 June 1582.

Professor Wilson Bowers explains that the 1582 plague in Seville began as early as January:

In late January 1582, Seville’s city council sent out word of newly imposed plague restrictions, and public criers in the neighboring towns duly informed residents of the recent legislation. Due to an outbreak of plague in the towns of Constantina, La Puebla de los Infantes, and Cazalla de Sierra, residents and goods from those towns were forbidden entry into city (Bowers, p. 335).

Professor Wilson Bowers indicates that Seville had a public health commission, which oversaw the needs of the city and its population during a plague and informed the public in Seville and the surrounding area concerning Seville’s public health laws.

City councilmen named to oversee public health in times of plague were known as diputados de la peste, plague commissioners. Their ad hoc subcommittee, the comisión de la salud, varied in size depending on the perceived threat of the impending health crisis. Once named as diputados, the councilmen had a variety of duties: while most remained in the city to implement and oversee plague regulations, others became mobile, traveling to the outlying towns or villages to investigate rumors of plague, to gather and report information back to the larger committee, and to oversee implementation of many of the same health measures within those towns. Councilmen serving as health commissioners faced a significant challenge in dealing with plague, because there was no consensus as to what caused the disease, how it spread, how to diagnose it, or when there was need to be concerned about a possible outbreak within the city. Several times during each epidemic, the city’s health commission called together medical practitioners in the city to testify as to whether they had seen any cases of plague recently and whether the city should set up plague hospitals outside its walls. The doctors, surgeons, and apothecaries who testified for the commission rarely agreed on either question (Bowers, p. 344).

In some ways, we see how this plague or pandemic in 1582 seems remarkably like the coronavirus pandemic we began to face worldwide in the year 2020. Professor Wilson Bowers indicates that some religious communities faced unique challenges, but that Seville’s plague commissioners had a plan to deal with their needs. Seville’s laws governing the city in times of plague permitted exceptions to a citywide lockdown, and individuals, businesses, or even religious communities could present a petition to request such an exception that would exempt them from the lockdown.

In Seville, a citywide lockdown involved the closure of the gates in the city wall, which posed a serious problem for monasteries who depended upon alms from the faithful within the city. Faithful would visit the monasteries outside the city gate of Seville, much like they did in Avila, and they would make donations to the monks or nuns. If the city was locked down during a plague, the monasteries could face deadly deprivation. Professor Wilson Bowers explains:

In the spring of 1600, for example, the health commission heard petitions from the priors of two monasteries, those of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios and Santísima Trinidad. At the time, health officials closed most of the city’s gates to any traffic, and each prior had the same request: that the city gate closest to their house be reopened for at least some hours each day. The prior of Santísima Trinidad even offered to provide monks as guards if the city so wished. Both houses had seen precipitous drop in the offerings brought in by city residents who routinely visited the monasteries to pray in their chapels, hear Mass, and be confessed. For both houses, such charitable and pious donations were a significant part of their income.

In his petition, the prior of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios offered the city councilmen the choice of either opening the gate or providing financial support for the monastery. In both cases, the health commission sent someone to investigate and report, and both gates were reopened for limited hours, guarded in one case by the monks themselves (who received detailed instructions from the health commission) and in the other by municipally appointed guards
(Bowers, pp. 346-347).

Perhaps they are of another breed
Grancisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746–1828)
Wash, etching, burnisher, burin on ivory paper, 1812–1814
Museo del Prado, Madrid
Copyright ©Museo Nacional del Prado

Saint Teresa knew that the situation in Seville was deadly. Translator and editor Father Kieran Kavanaugh indicates that Teresa, writing from Burgos in June of the year 1582, had already begged the Father Provincial, her beloved confidante Fray Jerónimo Gracián, not even to think about going to Seville because of the pestilence: “the thought [should] not even enter your mind to go to Seville, whatever may be the need, for they are definitely undergoing a pestilence down there. For the love of our Lord, do not give in to the temptation to go and ruin us all, at least me. Although God gives you health, the danger you place your health in is enough to take mine away up here” (Letter 454, 25 June 1582).

The prioress in Seville, Madre María de San José (Salazar), wrote to St. Teresa. The letter arrived soon after on 5 July 1582, as we read above; Teresa replies: “Yesterday I received a letter from you which, although there were only a few lines, brought me the greatest delight, for I was very afflicted over what they told me about so many people dying” (Letter 455, 6 July 1582). In Madre María’s letter, we learn of the death of Padre Fray Diego de la Trinidad, the Vicar Provincial.

Despite the best efforts of Seville’s health commission, many citizens died. There are no records that the plague in Seville took the lives of any of St. Teresa’s nuns, but the death of Padre Fray Diego affected Teresa deeply. “The death of Father Vicar grieved me, and it would have been worse had it been Padre Fray Bartolomé [Gracián’s secretary] because of how much your house would have missed him”, she told María de San José (Letter 457, 14 July 1582).

Four weeks before her death, St. Teresa wrote from Valladolid on 1 September 1582 (Letter 465) to her beloved Fray Jerónimo Gracián. Despite Teresa’s pleading, he traveled to and safely arrived in Seville, perhaps taking advantage of the exemptions in the public health code to enter the city. Here are the pertinent excerpts:

Jesus. The grace of the Holy Spirit be with your reverence. It is not sufficient for you to write me often in order to take away the pain, although it brought me great relief to know that you are well and the region healthy. Please God, this will continue. I have received all your letters, I think.

The reasons for your decision to go didn’t seem to me to be sufficient. A means could have been found here for giving orders about studies and not hearing the confessions of
beatas. In that way those monasteries could have gotten along for two months and you could have put the houses here in good order. I don’t know why, but I so felt your absence, at such a time, that I lost the desire to write to you. As a result I didn’t do so until now when I cannot avoid it. It is the day of the full moon, for I had a night that was truly wretched, and so too is the condition of my head. Up to now I had been doing better. Tomorrow I think, when the full moon is past, this indisposition will pass. The throat is better, but the trouble doesn’t go away. (…)

I don’t know for what purpose you have to stay so long in Seville, for they told me you will not be returning until the time of the chapter — which greatly increased my pain, even more than if you had gone back to Granada. May the Lord direct things for his greater service

Teresa of Avila, St. 1985, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, translated from the Spanish by Kavanaugh, K; Rodriguez, O, ICS Publications, Washington DC.

Wilson Bowers K 2007, ‘Balancing individual and communal needs: plague and public health in early modern Seville’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 81, No. 2, pp. 335-358.

The blogger is deeply grateful to the historian of medicine Kristy Wilson Bowers, Ph.D. for the kindness and generosity she has extended to our blog readers. At a moment when the novel coronavirus was ravaging the United States in 2020, the professor promptly responded to our email inquiry concerning the plague in Seville and she showed interest in the Teresian side of the plague’s history. She amiably provided us with a copy of her 2007 article and indicated how the story of the benevolence of Seville’s public health commission toward the monasteries outside the walls might give us an indication of how the Discalced Carmelite nuns in Seville escaped death in 1582.

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