Death and Dreams in a Time of Plague

Kat Hill

Fig. 1: A memorial to the plague in Elsinore

A man in the Baltic town of Gdańsk sits at the bedside of his son and weeps. It is the morning of October 26, 1709. The young man is ailing with plague which has swept through the region. The son’s affliction follows the death of his mother a few weeks prior in early September. As the son lies dying, the door to the parlour opens and closes. The father sees no one. But the son sets eyes on his mother, bright and clear, a vision of hope who reassures him that he will soon be with her again. They talk for some fifteen minutes. The clock chimes and the door open and closes. The bright spirit of the woman is gone but she leaves behind the promise that the son will join her soon. And true to her word, the disease takes him too.1

Fig. 2: Samuel Don(n)ett, Abbildung von der großen Pest in Dantzig 1709

In 1709 deadly plague came to the Baltic regions, spreading up along trade and military routes from southern Poland, part of a larger pandemic which spread through central Asia and the Mediterranean in the first two decades of the eighteenth century. Though it took time to reach the city, and despite control measures, Gdańsk did not escape. In March 1709 a family in a district of the old town fell sick, seven people died, and it was evident that the plague had come to the city. Despite this, one pastor still held a sermon to celebrate the city’s escape, perhaps a ‘super spreader’ event in today’s parlance. The disease’s inevitable growth turned into a twenty-five-week epidemic with twenty-five thousand dead in the city out of a population of only fifty thousand.2

The plague hit the Mennonites hard, as it did the rest of the city of Gdańsk. In the records kept by the Flemish branch of the Danzig (Gdańsk) Mennonite church, a total of 409 people died in this community alone in one year, with most of those deaths concentrated in the last quarter. September, the month that the unnamed man’s wife died, was particularly bad, with 6 or 7 people often dying in one day in this small community. By the end of 1709 the figures amounted to 66 men deceased, 72 women, 18 young women and 4 young men. 249 people died who are not listed separately as they were unbaptised, mostly children.3 The extent of loss is evident from the stark reality of the numbers, but rarely do we see material like this document, a letter written by the man to his relatives in Altona. It is a special testimony to experiences of death and illness amongst these Mennonites. The man lost his wife, his two sons, Johann and Cornelius, his sister Sara, his brother Johann, his brother-in-law Paul and his mother. He was left alone to contemplate his grief.

Fig. 3: Extract from the church book of the Flemish Mennonite Church in Danzig, held at the Mennonitische Forschungsstelle in Weierhof.

The letter underscores the physical impact of a devastating illness but also the power of emotional deterioration. These experiences paralleling one another. Both seem to break down the boundaries between the spirit and the body, the dead and the living. Visions abound in the story that the man relates to his relatives. The unnamed man described the worsening state of his son saying that he ‘raged’ or was delirious, using the verb ‘rasen’ suggesting he had lost his senses. However, the son’s delirium was mirrored by the derangement of the father who wept at his son’s side and was distraught. His grief had some of the same symptoms of his son.4 And it was in a dissociative state, in a dream, that the father’s grief led to visions which mirrored the fevered conjurings of his son. His brother-in-law Paul appears to him three times—once after his wife’s death, once after his son Johann’s, and once in the summer of 1720. On the second visit, the spirit of Paul says:

“Your son Johann has also come to us. I cannot describe to you the joy, which your wife had with little Cornelius, when she saw Johann arrive.”

These visions and visitations are a strange mix of emotional and physical derangement, disassociation and altered states of consciousness when margins become blurred at moments of stress and conflict. The dream-state seems to be a way in which this man expresses his deep loss and grief, his despair contrasted with the joy of his dead family.5 Telling stories seems to soothe his pain. He retells the dream narrative in his letter but dreams themselves can also be seen as subconscious stories we tell ourselves. The father weeps but Paul tells his brother-in-law that, “Our spirits coalesced in love ( he uses the verb ‘verschmelzen’) and there was the greatest joy.” In the dream where he can contact the other world, the father can touch the blessed happiness of the afterlife. The whole letter is steeped in anguish and despair but also hope and love. Does narrating the pain in these tales ease his grief, or merely make him relive it?

