A remembrance for Benedict

February 21, 1677, fell on a Sunday, so it happened when the landlord and his wife were away at church. Just as it is this year, it was the weekend before the start of the Lent season. If they knew their tenant was on death’s door, they may have stayed home instead. They just didn’t know.

The day before, Benedict had seemed fine — fine for him, anyway. He’d always been a bit unwell. A bit too underfed. A bit too quick to catch ill. “Spinosa was a Man of a very weak Constitution, unhealthy and lean, and had been troubled with a Pthysick above twenty years, which oblig’d him to keep a strict course of Dyet, and to be extreamly sober in his Meat and Drink,” wrote his early biographer, Johannes Colerus, who lived with the very same landlord and slept in the very same room as Spinoza around 1705.

With the benefit of modern medicine and hindsight, we can guess that Spinoza’s cough was likely either silicosis brought on by inhaling glass dust from his lens grinding business, or perhaps tuberculosis. But whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to deter him from a habit of smoking a pipe, which he had done the Saturday prior, when he came downstairs from his room around 4 p.m. to sit in the parlor and have a long chat with his landlord. They discussed the special religious service he and his wife had just gone to in preparation for the Shrove Sunday service tomorrow.

And Spinoza came down the next morning for a talk, too. But maybe the cough sounded worse. Or perhaps Spinoza looked a shade sicker. The landlord told Colerus that it was decided a physician was needed. So a trusted doctor was sent for — Dr. Lodewijk Meyer from Amsterdam, one of Benedict’s most trusted friends and, it would later be revealed, a fellow heretic.

Meyer arrived around noon and ordered an old chicken to be boiled so that Benedict could have some broth (even then, the old Jewish penicillin!) and eat some meat. Thinking everything fine, the landlord and his wife went off to church. When they came home, they were shocked to find out that Benedict Spinoza — born Benedito, known as Baruch and also Bento, all ways of saying blessed — had died around three in the afternoon.

Spinoza had been a controversial figure in life. Notorious, even. Starting with his infamous banning from the Jewish community in Amsterdam and leading through the banning of his books in the Dutch Republic. In death, though, he was suddenly popular, and openly so. There was no shortage of people who wanted to accompany the procession to his grave.

“The dead Body was carried to the Grave in the New Church upon the Spuy, the 25th of February, being attended by many Illustrious Persons and followed by six Coaches. The Burial being over, the particular Friends or Neighbours, were treated with some Bottles of Wine, according to the Custom of the Country, in the House where the Deceased lodged.”

Spinoza’s grave in Den Haag, Netherlands

His step-sister, Rebecca, who had sued him over his inheritance decades earlier and lost — only to see Bento turn over the inheritance to her anyway, as though the court case was nothing more than a mental exercise — turned up to inquire after yet another inheritance. When she realized that not only were there were no personal belongings to speak of, but she would be asked to pay the cost of her step-brother’s burial, she lost interest.

So when all was said and done, when the estate, such as it was, was sold off in probate, what did he leave behind?

A camlet cloak, and a pair of breeches were sold for 21 florins and 14 pence
Another grey cloak, 12 florins and 14 pence
four sheets, 6 florins and 8 pence
seven shirts, 9 florins and 6 pence
one bed, 15 florins
nineteen bands, 1 florin and 11 pence
five handkerchiefs, 12 pence
two red curtains, a counter-pain, and a little blanket, 6 florins
and all his plate, consisted of one pair of silver buckles, which were sold, 2 florins.

The whole sale of the goods amounted to 400 florins and 13 pence; and the charges of the sale being deducted, there remained 390 florins and 14 pence.

These are all the particulars I cou’d learn about the life and death of Spinosa: He was forty-four years, two months and twenty-seven days old, when he died; which happen’d the 21st of February, 1677, and he was buried the 25th of the same month.

FINIS.

May his memory be for a blessing.

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