26 May 2010

Disasters: The Black Death

By Blythe Gifford

A family member, alive and normal in the morning, was dead by nightfall. Nearly one third of the population of Europe died in less than three years. And no one knew why, or how to stop it. That was the pandemic we now call the Black Death or the Black Plague. Europe just called it The Death, and it cleaved the 14th century, indeed, the whole medieval world, into Before and After.

Most of us learn that it was spread by fleas that rode on rats that lived on ships that carried the rats from Cathy to India to the shores of Italy. A map of the spread of the disease shows a relentless, unstoppable march: Constantinople (December, 1347), Paris (June, 1348), London (June 1349). Scotland thought it was immune to the "English disease," until it, too, was hit in 1350.

People died faster than they could be buried. Whole villages were wiped out. Conventional wisdom now is that The Death was a combination of several varieties of the plague: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. (Some current writers have speculated it was caused by something similar to the Eboli virus.)

Primitive as medical knowledge was, they suspected "bad air," and indeed, pneumatic plague is airborne. Bubonic and septicemic plague were spread by the fleas too ubiquitous to be noteworthy.

Sometimes death came so swiftly there was barely time for symptoms. Those, the victims of septicemic plague, were the lucky ones. Pneumonic plague has more flu-like symptoms. For those stricken by bubonic plague, swelling lumps throughout the body turned black, split open, and disgorged putrid pus and blood. Black spots covered the body. The victim bled inside as well as out. Pain was constant. The only blessing was that death came in a week or less.

While some victims did recover, no one knew why some lived when most died. In a time when God was the answer to all questions, they wondered whether He had sent the pestilence as punishment for the world's evils. It seemed the end of the world had come.

Finally, the scourge waned. But the impact on the second half of the 14th century and beyond is nearly as interesting as the plague itself. Priests had died in great numbers, many as a result of tending their flock, thereby putting themselves in harm's way. There was no way to replace them with men of equal stature and education. The shortage of trained priests meant that less educated (and sometimes less godly) men were recruited.

(In HIS BORDER BRIDE, set half a dozen years after The Death hit Scotland, I have a brief reference to the wedding being delayed to find "a priest educated enough to perform the nuptial mass.")

In the aftermath, people lost faith in the Church and its priests, who had been neither been able to prevent or explain what had happened. People could find neither justice nor mercy in it. Good people died. Evil people lived. It was a blow from which the Church never fully recovered. The unwavering faith of the high middle ages eroded, arguably opening the way for the Renaissance and the Reformation.

The huge loss of population also created a labor shortage, and not just among the priesthood. The architects and skilled craftsman who designed and built the churches were lost. Serfs were also in short supply, which shook the foundations of the feudal system. For the first time, serfs were able to leave the land and they saw their standard of living improve. Wages and prices rose. Kings tried to introduce price controls, with the usual success, and raise taxes, with the usual popularity. The Peasant Revolt of 1381 was among the results.

Overall, nobles and the clergy were losers. Kings and peasants were winners. And the Danse Macabre, or the Dance of Death, lingered in the minds of all for generations.