A rare ephemeral Portuguese talismanic pamphlet was printed in 1833, when a cholera reached the country for the first time. The symbol of the Cross of Saint Zacharias and a prayer, printed in the publication and followed by a short explanation of its meaning, were supposed to protect the booklet’s owner from the disease. As Cholera was at the time a new illness, unknown to wider population, it is here named as a more commonly known plague.
Cholera came to Europe from India in 1831 and reached Portugal through Porto less than two years later, on January 1st 1833. The pandemic in the city lasted for more than eight months, when Porto was finally declared free of disease on August 22.
Shorty after the Porto cholera outbreak, a ship from England with infected passengers reached Lisbon and the disease spread rapidly around the city. The first victim was recorded in April and until October 1833, 3.500 people succumbed to the disease. The pandemics took a toll of more than 40.000 people in Portugal.
Cross of Saint Zacharias
The Plague Cross of Saint Zacharias of Jerusalem is a double cross, inscribed with an acrostic for a prayer, originally against plagues and later against other the pandemics. The cross has been used for centuries in Western Christianity as a talisman in various shapes: made of metal, wood or various other material, drawn with a chalk on the wall, printed or drawn on a piece of paper etc.
The symbol was approved by Council of Trent (1545–1563) believing, that the inscribed cross saved the participants of the council from a plague. The Plague Cross later became a protecting symbol against various epidemic diseases, such as cholera and in the past years also against Covid.
The ephemeral pamphlet is very rare and we could only trace one example on Wolrldcat (New York Academy of Medicine).
References: OCLC 46737215; Cf.: Magdalena Gorrell Guimaraens, Cholera Morbus 1831-1833 The Example of Porto, a City Under Siege (THE BRITISH HISTORICAL SOCIETY (bhsportugal.org); (Microsoft Word – Chronology Calamities.doc (ul.pt).