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Food Profiteers 300 Years Ago

Alessandro Manzoni

Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873). I Promessi Sposi.
Vol. 21, pp. 450-460 of The Harvard Classics

Food profiteering was as active in plague-stricken Milan 300 years ago as in modern times. Shops were stormed for food. Read how the Council strove heroically to fix fair rates.
(Sale of corn and flour regulated in Milan, Nov. 15, 1629.)

Chapter XXVIII

AFTER the sedition of St. Martin’s, and the following day, it seemed that abundance had returned to Milan, as by enchantment. The bread shops were plentifully supplied; the price as low as in the most prolific years, and flour in proportion. They who during those two days had employed themselves in shouting, or doing something worse, had now (excepting a few who had been seized) reason to congratulate themselves: and let it not be imagined that they spared these congratulations, after the first fear of being captured had subsided. In the squares, at the corners of the streets, and in the taverns, there was undisguised rejoicing, a general murmur of applauses, and half-uttered boasts of having found a way to reduce bread to a moderate price.

  In the midst, however, of this vaunting and festivity, there was (and how could it be otherwise?) a secret feeling of disquietude, and presentiment that the thing could not last long. They besieged the bakers and meal-sellers, as they had before done in the former artificial and transient abundance procured by the first tariff of Antonio Ferrer; he who had a little money in advance, invested it in bread and flour, which were stored up in chests, small barrels, and iron vessels. By thus emulating each other in enjoying present advantage, they rendered (I do not say, its long duration impossible, for such it was of itself already, but even) its continuance from moment to moment ever more difficult. And lo! on the 15th November, Antonio Ferrer, De orden de su Excelencia, issued a proclamation, in which all who had any corn or flour in their houses were forbidden to buy either one or the other, and very one else to purchase more than would be required for two days, under pain of pecuniary and corporal punishments, at the will of his Excellency. It contained, also, intimations to the elders, (a kind of public officer), and insinuations to all other persons, to inform against offenders; orders to magistrates to make strict search in any houses which might be reported to them; together with fresh commands to the bakers to keep their shops well furnished with bread, under pain, in case of failure, of five years in the galleys, or even greater penalties, at the will of his Excellency. He who can imagine such a proclamation executed, must have a very clever imagination; and, certainly, had all those issued at that time taken effect, the duchy of Milan would have had at least as many people on the seas as Great Britain itself may have at present.

  At any rate, as they ordered the bakers to make so much bread, it was also necessary to give some orders that the materials for making it should not fail. They had contrived, (as, in times of scarcity, the endeavour is always renewed to reduce into bread different alimentary materials, usually consumed under another form), they had contrived, I say, to introduce rice into a composition, called mixed bread. On the 23rd November, an edict was published, to limit to the disposal of the superintendent, and the twelve members who constituted the board of provision, one-half of the dressed rice (risone it was then, and is still, called there) which every one possessed; with the threat, to any one who should dispose of it without the permission of these noblemen, of the loss of the article, and a fine of three crowns a bushel. The honesty of this proceeding every one can appreciate.

  But it was necessary to pay for this rice, and at a price very disproportioned to that of bread. The burden of supplying the enormous inequality had been imposed upon the city; but the Council of the Decurioni, who had undertaken to discharge the debt in behalf of the city, deliberated the same day, 23rd November, about remonstrating with the governor on the impossibility of any longer maintaining such an engagement; and the governor, in a decree of the 7th December, fixed the price of the above-named rice at twelve livres per bushel. To those who should demand a higher price, as well as to those who should refuse to sell, he threatened the loss of the article, and a fine of equal value, and greater pecuniary, and even corporal punishment, including the galleys, at the will of his Excellency, according to the nature of the case, and the rank of the offender.

  The price of undressed rice had been already limited before the insurrection; as the tariff, or, to use that most famous term of modern annals, the maximum of wheat, and other of the commonest grains, had probably been established in different decrees, which we have not happened to meet with.

