While there is much that is not known about the great pestilence which struck Europe most savagely in 1348 to 1350, this much can be said: in all of human history, there has never been a most devastating event. The modern analysis of surviving records indicates that the mortality rate throughout Europe averaged at least 50 percent. In the course of three years, one of every two human beings died, victims of a plague for which there was no effective remedy.
In most communities, the pestilence struck and killed within a few months while sweeping on to other communities, making the impact of the staggering death toll all the more devastating. . A good deal has been written about this pestilence, and John Aberth makes an admirable contribution with his small book, The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents. Most of this book is documents from the period of the great pestilence, and these give insight into the suffering that swept across Europe during this period.
When Aberth does interject comments, his observations are brief but thoroughly prescient. One of Aberthâ€™s finest pieces is his comment on one of the great mysteries of the disease which destroyed so much of Europe. (Aberth 23-27) We do not know what it was. As Aberth notes, the term now commonly used for this disease, the Black Death, was not used by contemporaries. It was first coined in the sixteenth century. (Aberth 1) The modern reason for describing this disease as an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague is the outbreak of a similar, if much less devastating pestilence in Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
(Aberth 1, 23; Herlihy 20-21) During that plague, microbiologists isolated a bacterium as the cause of the outbreak, and given the similarity of symptoms, historians posit that the pestilence that devastated Europe in 1348 to 1350 was a variety of the same plague. (Aberth 23-25) Aberth does a fine job of reviewing the strengths and the weaknesses of the modern discussion, including issues about the temperature at which plague-bearing fleas flourish (Aberth 25-26), and also the strengths and weaknesses of his medieval sources (Aberth 24-27) .
After all, knowing nothing of bacteriology and painfully little about the behavior of fleas and rats, medieval chroniclers were could hardly predict what modern scientists would like to know about the details of the disease their forebears encountered. As Aberth concludes, there are several problems with the conclusion that the pestilence of 1348 was the bubonic plague, but there are even greater difficulties with any alternative explanation that has been offered. (Aberth 26-27)
Part of the difficulty with the notion that the pestilence was the bubonic plague lies with the fact that the flea which commonly carries the plague bacillus prefers to inhabit rats rather than humans, and will abandon the rat only when it dies of the plague and its body begins to cool. (ABerth 25-26; Herlihy 21-23) Reflecting this fact, modern outbreaks of the bubonic plague have been marked by the widespread death of rats. Albert Camus mentions this occurrence as the first sign of the arrival of the pestilence in his novel, The Plague.
While some medieval sources do mention the widespread death of rats, it is not widely mentioned. However, the failure of these sources to mention a particular occurrence is questionable evidence from which to argue that something did not occur. For a wide variety of reasons, medieval chroniclers may not have connected the death of rats with the outbreak of the plague. Aberth also mentions that fleas can hide for long periods of time in grain, one of the items frequently carried along the routes which the plague followed.
(Aberth 25-27; Ziegler 16, Horrax 7-8), Another difficulty which modern scholars have encountered is that the symptoms of the plague as described in the medieval documents do not match closely the symptoms noted in early twentieth century victims of the plague. Here Aberth shows his understanding of the complex scientific literature in the field, noting that plague bacillus has been shown to have a remarkable capacity for mutation, so that it is quite possible that what swept through Europe was
a particularly virulent mutation of the plague, a strain causing symptom somewhat different from those encountered in modern pandemics. (Aberth 26) The effects of the plague have been debated almost since they first occurred. Some historians contend that, especially in England, the plague so reduced that number of available laborers as to raise their standard of living as employers had to compete for their services.
Here again, Aberth outdoes many other writers, by showing that variety and complexity of the economic responses to the devastating loss of population. In some areas, such as Egypt, the plague seems to have caused comparatively little change in economic relationships. (Aberth 67-70) In England, as noted, the condition of the lower classes gradually improved, and eventually, the true feudal system of serfs bond to the land fell away under the strain of the economic forces unleashed by the shift in the population.
