Not all of the Plague’s Outcomes were Deadly
The Black Plague, the Bubonic Plague, or the Black Death, was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. Historically, it has plagued humans 3 times; we are most familiar with the Medieval Era. The Black Death is thought to have started in China or central Asia. It reached the Crimea by 1346. From there, it was carried by Oriental rat fleas living on the black rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships. Spreading throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, the Black is estimated to have killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population.All in all, the plague reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million to a number between 350 and 375 million in the 14th century. Nasty. Gives new meaning to the phrase “I see dead people.”
Symptoms begin with bubos, which are like gross boils, appear on the body as pink bumps and turn black within a day or so. Today they can be treated with antibiotics, although these are considered to be less effective than previously (yes, this plague is still around in third world countries). Bubos generally appear in the groin area and arm pits where lymph nodes are located. Without treatment, the bubonic plague kills about two-thirds of infected humans within 4 days. Infection from the bubos went septic, meaning it quickly worked its way into the blood stream. As the bubos darkened, gangrene set in and people were literally eaten alive. The Italian writer Boccaccio said its victims “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”
EFFECTS ON THE SOCIAL STRUCTURE OF MEDIEVAL ENGLAND
Even when the worst was over, smaller outbreaks continued, not just for years, but for centuries. The survivors lived in constant fear of the plague’s return, and the disease did not disappear until the 1600s. Medieval society never recovered from the results of the plague. The plague, along with the King Ricard I poll tax, even led to a major revolt across Europe. After the pestilence, many buildings, great and small, fell into ruins in every city for lack of inhabitants, likewise many villages and hamlets became desolate, not a house being left in them, all having died who dwelt there; and it was probable that many such villages would never be inhabited. In the winter following there was such a want of servants in work of all kinds, that one would scarcely believe that in times past there had been such a lack. So many people died that there were labor shortages all over Europe, leading workers to demand higher wages, but landlords refused.By the end of the 1300s, peasant revolts broke out in England, France, Belgium and Italy. The Peasants’ Revolt, Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, or the Great Rising of 1381 was one of a number of popular revolts in late medieval Europe and is a major event in the history of England. As a result, the end of serfdom, the status of peasants under feudalism, was the next major English reform.
Serfdom was a condition of slavery. Serfs occupied a plot of land and were required to work for the Lord of the Manor who owned that land, and in return were entitled to protection, justice and the right to exploit certain fields within the manor to maintain their own subsistence. Having said that, this so-called exploitation was pitiful. The serfs were poorly fed, lived in shacks with dirt floors, and had to work the land even during harsh, cold winters. Many children and infants died during this era, since two parents had to work the land together and they often left toddlers alone to watch over their infant siblings. A peasant who was a serf worked for the Lord often until death. Should the family debt to the Lord not have been repaid, his family were now indentured and had to continue working for the Lord. There were many illegitimate children throughout the Lord’s property, since he forced himself upon women whom he felt were under his”ownership.” Talk about exploitation.
A plague doctor was a special medical physician who saw those who had the plague. They were hired by towns that had many plague victims in times of plague epidemics. Since the city was paying their salary, they treated everyone: both the rich and the poor.They were not professionally trained experienced physicians or surgeons, and often were second-rate doctors not able to otherwise run a successful medical business. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some doctors wore a beak-like mask which was filled with aromatic items. The masks were designed to protect them from putrid air, which was seen as the cause of infection.Being a plague doctor was unpleasant, dangerous and difficult. Their chances of survival in times of a plague epidemic were low. ague doctors could not generally interact with the general public because of the nature of their business and the possibility of spreading the disease; they could also be subject to quarantine.Plague doctors practiced bloodletting and other remedies such as putting frogs on the buboes to “rebalance the humors” as a normal routine. Humors were believed to comprise the human body with four distinct bodily fluids. The four humors of Hippocratic medicine were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood, and each corresponds to one of the traditional four temperaments. A famous plague doctor who gave medical advice about preventive measures which could be taken against the plague was Nostradamus the Seer. Nostradamus’ advice was the removal of infected corpses, getting fresh air, drinking clean water, and drinking a juice preparation of “rose hips“. Nostradamus also recommended not to bleed the patient. I wonder if Nostradamus predicted the plague. If he didn’t then that was a bit of an oversight (pun).
