Historical Plague Survival: The Oberammergau Story and the Dongguang County Mystery

Pieter Bruegel's painting 'The Triumph of Death,' depicting the Black Plague in Europe.
The modern approach to pandemics often revolves around scientific advancements and medical interventions, whereas ancient communities might have combated diseases through acts of virtue and factors beyond the visible realm. (Image: Whpics via Dreamstime)

Plagues have the power to topple the mightiest empires and disband the strongest armies. Seemingly impartial and ruthless, neither wealth nor power offer protection. Even a nation’s ruler can easily fall victim. Despite our advanced material and scientific civilization, we have not been immune to the indeterminate origins of current viral crises.

However, plagues are not entirely equitable. Not everyone falls to the reaper’s scythe, no matter how wildly it swings. Some succumb, others survive. How did certain communities, sometimes an entire village, maintain a beacon of light in the darkness of pandemics centuries ago, when knowledge of microbes was almost non-existent? Today, let’s humbly explore the stories of two inconspicuous villages from history.

Oberammergau: A Bavarian tale

Nestled in a lush valley carved by picturesque rivers, the town of Oberammergau sits tranquilly in the German Alps. Visitors are captivated not only by its natural beauty, but also by the exquisite frescoes on low buildings, depicting fairy tales and religious stories, lending the town an almost fantastical air.

Yet this peaceful town once faced an existential threat. A centuries-old, leather-bound, yellowed manuscript, a record of death, bears witness to this dark history. It lists the names of villagers claimed by the Black Death, which ravaged Europe.

Man wearing a plague doctor costume and standing at the seaside.
The town of Oberammergau faced an existential threat as the Black Death ravaged Europe. (Image: Rodjulian via Dreamstime)

The record begins in September 1633 with Kaspar Schisler, who brought the plague to Oberammergau. As the epidemic approached, the villagers self-imposed a quarantine, with guards patrolling to prevent outsiders from entering. Yet, Schisler, homesick and working nearby, secretly returned, unwittingly bringing the deadly disease with him.

In just 33 days, over 80 villagers perished — a catastrophic toll for this small community. The fear of the unknown end of this devastation loomed large, especially when neighboring villages were decimated. In their darkest hour, the villagers gathered at the village cross, led by the priest, and made a solemn vow. If spared, they would perform “The Passion of Christ” every 10 years, a commitment to honor their savior until the end of time.

Miraculously, the plague ceased in Oberammergau, and the death register remained unaltered. The following year, the villagers kept their promise, performing “The Passion” near the graves of the fallen. From then on, every decade, this tradition has continued, involving nearly half of the village’s population. Even today, this decennial performance not only serves as a spiritual cleansing for the villagers, but also brings fame to this small town, attracting visitors worldwide.

The plague ceased in Oberammergau after villagers vowed to perform 'The Passion of Christ' every 10 years to honor their savior
The plague ceased in Oberammergau after villagers vowed to perform ‘The Passion of Christ’ every 10 years to honor their savior. (Image: Oliver Perez via Dreamstime)

Dongguang County plague mystery

The tale of a Chinese village in the 18th century is even more remarkable. As recounted by Ma Yongtu, a retired official, Dongguang County in Hebei Province witnessed a miracle when not a single person in the village was infected by a plague that was prevalent in the area at that time.

What was so unusual about this village? According to Ma’s narrative, for over 30 years before the outbreak of the epidemic, whenever unclaimed human remains were found in the southern town, kind-hearted villagers would pool their money together to help build a communal grave, providing a resting place for these lost souls. The initiator of this custom was a gentleman surnamed Liao. For over 30 years, the villagers willingly contributed to this act of kindness, and the exact number of buried remains was never counted.

As the plague encroached, Liao dreamt of a hundred strangers asking for his help to battle the approaching plague. They requested the burning of paper flags and wooden knives wrapped in silver foil as a means to combat the disease and protect the village. Liao, a man inclined to believe in the extraordinary, heeded the dream. He crafted and burned the requested items.

Burning papers out of respect for ancestors.
Strangers in the dream requested the burning of paper flags and wooden knives as a means to combat disease and protect the village. (Image: Thakkura Podjanapon via Dreamstime)

Several nights later, in the otherwise quiet wilderness surrounding the village, a tumultuous clamor of shouting and fighting suddenly left the entire town trembling with fear, unsure if it was bandits raiding or an invading army. How could their peaceful village suddenly turn into a noisy battlefield? The commotion continued throughout the night until it finally subsided at sunrise, without any signs of battle visible to the villagers. This tumultuous night might have been considered as nothing more than a nightmare for some. But miraculously, from that point on, the southern village of Dongguang County became a haven from the plague, with no one falling ill amidst the prevailing epidemic.

This remarkable account was personally narrated by Ma, a respected figure in Dongguang County, and meticulously documented by his son-in-law, Jixiaolan, lending significant credibility to the story. Intriguingly, Jixiaolan described this event as “the battle against the epidemic.”

In contemporary times, the discourse around conquering epidemics often revolves around scientific advancements and medical interventions. However, the foregoing account sheds light on how ancient communities, in the absence of medical remedies or vaccines, might have combated diseases through acts of virtue and factors beyond the visible realm. This raises compelling questions about the ancient mindset and practices in stark contrast to modern scientific approaches. How can we reconcile these differing perspectives, and what can they teach us about the diverse ways humanity has faced health crises throughout history?

Translated by Joseph Wu

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  • Mikel Davis

    Mikel serves as editor and sometime writer for Nspirement. He loves foreign cultures and foreign places. They have taught him many lessons. He hopes his work can impact others so they have a better life, or at least a better day.