  Bread and flour being thus reduced to a moderate price at Milan, it followed of consequence that people flocked thither in crowds to obtain a supply. To obviate this inconvenience, as he said, Don Gonzalo, in another edict of the 15th December, prohibited carrying bread out of the city, beyond the value of twenty pence, under penalty of the loss of the bread itself, and twenty-five crowns; or, in case of inability, of two stripes in public, and greater punishment still, as usual, at the will of his Excellency. On the 22nd of the same month, (and why so late, it is difficult to say), a similar order was issued with regard to flour and grain.

  The multitude had tried to procure abundance by pillage and incendiarism; the legal arm would have maintained it with the galleys and the scourge. The means were convenient enough in themselves, but what they had to do with the end, the reader knows; how they actually answered their purpose, he will see directly. It is easy, too, to see, and not useless to observe, the necessary connection between these stranger measures; each was an inevitable consequence of the antecedent one; and all of the first, which fixed a price upon bread so different to that which would have resulted from the real state of things. Such a provision ever has, and ever must have, appeared to the multitude as consistent with justice, as simple and easy of execution: hence, it is quite natural that, in the deprivations and grievances of a famine, they should desire it, implore it, and, if they can, enforce it. In proportion, then, as the consequences begin to be felt, it is necessary that they whose duty it is should provide a remedy for each, by a regulation, prohibiting men to do what they were impelled to do by the preceding one. We may be permitted to remark here in passing a singular coincidence. In a country and at a period by no means remote, a period the most clamorous and most renowned of modern history, in similar circumstances, similar provisions obtained (the same, we might almost say, in substance, with the sole difference of proportions, and in nearly the same succession); they obtained, in spite of the march of intellect, and the knowledge which had spread over Europe, and in that country, perhaps, more than any other; and this, principally, because the great mass of the people, whom this knowledge had not yet reached, could, in the long run, make their judgment prevail, and, as it were there said, compel the hands of those who made the laws.

  But to return to our subject. On a review of the circumstances, there were two principal fruits of the insurrection: destruction and actual loss of provision, in the insurrection itself, and a consumption, while the tariff lasted, immense, immeasurable, and, so to say, jovial, which rapidly diminished the small quantity of grain that was to have sufficed till the next harvest. To these general effects may be added, the punishment of four of the populace, who were hung as ringleaders of the tumult, two before the bake-house of the Crutches, and two at the end of the street where the house of the superintendent of provisions was situated.

  As to the rest, the historical accounts of those times have been written so much at random, that no information is to be found as to how and when this arbitrary tariff ceased. If, in the failure of positive notices, we may be allowed to form a conjecture, we are inclined to believe that it was withdrawn shortly before, or soon after, the 24th December, which was the day of the execution. As to the proclamations, after the last we have quoted, of the 22nd of the same month, we find no more on the subject of provisions; whether it be that they have perished, or have escaped our researches, or, finally, that the government discouraged, if not instructed, by the inefficiency of these its remedies, and quite overwhelmed with different matters, abandoned them to their own course. We find, indeed, in the records of more than one historian, (inclined, as they were, rather to describe great events, than to note the causes and progress of them), a picture of the country, and chiefly of the city, in the already advanced winter, and following spring, when the cause of the evil, the disproportion, i. e., between food and the demand for it, (which far from being removed, was even increased, by the remedies which temporarily suspended its effects), when the true cause, I say, of the scarcity, or, to speak more correctly, the scarcity itself, was operating without a check, and exerting its full force. It was not even checked by the introduction of a sufficient supply of corn from without, to which remedy were opposed the insufficiency of public and private means, the poverty of the surrounding countries, the prevailing famine, the tediousness and restrictions of commerce, and the laws themselves, tending to the production and violent maintenance of moderate prices. We will give a sketch of the mournful picture.

