For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man.Matthew 24: 38–39
In the course of the nineteenth century, cholera came to be defined as a disease caused by a comma-shaped bacillus that often spreads through fecal contamination of drinking water. Symptoms of the disease include copious vomiting and diarrhea which frequently lead to death from severe dehydration. The history of cholera epidemics in Europe and the Americas has been shaped by this understanding of how the disease spread and the story of how it came to be controlled. As R. J. Morris noted in his history of the 1832 cholera epidemic in Britain, "Historians of disease and public health tend to concentrate on the pre-history of our own modes of thought and action, the miasma-contagion disputes, the problems of administration and finance and the campaign to gain political support for reform."1 It makes sense that the provision of urban sanitation, the development of scientific understanding, and the triumph of the germ theory have been among the most important themes in the historical literature on nineteenth-century epidemics, but it is also true that many historians have recognized that for those who faced those deadly epidemics of cholera, hygiene meant more than [End Page 74] cleanliness and the absence of microscopic pathogens. Germs, after all, would not be discovered for decades after the first cholera epidemics arrived in the West. In the nineteenth century, hygiene connected good health and cleanliness with virtue and morality. Cholera was not just an epidemic; it was a moral plague.2
Cholera epidemics stimulated debate not only about public issues but about proper behavior in private life as well. Whether the disease was caused by an environmental condition or by a microscopic organism, a crucial question awaited an answer: why did some die while others were spared? Why did not all those exposed to the miasma or to the germs succumb to the disease? Each potential explanation left open the question of predisposition to disease, the notion of contributing causes that might be subject to personal control. Most people were not concerned with grand theories of etiology: with effluvia, miasmas, or microscopic animals. They wanted to know what they could do to avoid a disgusting disease and a rapid and painful death. Morality and mundane activities were common concerns for those awaiting the first cholera epidemics. For many people, the time of cholera was a time to face death, to ponder their lives, and to examine their mundane activities; or, [End Page 75] at least, to have these questioned for them by the literate class. Early publications on cholera prophylaxis are rife with social prejudice and condemnations of the lifestyles of the poor and infamous. After a brief review of how the worldly pleasures of eating, drinking, and sexual activity were thought to be related to the possibility of death from cholera in Canada, Mexico, and the United States, we can turn our attention from these recommendations to the behavioral patterns connecting marriage and religion to cholera epidemics in Catholic populations in Mexico City and Montreal in the early 1830's.
As the epidemic approached, food and drink were carefully scrutinized and categorized; some of each were thought to increase the risk of sudden death from cholera. Advice on eating and drinking was consistent in each of the three countries, as were the political efforts to limit sale of disreputable foods and to prohibit or limit drinking. Given the consensus that common foods might provoke attacks of cholera, officials of the Catholic Church frequently were willing to set aside the traditional rules of ritual abstinence in the time of cholera. Special dispensations to consume meat on what otherwise would have been meatless holy days were granted in several cities. In the early days of the epidemic...