18 The Plague

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Regents and monarchs
In early times one of the most feared diseases was the plague and the people of Nijmegen suffered repeatedly from this scourge. In 1633 a hospital in Hezelstraat was equipped especially for nursing plague patients. However, this did not prevent a large pandemic breaking out two years later.

The plague (also known as the Black Death) not only killed many people, it often caused the path to death to be wretched. Because of this plague epidemics caused great panic among the population. They could also cause much damage to the economy as when many people were sick or dying this had an immediate effect on trading and commerce. In 1635 a hot dry summer is believed to have contributed to the subsequent November plague outbreak in Nijmegen. It did not end until a period of heavy frost in February 1636. The epidemic was so severe that over six thousand people from a population of approximately ten thousand lost their lives. About the same number of soldiers died from the epidemic. They were temporarily stationed in Nijmegen to protect the city from an imminent attack by the Spanish. It is quite likely that the soldiers brought the plague with them.

In an essay the Nijmegen town physician, IJsbrand van Diemerbroeck, described the horrific effects of the outbreak of the plague. Together with his colleague, Emmanuel de Mandeville, he was responsible for fighting the dreaded disease. Symptoms were serious tightness of the chest, delirium, black spots on the skin and boils covering the entire body. Van Diemerbroeck wrote about: rows of biers in front of houses in the streets of Nijmegen, the agony of plague victims and how comforters of the sick, medical specialists and coffin bearers often caught the disease themselves. Good hygiene and keeping away from the sick were just about the only measures people could take. To help him stay clear of the disease, Van Diemerbroeck smoked a couple of pipes a day and regularly took small doses of theriaca, a medicine that contained opium. He became widely known after the publication of his plague essay. The Latin edition of 1644 ran to several editions and the work was later translated into Dutch and English. Van Diemerbroeck only stayed in Nijmegen for ten years, leaving after a financial conflict with his partner Emmanuel de Mandeville.

After this plague epidemic the city did its best to attract new citizens to help bring the population level back to what it had been. If you moved to Nijmegen you could obtain citizenship and other privileges cheaply.
Six thousand victims
Jean Edelinck after Romeyn de Hooghe, Ijsbrand van Diemerbroeck, professor at Utrecht, circa 1670 (RAN)

Source: Hans Bots, in: De Canon van Nijmegen, Uitgeverij Vantilt (Nijmegen 2009)