  At every step, the shops closed; manufactories for the most part deserted; the streets presenting an indescribable spectacle, an incessant train of miseries, a perpetual abode of sorrows. Professed beggars of long standing, now become the smallest number, mingled and lost in a new swarm, and sometimes reduced to contend for alms with those from whom, in former days, they had been accustomed to receive them. Apprentices and clerks dismissed by shopkeepers and merchants, who, when their daily profits diminished, or entirely failed, were living sparingly on their savings, or on their capital; shopkeepers and merchants themselves, to whom the cessation of business had brought failure and ruin; workmen, in every trade and manufacture, the commonest as well as the most refined, the most necessary as well as those more subservient to luxury, wandering from door to door, and from street to street, leaning against the corners, stretched upon the pavement, along the houses and churches, begging piteously, or hesitating between want and a still unsubdued shame, emaciated, weak, and trembling, from long fasting, and the cold that pierced through their tattered and scanty garments, which still, however, in many instances, retained traces of having been once in a better condition; as their present idleness and despondency ill disguised indications of former habits of industry and courage. Mingled in the deplorable throng, and forming no small part of it, were servants dismissed by their masters, who either had sunk from mediocrity into poverty, or otherwise, from wealthy and noble citizens, had become unable in such a year, to maintain their accustomed pomp of retinue. And for each one, so to say, of these different needy objects, was a number of others, accustomed in part, to live by their gains; children, women, and aged relatives, grouped around their old supporters, or dispersed in search of relief elsewhere.

  There were, also, easily distinguishable by their tangled locks, by the relics of their showy dress, or even by something in their carriage and gestures, and by that expression which habits impress upon the countenance, the more marked and distinct as the habits are strange and unusual,—many of that vile race of bravoes, who, having lost in the common calamity their wickedly acquired substance, now went about imploring it for charity. Subdued by hunger, contending with others only in entreaties, and reduced in person, they dragged themselves along through the streets, which they had so often traversed with a lofty brow, and a suspicious and ferocious look, dressed in sumptuous and fantastic liveries, furnished with rich arms, plumed, decked out, and perfumed; and humbly extended the hand which had so often been insolently raised to threaten, or treacherously to wound.

  But the most frequent, the most squalid, the most hideous spectacle, was that of the country people, alone, in couples, or even in entire families; husbands and wives, with infants in their arms, or tied up in a bundle upon their backs, with children dragged along by the hand, or with old people behind. Some there were who, having had their houses invaded and pillaged by the soldiery, had fled thither, either as residents or passengers, in a kind of desperation; and among these there were some who displayed stronger incentives to compassion, and greater distinction in misery, in the scars and bruises from the wounds they had received in the defence of their few remaining provisions; while others gave way to a blind and brutal licentiousness. Others, again, unreached by that particular scourge, but driven from their homes by those two, from which the remotest corner was not exempt, sterility and prices more exorbitant than ever, to meet what were called the necessities of war, had come, and were continually pouring into the city, as to the ancient seat and ultimate asylum of plenty and pious munificence. The newly arrived might be distinguished, not only by a hesitating step, and novel air, but still more by a look of angry astonishment, at finding such an accumulation, such an excess, such a rivalry of misery, in a place where they had hoped to appear singular objects of compassion, and to attract to themselves all assistance and notice. The others, who, for more or less time, had haunted the streets of the city, prolonging life by the scanty food obtained, as it were, by chance, in such a disparity between the supply and the demand, bore expressed in their looks and carriage still deeper and more anxious consternation. Various in dress, (or rather rags), as well as appearance, in the midst of the common prostration, there were the pale faces of the marshy districts, the bronzed countenances of the open and hilly country, and the ruddy complexion of the mountaineer, all alike wasted and emaciated, with sunken eyes, a stare between sternness and idiocy, matted locks, and long and ghastly beards; bodies, once plump and inured to fatigue, now exhausted by want; shrivelled skin on their parched arms, legs, and bony breasts, which appeared through their disordered and tattered garments; while different from, but not less melancholy than, this spectacle of wasted vigour, was that of a more quickly subdued nature; of languor, and a more self-abandoning debility, in the weaker sex and age.

  Here and there, in the streets and cross-ways, along the walls, and under the eaves of the houses, were layers of trampled straw and stubble, mixed with dirty rags. Yet such revolting filth was the gift and the provision of charity; they were places of repose prepared for some of those miserable wretches, where they might lay their heads at night. Occasionally, even during the day, some one might be seen lying there, whom faintness and abstinence had robbed of breath, and the power of supporting the weight of his body. Sometimes these wretched couches bore a corpse; sometimes a poor exhausted creature would suddenly sink to the ground, and remain a lifeless body upon the pavement.

