Thursday, October 1, 2015

New Disasters--The Black Death

Interesting little book--just 111 pages--about the Black Death of the Middle Ages, between 1347-1351.  I saw it in my local library while I was researching plagues and flus for my next novel.  Though I'm focusing more on the Great Plague of the 1660s in England, and not the Black Death of the Middle Ages (for they're not the same thing, and there are a great number of differences), I figured I could learn a little something from this.

It's broken up in sections: its arrival; recent scientific re-assessments (this was published in 2003, so it's still relatively recent); writings about the plague from the time; and the repercussions of the Black Death.

What I learned, in no particular order:

--It seems now rather certain that the Black Death wasn't just the Justinian Plague, carried by fleas on black rats.  Lots of evidence indicates that anthrax (the disease that killed cattle, not the powdery stuff used in germ warfare today) was also going around, either on its own or as a unique anthrax / plague strain.

--Part of the evidence for this was the unbelievable number of animals dying before the people started to die.  Also, the deaths did not abate much in the winter--odd for a plague dependent on fleas and rats to spread it.  (Neither survive or move around much in the winter.)  And people died with extreme rapidity from a third strain of the plague; it was said that they could go to bed feeling fine and be dead by morning.  (This does not seem to be an exaggeration.)

--The plague was said to come from vapors within the Earth, released during earthquakes.  It was believed that breathing man-made yuckiness--like from latrines--was beneficial, and would fight off the nastiness from within the Earth.  Planet alignments and other astrological things were also blamed.

--People died faster than they could be buried.  Putrefying bodies of people and animals would lie in the streets, and the stink was said to be incredible.

--Gravediggers, doctors and clergy died fastest, as they attended to the dead and dying.  Since nobody was left alive to bury the dead--and since those left alive didn't want to touch the dead or dying for fear of getting sick from their "humours" and "vapors"--a lot of money was paid to people who called themselves becchini.  These people would take the dead from their homes, from the streets, etc. and bury them.  But after awhile, nobody wanted to touch or associate themselves with these people, either, so the becchini became disgruntled and homeless, and often turned to crime.

--Those who couldn't afford to be cared for or buried simply weren't, and died alone in horrible conditions, and their bodies left to rot wherever they died.

--The Black Death may have some DNA in common with the HIV / AIDS virus.  Recent evidence suggests that 12%-15% of those with European descent--and an ancestor who contracted the plague and survived it--may be immune to the HIV / AIDS virus as well as the Black Death.

--The same plague from the Middle Ages is alive and well in a few spots, including the Midwestern U.S.  Some cases have cropped up in Colorado recently.

--A strain of the Plague--as well as strains of other viruses--are immune to today's strongest antibiotics.  A cocktail of super-antibiotics is used to fight these resistant viruses now.  Once the viruses become immune to these cocktails--which is very soon--there won't be anything left to stop them.

--God, then like today, was thought to be punishing the bad people.  [See: AIDS in the 80s.]  But then everyone, of every stripe, class, age and religion, started dying, so that theory was dashed by everyone--except the living, of course, whose every breath proved their moral superiority.

--A common "cure" was to bleed and purge the victim.  This led to an even more rapid death due to blood loss, exhaustion, dehydration, and a weakened immune system.  Those who came in contact with the blood or feces of the victim could contract the illness as well, so that the "cure" killed them, too.

--Mercury was often recommended, which made plague victims die of the plague and of mercury poisoning.  Several learned people complained that their doctors were killing them quicker than the pestilence was.  (BTW, the plague was never called the plague at the time.  It was called a "pestilence" or "the Great Pestilence.")

--The most common thing doctors did for the victim?  Study their urine.

--In some towns, when one member of a family got sick, the entire family was sealed inside the home, so that everyone--the healthy and the sick--died.

--Before everyone died of the plague, those blamed for it the most were the Jews and the undesirables of society.  [See: World War II.]  It was commonly believed that Jews were poisoning the wells, and tens of thousands of Jews across Europe were hunted down because of this belief, including entire communities.

Anyway, a little book that, in these virus-ravaged days, makes for some eye-opening, if not chilling, reading.  With the Earth long overdue for a pandemic like the 1918 super-flu, and with our current attitudes about change and blame, this book made for some quick, interesting and thought-provoking reading.

The more things change, it seems, the more things stay the same.

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