Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Plague

[Norman F. Cantor taught at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and several other universities. The following is from his book about the Plague:] In the England of 1500 children were singing a rhyme and playing a game called "Ring Around the Rosies." Children holding hands in a circle still move around and sing:

Ring around the rosies
A pocketful of posies
Ashes, ashes
We all fall down

The origin of the rhyme is the flu-like symptoms, skin discoloring, and mortality caused by bubonic plague. The children were reflecting society's efforts to repress memory of the Black Death of 1348-49 and its lesser aftershocks. Children's games were - or used to be - a reflection of adult anxieties and efforts to pacify feelings of fright and concern at some devastating event. So say the folklorists and psychiatrists.

The meaning of the rhyme is that life is unimaginably beautiful - and the reality can be unbearably horrible.

In the late fourteenth century a London cleric, who previously served in a rural parish and who is known to us as William Langland, made severe reference to the impact of infectious diseases "pocks" (smallpox) and "pestilence" (plague) in Piers Plowman, a long, disorganized, and occasionally eloquent spiritual epic. As translated by Siegfried Wenzel:

So Nature killed many through corruptions,
Death came driving after her and dashed all to dust,
Kings and knights, emperors and popes;
He left no man standing, whether learned or ignorant;
Whatever he hit stirred never afterwards.
Many a lovely lady and their lover-knights
Swooned and died in sorrow of Death's blows....
For God is deaf nowadays and will not hear us,
And for our guilt he grinds good men to dust.

The playing children, arms joined in a circle and singing "Ring Around," and the gloomy, anguished London priest were each in their distinctive ways trying to come to psychological terms with an incomparable biomedical disaster that had struck England and most of Europe.

The Black Death of 1348-49 was the greatest biomedical disaster in European and possibly in world history.

A third at least of Western Europe's population died in what contemporaries called "the pestilence" (the term the Black Death was not invented until after 1800). This meant that somewhere around twenty million people died of the pestilence from 1347 to 1350. The so-called Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 killed possibly fifty million people worldwide. But the mortality rate in proportion to total population was obviously relatively small compared to the impact of the Black Death - between 30 percent and 50 percent of Europe's population.

The Black Death affected most parts of the Mediterranean world and Western Europe. Some historians believe that the Black Death, which reached Sweden by 1350, caused an era of intense pessimism and widespread feelings of dread and futility. Others see that people rose to the occasion, nobly enduring hardship and danger, to see that their communities survived. After the devastation, the core of the civilization had been preserved, and new creativity could be based on it.

But the great medical devastation hit no country harder than England in 1348-49 and because of the rich documentation surviving on fourteenth-century England it is in that country that we can best examine its personal and social impact in detail. Furthermore, there were at least three waves of the Black Death falling upon England over the century following 1350, nowhere near as severe as the cataclysm of the late 1340s, whose severity was unique in human history. But the succeeding outbreaks generated a high mortality nonetheless.