  Bending over some of these prostrated sufferers, a neighbour or passer-by might frequently be seen, attracted by a sudden impulse of compassion. In some places assistance was tendered, organized with more distant foresight, and proceeding from a hand rich in the means, and experienced in the exercise, of doing good on a large scale;—the hand of the good Federigo. He had made choice of six priests, whose ready and persevering charity was united with, and ministered to by, a robust constitution; these he divided into pairs, and assigned to each a third part of the city to perambulate, followed by porters laden with various kinds of food, together with other more effective and more speedy restoratives, and clothing Every morning these three pairs dispersed themselves through the streets in different directions, approached those whom they found stretched upon the ground, and administered to each the assistance he was capable of receiving. Some in the agonies of death, and no longer able to partake of nourishment, received at their hands the last succours and consolations of religion. To those whom food might still benefit, they dispensed soup, eggs, bread, or wine; while to others, exhausted by longer abstinence, they offered jellies and stronger wines, reviving them first, if need were, with cordials and powerful acids. At the same time they distributed garments to those who were most indecorously and miserably clothed.Nor did their assistance end here: it was the good bishop’s wish that, at least where it could be extended, efficacious and more permanent relief should be administered. Those poor creatures, who felt sufficiently strengthened by the first remedies to stand up and walk, were also provided, by the same kindly ministry, with a little money, that returning need, and the failure of further succour, might not bring them again immediately into their first condition; for the rest, they sought shelter and maintenance in some of the neighbouring houses. Those among the inhabitants who were well off in the world, afforded hospitality out of charity, and on the recommendation of the Cardinal; and where there was the will, without the means, the priests requested that the poor creature might be received as a boarder, agreed upon the terms, and immediately defrayed a part of the expense. They then gave notice of those who were thus lodged to the parish priests, that they might go to see them; and they themselves would also return to visit them.

  It is unnecessary to say that Federigo did not confine his care to this extremity of suffering, nor wait till the evil had reached its height, before exerting himself. His ardent and versatile charity must feel all, be employed in all, hasten where it could not anticipate, and take, so to say, as many forms as there were varieties of need. In fact, by bringing together all his means, saving with still more rigorous economy, and applying sums destined to other purposes of charity, now, alas! rendered of secondary importance, he had tried every method of making money, to be expended entirely in alleviating poverty. He made large purchases of corn, which he despatched to the most indigent parts of his diocese; and as the succours were far from equalling the necessity, he also sent plentiful supplies of salt, ‘with which,’ says Ripamonti, relating the circumstances, ‘the herbs of the field, and bark from the trees, might be converted into human sustenance,’ He also distributed corn and money to the clergy of the city; he himself visited it by districts, dispensing alms; he relieved in secret many destitute families; in the archiepiscopal palace large quantities of rice were daily cooked; and according to the account of a contemporary writer, (the physician, Alessandro Tadino, in his Ragguaglio, which we shall frequently have occasion to quote in the sequel), two thousand porringers of this food were here distributed every morning.

  But these fruits of charity, which we may certainly specify as wonderful, when we consider that they proceeded from one individual, and from his sole resources, (for Federigo habitually refused to be made a dispenser of the liberality of others), these, together with the bounty of other private persons, if not so copious, at least more numerous, and the subsidies granted by the Council of the Decurioni to meet this emergency, the dispensation of which was committed to the Board of Provision, were, after all, in comparison of the demand, scarce and inadequate. While some few mountaineers and inhabitants of the valleys, who were ready to die of hunger, had their lives prolonged by the Cardinal’s assistance, others arrived at the extremest verge of starvation; the former, having consumed their measured supplies, returned to the same state; in other parts, not forgotten, but considered as less straitened by a charity which was compelled to make distinctions, the sufferings became fatal; in every direction they perished, from every direction they flocked to the city. Here two thousand, we will say, of famishing creatures, the strongest and most skilful in surmounting competition, and making way for themselves, obtained, perhaps, a bowl of soup, so as not to die that day; but many more thousands remained behind, envying those, shall we say, more fortunate ones, when among them who remained behind, were often their wives, children, or parents? And while, in two or three parts of the city, some of the most destitute and reduced were raised from the ground, revived, recovered, and provided for, for some time, in a hundred other quarters, many more sank, languished, or even expired, without assistance, without alleviation.

