Thursday, January 7, 2016

In the Wake of the Plague -- The Black Death and the World It Made

Photo: A Bubonic Plague map, from the Wikipedia page The Black Death in England.  This site quotes that up to half of England's population died of the plague in the Middle Ages, and another 20% later--and that doesn't count the last epidemic, the The Great Plague of 1666.

Fascinatingly in-depth, yet quick-to-read, take on everything Black Death.  This includes, but is not limited to:

--the biomedical facts of the Plague.  The memorable kicker here is that scientists have concluded, by digging up bodies of Plague victims in the frozen Arctic, that the Great Pestilence may have made about 10%-15% of today's descendants of Plague survivors immune to HIV, which causes AIDS.  This would've been certain by now, since the completion of the Human Genome Project, as this book was published in 2001.  The other memorable factoid is that anthrax was most likely killing off Europeans--especially the British--as the Plague was doing so as well, making London of the Middle Ages the worst place to be of all-time.  This explains why millions died in the winter--when rats and fleas are not abundant--and why millions died in the Frozen Arctic, where rats and fleas don't go at all.  Turns out, many of those people didn't die from the Plague--they died from anthrax.  And, why didn't many people have the tell-tale buboes and skin and blood lesions that Plague victims got?  And why did some people get struck by the virus one night and die before morning, which was unusual for Plague, which took days or weeks?  Answer, again: anthrax.

--social and economic aftereffects of the Plague.  In short, yeomen and women flourished, economically.  The Church was devastated and hired younger and more undereducated people, as the older but learned leaders died off. Serfdom ended. People questioned the infallibility of their monarchies (who were supposedly God-chosen and God-protected, but who during the Plague were God-forsaken) and of the Church, and of medicine.  After all, if the priests and friars and physicians couldn't save themselves, how could they save (spiritually and medically) anyone else?  And if they couldn't do that, what good were they at all?

--artistic expression.  Commonly thought to have become more morbid and pessimistic after the Plague, Cantor believes that art was going that way anyway, and that Renaissance art was less of a mirror of the Plague than previously thought.  I'm surprised by this, but Cantor is hugely respected, and he quotes many others, so I'll take his word for it.

--world government. The Plague spelled the end for the Plantagenets, which was a long-lasting monarchy and European power that you and I have never heard of. But they would've ruled England and Spain, and maybe, by default, France, at the time, which was a constant thought of every monarch for hundreds of years, but would've actually happened. But English Princess Joan, who was about to marry into the Spanish monarchy, died of the Plague (in France, at 15), and so that never happened. This led to the trials and tribulations of Edward II and III, and of Henry IV-VI, and, well, the rest is history.

--medical and scientific stagnation. These two things were just as much to blame as were the actual Plague and anthrax, as the vacuum of medical and scientific advancement in the Middle Ages (except in the field of optics) made these pandemics worse, and longer-lasting, than they necessarily had to be. Nobody knew or practiced anything that could've combated the Plague, so the main response was to pray, flee and blame--

--the Jews. The Plague wasn't the first time they were scapegoated, but perhaps this was the first European-wide excuse to massacre them, as entire villages, households and neighborhoods of Jews were set aflame and otherwise wiped out because the common man thought they were poisoning the wells, thereby creating and spreading the Plague. The first of many Jewish holocausts over the years.

In short, if you're interested at all in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance, or in the Plague, this is necessary reading. An informative, well-written (and often sarcastic) account of the Plague, the people and the time.

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