Updated: Apr 12, 2022
As I write this, the world is in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. Life has been deeply altered and one wonders if things will ever return to the way they were.
While epidemics have occurred everywhere in the world and throughout history, there have perhaps been just 4 pandemics of this scope:
An outbreak of plague c. 7th century A.D.
A much more severe outbreak in 1348. This was the mother of all pandemics and is generally referred to by historians as the “Black Death”.
The influenza pandemic of 1918.
And now, COVID-19 (certainly less severe than the others but every bit as widespread, if not more so).
Amid the current uncertainty, I thought it might be interesting, and possibly instructive, to understand the “causes”, mitigations, cures and consequences of the Black Death. I draw no conclusions; I leave that to you, dear reader:
Primary sources principally refer to 7 “causes”:
Theological: The will of God; punishment for humanity’s transgressions against God’s law. Although this was probably the most popular explanation, at least among the general population, there is little evidence that the much of that population became more pious or amended their ‘sinful’ ways. (A notable exception to this was a fringe group known as the ‘Flagellants’.)
Astronomical: The conjunction of Mars and Jupiter in the sign of Aquarius.
Geological: Poisonous vapors released into the atmosphere as a result of earthquakes.
Environmental: Winters milder and wetter than usual followed by summers cooler and also wetter than usual. Medieval climate change? One modern author even claims to have found references in the primary sources to “vapor trails”.
Criminal: Bad actors (a medieval version of our ‘hackers’) deliberately introducing poisons into the food supply, water and air. One writer even described a weaponized aerosol.
Conspiratorial: No calamity is complete without an international Jewish conspiracy. In some parts of Europe, most notably Germany, it was an accepted matter of fact that a coordinated, world-wide attack on wells and streams was underway. Other authors pointed out that the dispersion of the plague was radically inconsistent with the predictions of such an intentional ‘model’ but it made no difference: thousands of Jews were burned.
Biological: Last and probably least, a few writers did suggest agents that we would recognize today as biological: “The existence of contagion has been proved by experience, deduction, the senses, observation and by unanimous report.” But these theories were not nearly as popular, or as sexy, as the alternatives. Apparently, media sensationalism did not begin in our 21st century.
Unlike COVID-19, those who contracted plague died in just a few days, often in just a few hours.
Just like COVID-19, the plague attacked the lungs and made breathing difficult and eventually impossible. In some cases, the distress was such that the patient experienced sharp chest pains, possibly the first sign of a fatal heart attack to follow.
Prevention & Treatment
Some principalities closed their borders and refused to let anyone enter their city or region.
Conversely, some authors recommended evacuating thickly populated cities and moving to rural areas or to highly elevated ground.
Others recommended a prophylactic course of pills, potions and purgatives, plus bleeding. One author made specific reference to an herbal remedy (a theriac) that was supposed to free the lungs from the effects of plague. A medieval version of hydroxychloroquine?
The general population, however, apparently had a different idea. Evidence suggests that the taverns were packed during the time of the plague.
Communication & Mitigation
Some authors focused exclusively on environmental factors: bad water, bad air, bad food, rats (Pied Piper?), human waste, and general uncleanliness. They focused their mitigation strategies on these contact media.
Other authors recognized a human to human path of transmission. They focused less on ‘bad water’ and other environmental agents and more on human contact: breath, touch, clothing, etc.
A few of these went so far as to recommend what we would now call “social distancing”. In extreme cases, small groups of presumably disease-free people (remember, plague symptoms manifest very quickly) would enter a house, lock it, and have no intercourse whatsoever with the outside world.
For many 14th century citizens, the Black Death was their most vivid taste of ‘democracy’. No doubt, this plague struck rich and poor, noble and peasant, priest and atheist indiscriminately. A modern historian wrote: “Everyone died the same death.” (Of course, that is always true, but the plague’s 50% mortality rate brought it front of mind.)
As a result, the scaffolding of social hierarchy was weakened, the ties of class structure were loosed. The 14th century marked the end of serfdom, at least in Western Europe, and the rise of what politicians today refer to as ‘the family farm’.
Some historians trace the emergence of a middle class to this tragedy.
Both goods and labor were scarce, so inflation soared. In response, various jurisdictions passed compulsory work laws, some including children as young as 12. Wage and price controls (especially wage controls) were also popular. The Marxist idea (which I don’t endorse) that government (the state) always serves the economic interests of the ruling class can find no stronger support than in Europe’s post-plague legislative history.
Long term, some historians see the seeds of capitalism and even the Renaissance in the ruins of plague ravaged Europe.