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Excerpt from "Plagues Past & present: A Mind/Body Approach"

by J.H. Hacsi

The Great Pestilence

Joanna of Anjou, Queen of Naples, was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in all of Christendom. Blond and fair skinned, she was proclaimed, “Exquisite and enchanting,” by the Italian lyric poet Petrarch, a judgment echoed by all those fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of her.

In 1345 Joanna’s eighteen-year-old husband Andreas, younger brother of King Louis of Hungary, dim witted and overweight, was murdered – hung from a balcony railing with a rope around his neck – and the pregnant seventeen-year-old widowed queen was suspected by her royal Hungarian in-laws of having orchestrated his death.

The populace of Europe breathlessly followed this drama. Half were sure that the lovely young queen was guilty while half proclaimed her innocence. Andreas’ Hungarian relatives harbored no doubts. Soon after Joanna gave birth to a son, the Hungarians kidnapped the baby and carried him home to Hungary. Still not sufficiently appeased, in 1348 King Louis sent a military force into Italy in pursuit of Joanna.

Italy at that point was writhing with the Black Pestilence. Despite the danger, Joanna was determined to seek vindication. In pursuit of this, she dropped in to visit the pestilence-ravaged city of Genoa. She was on her way to the papal city of Avignon, where she hoped to be cleared of murder charges in a papal trial.

While dead bodies piled up faster than they could be thrown into pits for burial – Genoa is believed to have lost a third of its population – Joanna left by ship a few days later without showing any signs of infection. The pestilence also raged in Avignon, the city toward which she sailed, where an estimated fifty percent of the populace died. .

Queen Joanna’s trial commenced the day she arrived in Avignon, March 15th, 1348.

The evidence against her was substantial and the Hungarians presented it convincingly. But when Joanna entered the all-male courtroom, pale, beautiful, her crown set lightly on her lovely blond hair, the courtroom air became hushed. She fell to her knees before her judge, Pope Clement VI, and kissed his feet. The pope ordered her to rise, kissed her on the mouth, and motioned for the entrancing young queen to sit beside him.

She testified in a sorrowful voice, claiming that she had suffered a terrible loss in the death of her husband and that the Hungarians had inflicted horrible cruelties upon her. She begged the court to find her innocent.

Pope Clement VI obliged. He proclaimed her not only innocent but “above suspicion of guilt.” He embraced her and called her his “blameless and beloved daughter.” Church bells rang out across the plague-stricken city as Joanna left the Hall.

Once again this notorious “bad girl” of European royalty left a pestilence ravaged city with no sign of infection. She lived for another thirty-four years.

During the plague years, there was another royal Joanna, Princess Joan of England, also golden haired and beautiful. Joan was born in 1333. In 1345 she was betrothed to Prince Pedro of Castile, heir to his parents’ throne. In early August 1348 she set sail from England for Bordeaux, a stopover on her journey to Castile. Joan’s coming marriage to Prince Pedro, a union that had the Pope’s blessing, would be a great political, religious and diplomatic event, and the lovely young princess traveled in style..

It was an awesome sight for the workmen on the quays of Bordeaux, who for weeks had seen only pestilence and death, as the four English ships approached. Raymond de Bisquale, mayor of Bordeaux, stood on the quay to warn the young princess and her advisers of the presence of the plague. The English foolishly ignored the warning, no one knows why. The wedding party settled into a castle overlooking the harbor and in short order fell victims to the plague. On September 2nd Princess Joan died.

Had a devout heart and prayers been a path to safety, the pious Princess Joan, who traveled with a portable chapel, would surely have been safe, not Queen Johanna of Naples.

Clearly the plague played favorites. Princess Joan, venturing foolishly into plague-infested territory, was grabbed up almost as soon as she arrived. Yet the wily and worldly Queen Johanna of Naples was allowed to visit first one plague-stricken city and then another without the plague’s plopping its heavy hand down on her

The pestilence at its fiercest was never able to kill off one hundred percent of the population in any given area. The best it could do, and then only rarely, was seventy percent. The death rate across the face of Europe averaged out, it is now believed, at about fifty percent.

If fifty percent of the populace died, this means that the other fifty percent survived. If we look closely enough at those threatened by the plague, possibly we can zero in on a difference in the mind-set or belief system between those who lived and those who died.

The people of the early 14th Century, still steeped in the piety and other-worldliness of the medieval world, seemed to believe that since God ruled the world, He should look after His children without help from them. The prosperity of the 12th and early 13th Centuries had brought about a huge increase in population, one that strained resources to and then past the breaking point. From 1250 on one catastrophe followed another. Before the pestilence struck, Europe had clearly been dying. The times cried out for more than endless hard work. They cried out for creative thinking and inventiveness, but only in the arts were these forthcoming.

A turn from piety and other-worldliness toward a heightened concern for this world – Humanism – had already been born but had not yet become universally accepted.

There is intriguing evidence to suggest that those eager to leave the dying world behind to create the new gave themselves protection from the plague.

As many recent studies have shown, the power of the mind is enormous and may be the deciding factor ruling our lives.


Excerpted from Plagues Past and Present, A Mind/Body/Approach by J. H. Hacsi. Paper, $14. Available at Baker and Taylor or www.Amazon.com

J.H. Hacso graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and earlier in her life wrote short stories (over 200 published) and romance novels (eight published). Throughout her life she has been greatly interested in history and science, also the role of the mind and mysticism, and has read widely in all these fields. She is a widow with five sons and five grandchildren and live in Claremont, CA. jhhacsi@aol.com.

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