Sublimation of Virtue, Increase of Crime

So, in public calamities and prolonged disturbances of any normal order, one always sees an increase, a sublimation of virtue. But, unhappily, with it always and without fail goes an increase, far more general in most cases of crime. And this happened now, too. Rogues whom the plague spared and did not frighten found new chances of activity, together with a new certainty of impunity, in the common confusion following the relaxation of every public authority; in fact the very exercise of public authority came to be very largely in the hands of the worst among them. The only men who generally took on the work of monatti and apparitori were those more attracted by rapine and license than terrified of contagion or sensible to natural repulsion. The strictest rules were laid down for these men, the severest penalties threatened them. Posts were assigned them by commissioners placed over them, as we have said. Above both were magistrates and nobles delegated for every quarter, with authority to punish summarily every breach of discipline. This organization kept going effectively for some time, but with the number of those dying, leaving, or losing their heads growing from day to day, the monatti and apparitori began to find there was almost no one to hold them back. They made themselves, particularly the monatti, the arbiters of everything. They entered houses as masters, as enemies, and (not to mention their thieving or treatment of the wretched creatures reduced by plague to passing through their hands) they would lay those foul and infected hands on healthy people, on children, parents, wives, or husbands, threatening to drag them off to the lazzaretto unless they ransomed themselves or got others to ransom them by money. At other times they set a price on their services, and refused for less than so many scudi to carry away bodies that were already putrefying. It was said (and the irresponsibility of one and the viciousness of the other make believe and disbelief equally uncertain)–it was said, and asserted also by Tadino, that monatti and apparitori let infected clothes drop from their carts on purpose, in order to propagate and foster the plague, for it had become a livelihood, a festival, a reign for them. Other shameless wretches, pretending to be monatti by wearing bells attached to their feet, as the latter were supposed to do for recognition and to warn others of their approach, would introduce themselves into houses and commit every sort of crime. Some houses, which were open and empty of inhabitants or occupied only by some feeble dying creature, were entered by robbers with impunity and sacked. Others were broken into and invaded by bailiffs who did the same and worse.

As crime grew, so did panic also. All the errors already more of less rampant gathered extraordinary strength from the general dismay and agitation, and produced even quicker and vaster results. They all served to reinforce and intensify that predominating terror about anointers*, the effects and expression of which were often, as we have seen, another crime in themselves. The idea of this imaginary danger beset and tortured people’s mind far more than the one that was real and present. “And while,” says Ripamonti, “the corpses always strewn about and lying heaps before our eyes and underfoot made the entire city seems like an immense charnel-house, there was something even more ghastly, even more appalling that mutual frenzy, that unbridled orgy of suspicion…not only was it a neighbour, a friend, or a guest distrusted; even those names that are the bonds of human love, husband and wife, father and son, brother and brother, became words of terror; and (horrible and infamous to tell) the family board and the nuptial bed were feared as hiding places for the lurking poisoner.”

ALESSANDRO MANZONI (1785-1873) THE BETROTHED (I PROMESSI SPOSI)

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One Comment

  1. coffeemamma
    Posted September 9, 2005 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Woah. B is reading this right now, I wonder if she has come accross this passsage yet? I’ll have to ask her.

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