The visiting spirits bring knowledge hidden from living men. The mother’s spectre seems to know who will die, although the brother-in-law Paul is only able to give notice of who has arrived in his spiritual world and does not have news of the future. The man even confesses he had made a strange pact with his relative, a pact which looks something like a devilish deal to know the unknowable—what life after death was like. The writer interjects a warning that this should not be copied by others. There is no suggestion that the pact was to be frowned upon in his case but dealings with the world of spirits were dangerous. That the spirits and dreams coincide with the striking of the clock makes it read like a ghost story and there is an otherworldly element to the narrative.6

The powerful interaction between the living and dead is perhaps surprising in a Mennonite letter, but the vision painted evokes a world of light, love and truth. The brother-in-law’s spirit describes the afterlife as if there were first a waiting room, a cavern to which he goes before he is transported to the community of the blessed. The spirit stresses that the wonderful place he now inhabits is the kingdom of the elect. Yet he also reminds his relative that human action on earth could not affect one’s fate beyond the veil. All the weeping and sighing is useless unless there is an inherent unity with the elect.

The father seems to have a longing for death; there is a glimmer in the letter of the transformation that comes with dying and his desire to join the elect.7 Perhaps he just wished to be with his family again but there was a clear sense of the unity of the true community in the afterlife. The son Cornelius also has a moment of joyous realisation when he feels the symptoms of illness and sees his mother. He shouted:

‘‘Dear father, thank God, I am also now so ill, now I will die, and be with my dear mother. O, if I were only already there.’

These are not the words of a man filled with fear and worry but of expectation at being reunited with his mother. There is something deeply touching and personal in these confessions, the suggestion of the tension in the joy the father should feel in the knowledge that his dead family are in the community of the elect and his conviction that he will perhaps soon join them. After all, he is part of the true church on earth. But yet the letter suggests he is not fully comforted; at the level of individual experience, the chasm still remains between the living and the dead.

This is a profoundly moving letter written in a moment of crisis, laying bare the grief and loneliness of a man nearly all of whose family have died and left him on earth. This is also why it so revealing as it throws up questions about the interplay between death and life, presence and absence, the individual and the community, grief and hope. But it is also in these moments of loss, suffering and emotional crisis that we can examine the threads that kept Mennonite communities together. Particularly striking, is the brother-in-law’s description of the marvellous number of those in the afterlife – more than the sand at the sea or the stars in the sky. The widower without his children though remains, as he says, completely alone.


1 ‘Copeij eines Schreibens aus Danzig’, 1720, Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Small Archives, Box 1733, Folder 2.

2 Karl-Erik Frandsen, The Last Plague in the Baltic Region 1709-1713 (Copenhagen, 2010), 26. On the plague in Danzig see also E. Kizik (ed.), Dżuma, ospa, cholera. W trzechsetną rocznicę wielkiej epidemii w Gdańsku i na ziemiach Rzeczypospolitej w latach 1708–1711. Materiały z konferencji naukowej zorganizowanej przez Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Gdańska i Instytut Historii PAN w dniach 21–22 maja 2009 (Gdańsk 2011) and the contemporary account Johann Christoph Gottwald, Memoriale Loimicum, Oder Kurtze Verzeichnüß, Dessen, LoimicumWas in der Königl. Stadt Dantzig, bey der daselbst Anno 1709. hefftig graßirenden Seuche der Pestilentz, sich zugetragen, Nach einer Dreyfachen Nachricht, aus eigener Erfahrung auffgesetzet und beschrieben (1710).

3 H.G. Mannhardt, The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origjn and History from 1569-1919, trans. Victor G. Doerksen, ed. and annotated Mark Jantzen and John D. Thiesen (Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, 2007; co-published with Pandora Press, Kitchener, Ontario).

4 Hannah Newton, ‘The sick child in early modern England, 1580–1720’, Endeavour 38.2 (2014), 122–129.Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4330552/

5 On sleep, dreams and visions see Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (New Haven, CT, 2016); Janine Riviere, Dreams in Early Modern England (London and New York, 2017).

6 On dealing with the discernment of spirits see Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth-Century England (London and New York, 2007); Laura Sangha, ‘ “Incorporeal Substances”: Discerning Angels in Later Seventeenth-Century England’, in Clare Copeland and Jan Machielsen (eds), Angels of Light? Sanctity and the Discernment of Spirits in the Early Modern Period (Leiden, 2012), 255–277; Elizabeth Tingle, ‘Ghost Stories: Noël de Taillepied’s Pischologie ou apparition des esprits (1587) and the Rehabilitation of Purgatory in Late Sixteenth-Century France’, in Elizabeth Tingle and Jonathan Willis (eds), Dying, Death, Burial and Commemoration in Reformation Europe (Abingdon and New York, 2015), 175– 196

7 On grief and suffering in Protestant theology see Ronald K. Rittgers, ‘Grief and Consolation in Early Modern Lutheran Devotion: The Case of Johannes Christoph Oelhafen’s Pious Meditations on the Most Sorrowful Bereavement (1619)’, Church History 81.3 (2012), 601-630.

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