Saturday 19th July 2008, St. John’s Cemetery, Nuremberg, Germany
After leaving Prague (which remained relatively unaffected by the black death in the mid fourteenth century) for Nuremberg I came down with some kind of sore throat. The time on my watch was 13:49, and my diary entry for the day read: "Woe is me of the Euro in the neck gland". I was in Nuremberg and I'd contracted the plague.
The black death was to visit Nuremberg on at least fourteen separate occasions between 1349 and 1508, with 5500 (or a quarter of the population) dying during the outbreak of 1462-63. Not only did the average Nuremberger have to fear the ashen buboes, simply surviving until adulthood was an achievement. In the sixteenth century, the average life expectancy of a Nuremberger was around thirty to thirty-five, but such a low figure can be attributed to the high level of infant mortality, as an average adult could expect to live until their mid fifties. It is therefore hardly surprising that those living in the late-medieval and early-Renaissance periods were constantly reminded about death.
Nuremberg's original cemetery was located immediately to the north of St. Sebald's Church and was used up until 1516 when - with the support of Emperor Maximilian I - it was decreed that anyone not considered notable should be buried outside the city. The existing cemetery of the village of St. John's (a short distance to the west of the old city) was chosen as the new site. St. John's cemetery began as a leprosarium - referred to as early as 1234 - and was initially divided into three burial sections: lepers to the south, plague victims to the west and villagers to the north. That plague victims were originally separated from general burial perhaps indicates a fear of contagion.
Indeed, the fear of plague contagion was a contributing factor in the decision to move cemetery outside the city, though as the city grew, the relatively small area available for burial must also have played a role. Nevertheless, due to pre-Reformation fears of purgatory and the need to aid the salvation souls of the dead, the moving of the burial sites met with some opposition. This may in part account for the commissioning of Adam Kraft's stone reliefs dedicated to the Seven Stations of the Cross, completed in the early part of the sixteenth century. The reliefs led the way from Nuremberg to St. John's Cemetery and would have served as a reminder of the salvation achieved through Christ's death on the cross.
In 1528, the notable remains of one Albrecht Dürer found their way into a burial plot in St. Johns, indicating that even those of importance were now buried outside the Nuremberg city walls. It is interesting to note that the majority of the graves - including that of Dürer - contain multiple occupants, many completely unrelated by birth. Clearly the new cemetery became plagued by limited space, just as the earlier cemetery outside St. Sebald's Church had been. Furthermore, what was once the new cemetery is today well and truly within the bounds of the city of Nuremberg. And so the cycle of life and death continues.
Thankfully my plague was cured by some particularly powerful German pseudoephedrine.