Vienna’s Plague Defenses Included Plague Hospitals and Prayer

A plague hospital in Vienna 1679. Contemporary engraving.

Like Venice, Italy, Vienna, Austria, has always been vulnerable to outbreaks of plague because of its geography and its maritime history. Vienna, Austria, is located on the Danube River, and it has always been a major trading crossroads between east and west. Vienna’s crossroads location has made it vulnerable to plague epidemics since the first wave of plague swept across Europe in the 14th century. The Great Plague of Vienna struck the city in 1679, when it was the imperial residence of the Austrian Habsburg rulers.

The Great Plague of Vienna Is Part of a Larger Plague Outbreak

What is called the “Great Plague of Vienna,” was really a minor part of a major outbreak across Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and adjoining regions. For many years plague had been rampaging over Western Europe, spread by travelers on the trade routes. Rats were the plague carriers up and down the trade routes, especially the Silk Road, and they settled into population centers like Vienna and continued to spread the plague.

Historians believe that the Great Plague of London, occurring in 1665-1666 originated in the Netherlands in the 1650s. This outbreak of the plague killed around 100,000 people and it was the first major epidemic in a series that struck Western Europe.

Vienna’s Geography and Layout Favors the Plague

The city of Vienna was walled until the 19th century, and was compact and crowded. Early records show that no public sewers or drainage systems existed. The people of Vienna drew their water from courtyard wells until 1553, when water piping was installed. These improvements didn’t spare Vienna from several plague outbreaks.

Viennese usually piled their garbage into huge mountains in the streets. Plague carrying rats were as plentiful as garbage in Vienna. Warehouses in Vienna stored trade goods like clothing, carpets, and grain for months at a time and rats heavily infested these goods. People living outside of Vienna considered conditions inside the city so unhealthy that they plague was often called the “Viennese death.”

The Great Plague of Vienna and Its Descendants

In the early months of 1678, plague struck the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna, which then lay outside of the city proper. Authorities downplayed the plague outbreak and tried to hide its presence. In July, 1679, the plague finally breached the city wall and roamed freely over Vienna. Historians are not certain how many people died in this plague outbreak. Contemporary reports estimate 70,000 to 120,000 deaths, but coroner’s reports list only about 8,000 fatalities.

Vienna Plague Hospitals

During the 1679 epidemic, the Brotherhood of the Holy Trinity, a religious order in Vienna, established special hospitals for children and adults. They offered basic nursing care which was a substantial improvement over other medical and public health benefits in Vienna. Doctors treated patients with emetics, bloodletting and by applying evil smelling ointments to their sores.

Patients who died were loaded on carts, driven to the outer edges of Vienna, and put in large open pits for burning. The bodies were allowed to lay exposed to the open air for several days until the pits were nearly full. This allowed the rat population to remain constantly infected and in turn, to constantly infect people.

The Famous Pestsaule Plague Column

To commemorate Vienna surviving the Great Plague, the Viennese built a monument known as the Pestsaule, one of the better known and prominent pieces of sculpture in Vienna. The Pestsaule is German for plague column and it is located on Graben, a street in the inner city of Vienna.

Emperor Leopold I fled Vienna during the 1679 plague epidemic. He vowed to erect a memorial column if the plague would end. Sculptor Johann Fruhwirth created a wooden model showing the Holy Trinity on a Corinthian column and nine sculpted angels for the Nine Choirs of Angels.

In 1683, Matthias Rauchmiller was commissioned to do the marble work, but he died in 1686, leaving only a few angel figures. Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach contributed one of the several new designs, by creating the sculptures at the base of the column. Sculptors Tobias Kracker and Johann Bendel and other sculptors contributed to the column which was erected in 1693.

The monument symbolizes the transition to the era of High Baroque in Vienna and it influenced the style in the entire Austrian region.

The Legend of Lieber Augustin

In 1680, the preacher Abraham A. Sancta Clara wrote in “Losch Wienn” that the ravenous plague had not passed by a single lane or street in Vienna. He said that for an entire month around Vienna and in Vienna the sights were nothing but dead people being “carried, dragged and buried.”

Ballad singer, bagpipe player and poet Augustin said, “Oh, my lovely Vienna, that is all gone.”

As well as widespread death and despair, the great plague of 1679 produced the legend of Lieber Augustin. According to the legend, Augustin was a popular street musician who got drunk late one night and while walking home fell into a pit filled with bodies of plague victims. He didn’t contract the plague and finally rescuers pulled him from the pit. He attributed his survival to the alcohol. He is remembered in the popular folk song Oh, Du Lieber Augustin..

Every day was a feast,

Now we just have the plague!

Just a great corpse’s feast,

That is the rest

Although Augustin waxed poetic about the plague, his predictions about Vienna’s demise didn’t come true. Vienna has survived into the 21st century as a culturally rich, diverse, cosmopolitan city that attracts residents and visitors from around the world.

A more recent plague outbreak in Vienna occurred in 1898.


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