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Plague it again, Sam | Marcel Strigberger

Friday, November 06, 2020 @ 1:12 PM | By Marcel Strigberger

Marcel Strigberger %>
Marcel Strigberger
Court is in session? Who knows? Given these uncertain times, our judicial system is constantly changing course, attempting to adapt to the pandemic. Courts are open, courts are closed. No to jury trial, maybe yes to ongoing jury trials, at the judge’s discretion. Maybe OK in an orange zone. Are tangerine zones next? Live hearings, virtual hearings. Is this pattern novel?

I thought it was until I came across some medieval writings, penned in Italy during the massive bubonic plague that hit Europe around 1347. These writings were authored by a Fabrizio Foccaccio, a Florentine lawyer, physician and barber. His name is not too familiar, even to Google, as in his later years in life he decided to join an order of modest monks. He was going to write a book on his eclectic experiences, but his monastic order discouraged multi-tasking.

Foccaccio, noted that until 1347, the courts in Florence ran very efficiently. If a culprit committed a crime, the prosecutors or inquisitores, after a quick encouraged confession, would ensure he would get his trial in a timely manner, followed by a quick execution. An appeal could be made to the local count de Francesi. The count wore two hats. He also served as the chief inquisatore. Foccaccio notes that this mode of appellate procedure was not generally the appeal route of choice.

Then suddenly the plague hit the area. Nobody was sure of its origin. Some scientists blamed the explorer Marco Polo. He had travelled the Silk Road through Asia and rumour had it that while there, he ate some strange crawling animals that likely were infected. Noted astronomer, Professore dela Stella said, “Marco Polo imported this plague, sure as the world is flat.”

Marco Polo’s son, one Paolo Polo, trying to clear his dad’s name, argued that Marco Polo had actually died a few years earlier. And in any event, his father he claimed, was a vegetarian. His pleas for reason and calm fell on deaf ears, as an angry crowd soon descended on his house seeking to lynch him. He was able to disperse the mob by quick thinking, putting some black ink on his face and shouting, “Woe is me! Yikes! Plague.”

Nobody knew how to handle this apparent pandemic. Hospitals were overwhelmed and they soon ran out of their supply of the main course of treatment, leeches.

The courts remained open for a while, as count de Francesi noted that there were dozens of rogues who had already confessed to their crimes, and there was no sense holding off their trials. As the count put it, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

The courts did however enforce strict precautionary measures to curb the spread of the disease. Anybody having any business in the courthouse had to answer a questionnaire, which included questions such as, “Within the previous seven days, did you visit any foreign places such as Padua, Roma or Bologna?” If you answered in the affirmative the guard would proceed to further questioning, asking whether while in those places you managed to take in a match of futball. The courts certainly took the plague seriously.

It was also believed that the plague could be spread by close contact with infected people. Accordingly, when a trial took place, the accused and his lawyer would be in one courtroom and the judge and the inquisatore in an adjacent courtroom, with the doors firmly shut. The accused would have to shout his pleas of innocence loudly, often at the top of his lungs. This worked to a certain extent unless the trial was before Judge Lorenzaccio, who was, as Foccaccio put it, “Deaf as a doorknob in the Duomo. The learned author notes that the conviction rate in Judge Lorenzaccio’s court was a bit on the high side.

Foccaccio, who was also Florence’s chief medical officer, mandated that all people wear masks in public. This ordinance allowed the courts to remain open for a while. The masks however for some reason were not overly effective. Nobody could figure out the reason for this problem as Foccaccio had ordered thousands of surplus masks, left over from a recent Venetian Carnival. Foccaccio especially liked the mask with the long beak. Did I mention that Fabrizio Foccaccio was also Florence’s chief purveyor?

All in all, the plague came and went and the courts for the most part remained functioning, albeit sporadically. It is unclear what ever became of Fabrizio Foccaccio. Local historian at the time, Alberto Arugula visited the monastery where Foccaccio had been cloistered, after not noticing any activity from him for a while. He tried to interview the monks to check on his status but, they wouldn’t talk.

Don’t we all find reading a little history, whether or not it happened, uplifting?

Marcel Strigberger retired from his Greater Toronto Area litigation practice and continues the more serious business of humorous author and speaker. Visit Follow him @MarcelsHumour.

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