  Throughout the day a confused humming of lamentable entreaties was to be heard in the streets; at night, a murmur of groans, broken now and then by howls, suddenly bursting upon the ear, by loud and long accents of complaint, or by deep tones of invocation, terminating in wild shrieks.

  It is worthy of remark, that in such an extremity of want, in such a variety of complaints, not one attempt was ever made, not one rumour ever raised, to bring about an insurrection: at least, we find not the least mention of such a thing. Yet, among those who lived and died in this way, there was a great number of men brought up to anything rather than patient endurance; there were, indeed, in hundreds, those very same individuals who, on St. Martin’s-day, had made themselves so sensibly felt. Nor must it be imagined that the example of those four unhappy men, who bore in their own persons the penalty of all, was what now kept them in awe: what force could, not the sight, but the remembrance, of punishments have, on the minds of a dispersed and reunited multitude, who saw themselves condemned, as it were, to a prolonged punishment, which they were already suffering? But so constituted are we mortals in general, that we rebel indignantly and violently against medium evils, and bow in silence under extreme ones; we bear, not with resignation, but stupefaction, the weight of what at first we had called insupportable.

  The void daily created by mortality in this deplorable multitude, was every day more than replenished: there was an incessant concourse, first from the neighbouring towns, then from all the country, then from the cities of the state, to the very borders, even, of others. And in the meanwhile, old inhabitants were every day leaving Milan; some to withdraw from the sight of so much suffering; others, being driven from the field, so to say, by new competitors for support, in a last desperate attempt to find sustenance elsewhere, anywhere—anywhere, at least, where the crowds and rivalry in begging were not so dense and importunate. These oppositely bound travellers met each other on their different routes, all spectacles of horror, and disastrous omens of the fate that awaited them at the end of their respective journeys. They prosecuted, however, the way they had once undertaken, if no longer with the hope of changing their condition, at least not to return to a scene which had become odious to them, and to avoid the sight of a place where they had been reduced to despair. Some, even, whose last vital powers were destroyed by abstinence, sank down by the way, and were left where they expired, still more fatal tokens to their brethren in condition,—an object of horror, perhaps of reproach, to other passengers. ‘I saw,’ writes Ripamonti, ‘lying in the road surrounding the wall, the corpse of a woman … Half-eaten grass was hanging out of her mouth, and her contaminated lips still made almost a convulsive effort … She had a bundle at her back, and, secured by bands to her bosom, hung an infant, which with bitter cries was calling for the breast … Some compassionate persons had come up, who, raising the miserable little creature from the ground, brought it some sustenance, thus fulfilling in a measure the first maternal office.’

  The contrast of gay clothing and rags, of superfluity and misery, the ordinary spectacle of ordinary times, had, in these peculiar ones, entirely ceased. Rags and misery had invaded almost every rank; and what now at all distinguished them was but an appearance of frugal mediocrity. The nobility were seen walking in becoming and modest, or even dirty and shabby, clothing; some, because the common causes of misery had affected their fortunes to this degree, or even given a finishing hand to fortunes already much dilapidated; others, either from fear of provoking public desperation by display, or from a feeling of shame at thus insulting public calamity. Petty tyrants, once hated and looked upon with awe, and accustomed to wander about with an insolent train of bravoes at their heels, now walked almost unattended, crestfallen, and with a look which seemed to offer and entreat peace. Others who, in prosperity also, had been of more humane disposition and more civil bearing, appeared nevertheless confused, distracted, and, as it were, overpowered by the continual view of a calamity, which excluded not only the possibility of relief, but, we may almost say, the powers of commiseration. They who were able to afford any assistance, were obliged to make a melancholy choice between hunger and hunger, between extremity and extremity. And no sooner was a compassionate hand seen to drop anything into the hand of a wretched beggar, than a strife immediately rose between the other miserable wretches; those who retained still a little strength, pressed forward to solicit with more importunity; the feeble, aged people, and children, extended their emaciated hands; mothers, from behind, raised and held out their weeping infants, miserably clad in their tattered swaddling-clothes, and reclining languidly in their arms.


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