PLAGUE IN THE 20TH CENTURY
On March 6, 1900, a city health officer autopsied a deceased Chinese man and found organisms in the body that looked like plague. In 1894, two research physicians had simultaneously and independently identified the bacillus that causes bubonic plague. In San Francisco, political issues vied with scientific efforts. Anti-Chinese feeling ran strong in the city then, and the first step taken was to quarantine Chinatown. The Chinese objected, and so did the business community, not to protect the rights of the Chinese, but because the knowledge that the Plague was in the state was bad for business. The quarantine was lifted but health officials ran house-to-house inspections of Chinatown. People resisted, hiding their dead and locking their doors. More plague cases were found. In April 1901, a clean-up campaign of Chinatown was undertaken, scouring almost 1,200 houses and 14,000 rooms. On February 29, 1904, a woman in the town of Concord, California, died of plague, its last victim — for a while. There had been 121 cases in San Francisco and 5 outside, with 122 deaths. North America is the world’s largest reservoir for the plague. Every year people are infected a few die from it. The early signs of plague are easily mistaken for flu or other illnesses: fever, chills, and weakness to the point of severe prostration. Plague’s ability to masquerade as flu in the early stages is particularly unfortunate, since successful treatment depends on using the appropriate antibiotics within a narrow time frame. Our main defence against the disease is hygiene. Our modern sewage systems and Public Health organisations keep this plague to a minimum.
The Flagellant Brahren and their Atonement for Sin
Bands of hooded men, wearing white robes marked front and back with a red cross, are moving to and fro across Europe, attempting to atone for the ravages of the Black Death by whipping themselves in ritual public ceremonies. The Brethren mistakenly believed the plague was a punishment for human sin, and that by scourging themselves they showed mankind’s repentance. They travel in parties of anything from 50 to 500 men, and were high ly organized. They moved from town to town to perform their rituals. Singing hymns and sobbing, the men beat themselves with scourges studded with iron spikes. Blood gushes from their many wounds, and the spikes embed themselves in the torn flesh. The ritual was performed in public twice each day.
The movement and position of the planets, suns, moons, and anything else in orbit you can think of, was also believed to be the culprit during the Medieval Era. Ahem.
Many people closed their doors and windows, burning incense, in the mistaken belief that the plague was spread by bad air. Villages set controlled fires in the streets. I’ve breathed some bad air before but it wasn’t from the plague.
Poor witches. It always comes to that, doesn’t it? Many people were suspected of witchcraft and this, naturally, was the cause of the plague. Many people were tortured and put to death for “consorting with the devil.” What a terrible time to be alive.
The Disappearing Woman
This story has circulated for decades, originating in Paris, France, around the Victorian Era. A woman and her mother were travelling through France together and checked into a hotel. Later that night, the mother became very ill. After the hotel manager examined the woman, he sent the woman across town to visit a doctor for a medication. The woman left but when she arrived at the doctor’s address, she discovered his house was shut down and he was away on vacation. She returned to the hotel to report the matter but the hotel manager was confused. He asked her why she had gone searching for a doctor. Bewildered, the woman reported he had sent her to the very doctor he denied knowing, in order to treat her mother’s illness. The manager stated he was unaware of the woman’s mother accompanying her into the hotel and that she had checked in alone. She insisted on returning to her room, and was brought to the same room with a different number on the door. When she entered she discovered the room was furnished in a completely different manner; even the wallpaper was different. Only her own possessions were there and none of her mother’s luggage. There was no sign of her mother. The woman contacted police, who visited the hotel. The hotel staff insisted the woman had arrived alone and they had never seen her mother. Eventually, the poor woman returned home without her mother and never discovered what became of her. Speculation suggests that the woman’s mother had somehow contracted the Black Plague since they had recently travelled through India. In order to prevent pandemonium in the city, police advised hotel staff not to admit the mother had ever been in the hotel. Whether or not this actually happened has never been verified.
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