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Views of Two Plagues

In 1744, an epizootic of cattle plague broke out in the Netherlands. This was the second such outbreak that the Netherlands experienced during the eighteenth century, the first having occurred from 1713 to 1720.

This cattle disease was likely the virus known as rinderpest. Declared eradicated in 2011, rinderpest was a contagious morbillivirus affecting cows and other cloven-hoofed animals, with a case fatality rate that often neared 100% (Morens et al.; Wohlsein and Saliki; Pastoret et al.). Because of its devastating impact on domestic animals, rinderpest could have significant consequences for human society (Slavin; Campbell 209-27; White 100-02). Rinderpest outbreaks likely occurred throughout premodern Eurasian history, although this is highly uncertain since retrospective diagnosis can be difficult (Faber 1). Due to the problems associated with identifying historical diseases with modern nomenclature, I will employ the term “cattle plague” for the remainder of this article.

The 1744 outbreak of cattle plague in the Netherlands lasted until 1765 and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1 million bovines (Koolmees 23; Faber 2). A 1745 print by Jan Smit depicts its results, showing a scene of mass cattle mortality in the countryside. The foreground is littered with dead and dying cattle, some lying down, others overturned on their backs with their legs up in the air. People crowd around a horse-drawn carriage in the bottom right corner. On the left, three people are burying a dead cow in a grave, while others drag another cow out of a barn. Above this is another group of people in the process of burying a cow, while a second body awaits burial. Three people surround it, one apparently kneeling with their hands up in supplication. In the center of the image is what seems to be a cow being either slaughtered or examined. The chaotic scene continues into the background, where more cattle lie on the ground, farmers dig more graves, and a few horses run around in the fields.

Michel Serre. Vue du Cours pendant la peste de 1720. Oil on canvas, 1721. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).


Comparing Smit’s print with a painting by Michel Serre (1658-1733) of Marseille during the 1720 plague outbreak reveals striking similarities in how the outbreaks were portrayed. Serre’s painting depicts a street in Marseille, which is filled with people, some living and some dead. As in Smit’s print, dead and dying bodies—this time human—are strewn on the ground, with groups of people congregating around them. At the bottom of the image lie veritable piles of corpses, which people gather into carts, presumably to carry them away for burial. The carnage extends into the background of the scene, people lying dead in the street. The urban location of Serre’s painting may be different from the countryside that Smit depicted, but the basic message of the two images is the same: large-scale mortality and suffering.

Moreover, in both images we can see the measures taken in response to the outbreaks. Serre’s painting shows various people who could be officials, who appear to be directing and overseeing the action, and bodies are being put into carts for disposal. Similarly, Smit’s print depicts people burying dead cattle while others speak to several people who have arrived by carriage and who may be authority figures. In both cases, these burials likely reflect actual practices: as I wrote about in a previous article, responses to cattle plague often paralleled responses to human plague.

The evident parallels in how these two artists have depicted, on the one hand, an outbreak of human plague and, on the other, an outbreak of cattle plague suggest the potential fruitfulness of comparative considerations of historical epidemics and epizootics. How did experiences with human and animal diseases overlap and influence each other? How were ideas about the affected by ideas about the other? In what way was an animal death from disease viewed differently from the death of a human from disease?

Featured Image: Jan Smit. Boeren getroffen door runderpest. Print, 1745. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Works Cited
Barrett, Thomas, Paul-Pierre Pastoret, and William P. Taylor, editors. Rinderpest and Peste des Petits Ruminants: Virus Plagues of Large and Small  Ruminants. Elsevier, 2006.
Campbell, Bruce M. S. The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late Medieval World. Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Faber, J. A. “Cattle-Plague in the Netherlands during the Eighteenth Century.” Mededelingen van de Landbouwhogeschool te Wageningen, Nederland, vol.  62, no. 11, 1962, pp. 1-7.
Koolmees, Peter A. “Epizootic Diseases in the Netherlands, 1713-2002: Veterinary Science, Agricultural Policy, and Public Response.” Healing the  Herds: Disease, Livestock Economies, and the Globalization of Veterinary Medicine, edited by Karen Brown and Daniel Gilfolye, Ohio University Press,  2010, pp. 19-41.
Morens, David M., et al. “Global Rinderpest Eradication: Lessons Learned and Why Humans Should Celebrate Too.” Journal of Infectious Diseases, vol.  204, no. 4, 2011, pp. 502-05.
Pastoret, Paul-Pierre, et al. “Rinderpest – an old and worldwide story: history to c. 1902.” Rinderpest and Peste des Petits Ruminants, pp. 86-104.
Slavin, Philip. “The Great Bovine Pestilence and its economic and environmental consequences in England and Wales, 1318-50.” Economic History  Review, vol. 65, no. 4, 2012, pp. 1239-66.
White, Sam. “A Model Disaster: From the Great Ottoman Panzootic to the Cattle Plagues of Early Modern Europe.” Plague and Contagion in the Islamic  Mediterranean, edited by Nükhet Varlik, ARC Humanities Press, 2017, pp. 91-116.
Wohlsein, Paul, and Jeremiah Saliki. “Rinderpest and peste des petits ruminants – the diseases: clinical signs and pathology.” Rinderpest and Peste des  Petits Ruminants, pp. 68-85.

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