THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 1630, when people were afraid of stealthy Frenchmen

Bongiorno! Imagine you are a townsperson in Milan, Italy, circa 1630. Sure, you have 24/7 access to delicious pasta and focaccia, and have a swell view of the stunningly beautiful Duomo as it’s being constructed, and you get to ride your horse, Luigi, down adorable cobblestone roads. And this would all sound perfectly lovely except that alas, the Plague is cutting a swath through Europe, so you’re pretty much on a red terror alert all the time.

Remember when fermenting yeast was all you had to worry about? Those were the days.
Remember when fermenting yeast was all you had to worry about? Those were the days.

You keep trying to chill, and focus on normal life—getting Luigi some new horseshoes, brewing beer, mocking local spinsters—but your leaders are skittish and not helping things. Case in point: Just last year the Governor of Milan told the people to be on lookout for four Frenchmen who’d escaped from prison and were hellbent on spreading the plague by rubbing poisonous ointments all over Italy.

Besides sounding gross, that worries you. You are in 17th century Italy, and touch unidentifiable sticky things all the time! For God’s sake, you pee in the street! How are you to know whether that patch on the wall is an olive oil mishap, or the evil anointings of a homicidal Frenchman?

You don’t know. Which is why you and all your friends pretty much lose your shit. Your leaders have basically said, when you see something, say something. And you see a lot of stuff: You see smears on doors, smears on walls. You see them on the cathedral and on park benches. Some super-crazies start beating or even killing anyone handling sticky stuff in a public place, according to Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior. 

In this fear-mongering moment, three either foolhardy or oblivious French guys chose this moment to visit Milan. They were spotted admiring the Duomo’s architecture, which naturally incited the Italian crowds.

Worse, “they reached out their hands to touch it. This was enough. They were surrounded, seized, tormented and urged by blows to prison. Fortunately, the hall of justice was not far from the cathedral, and by still greater good fortune, they were found innocent, and set at liberty.”

Eventually, you and your fellow Milanese calm down and come to grips with the fact that the French will not spread a potentially toxic poison throughout the world until 1985:


Nonetheless, you are still (rightfully) wary of French men, or truly anyone in a beret.