Aberth also acknowledges that the plague prompted many labor-saving inventions which helped improve the lot of the common folk, but adds a very sound admonition: any social or economic gain that cost the lives of half of the continentâ€™s population must be hailed with considerable caution. (Aberth 68-70) In this analysis, Aberth again shows a good deal more subtlety and sophistication than many other historians who have tried to view the effects of the plague along more straightforward, if somewhat simplistic lines.
In one of the noted revisionist essays, David Herlihy, for example, contended that Europe prior to the plague had reached a Malthusian breaking point: the population had expanded to the point where it was exhausting food production, and its continued geometric expansion versus the arithmetic expansion of the food supply had created a crisis. By greatly reducing the population, the plague alleviated this crisis while stimulating a wide range of inventions which eventually made much great food production possible.
(Herlihy 31-39, 46-57) While not dismissing this interpretation, Aberth shows that it cannot explain the economic and social developments that occurred throughout Europe. These developments were sufficiently varied that no single theory can consistently bind them all together. (Aberth 69-70; Zeigler 203-09) While economic developments in the wake of the plague might be classified as â€œrationalâ€ responses to the pestilence, Aberth allows dwells on the hysterical responses, which took two primary forms: pogroms against the Jews and the flagellants.
These two phenomena sometimes were related, as the flagellants blamed Jews for the outbreak of the plague, but also finds the phenomena occurring separately. The flagellants marked a particularly strange form of hysteria, organizing themselves into bands of zealots who carried the mortification of the flesh to gruesome lengths. With their belief that they alone had found the way to satisfy a wrathful God, they represented a break with the authority of the Catholic Church, something that led to their excommunication and their suppression by both religious and secular authorities.
(Aberth 117-20;Zeigler 62-81) In a brief final chapter, Aberth considers how the plague altered the European conception of death. Here he notes some of the artistic changes that came about in the wake of th plague, including the appearance of â€œtransiâ€ tombs, which he describes as â€œa variation on tomb monuments by substituting or contrasting a skeletal and rotting cadaver to the idealized life-like portrait of the patron.
â€ (Aberth 169) One example of this is the tomb of Francois de la Sarra, on which the arms crossed over the chest are covered with worms and four frogs or toads sit on the face, covering the mouth and eyes. (Aberth 166, doc. 44) Another curious document that he presents is the :Disputacioun betwyx the Body and Wormes,â€ in which a noblewomanâ€™s body argues with the worms that gnaw away the flesh after her death. (Aberth 176-78, doc. 46) The great majority of this book is made up of documentary selections, and Aberth has chosen his sources well.
His introductory comments show the significance of each document, . and he notes grimly that many of those who tried to chronicle the plague fell victim to its ravages. He also shows the sad state of knowledge, in which the great medical faculty of the University of Paris, considered one of the leading centers of learning in its day, could find no better cause for the plague than the conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars in Aquarius in 1345.
(Aberth 41-42) While many authorities, Christian and Muslim, agreed that the plague was highly contagious, medical science was several hundred years from advancing any theory which would explain contagion in any credible way, and even farther from effecting a cure. The contradictory advice, the irrelevance of many proposed cures, and the gruesome stress on blood-letting show the sad state of medical knowledge at that time. (Aberth 45-66) Perhaps the grimmest aspect of these documents are the many comments showing the collapse of hope and human compassion during this terrible disease.
Time and again, there is the repeated refrain of abandonment. With the disease almost invariably fatal, once a person was stricken, relatives and acquaintance would flee rather than risk being afflicted. Over and over, the documents reflect this in a litany of abandonment, (Aberth 33-34,54, 76) There has been no later pandemic on the order of the pestilence of 1348 to 1350. By comparison, deaths due to AIDS/HIV would have to increase more than a thousandfold to equal the slaughter that the plague inflicted.
One can only hope that no such pandemic recurs. SOURCES USED: Aberth, John. The Black Death: the Great Mortality of 1348-1350 (New York, New York: Palgrave McMillion, 2005). Camus, Albert. The Plague. (New York, New York: Vintage Books 1991). Herlihy, David. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. (Cambridge, Massachusetts,L Harvard University Press, 1997). Horraxs, Rosemary. The Black Death (Manchester England: Manchester University Press, 1994). Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. (Thrupp, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton Publishing 1969).
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