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Chapter 04

chapter 04

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Peter King

25 September 2012 The Great Plagues: The Black Death Professor Sir Richard Evans In this series of six lectures I want to look at some of the great diseases and their relationship to human history. That relationship has usually been described in terms of the impact of epidemics on societies, politics, economies and cultures. The classic statement of this view is William H. McNeill’s book Plagues and Peoples, first published in 1976. In it, McNeill, a specialist in global history and author of probably the best two general histories of human society to appear in the twentieth century, sought to uncover a dimension of human history that historians have not hitherto recognized: the history of humanity’s encounters with infectious diseases, and the far-reaching consequences that ensued whenever contacts across disease boundaries allowed a new infection to invade a population that lacked any acquired immunity to its ravages. After surveying human history from its very beginnings in Africa up to the present, McNeill concluded that ‘infections disease…will surely remain…one of the fundamental parameters and determinants of human history.’ In a similar way, the latest general survey of the subject, by J. N. Hays, examining Epidemics and Human Response in History, argues that ‘throughout history, diseases have swept the globe, bringing down empires, wrecking economies, and changing the course of history… Humans claim control over their own destinies, individual and collective…[but] that claim falls in the face of attack by tiny organisms’. Paul Slack’s recent book Plague: A Very Short Introduction similarly claims that ‘epidemics of plague…have shaped the course of human history’. The history of disease, and especially epidemic disease, or in other words disease notable by its sudden and widespread temporary occurrence, has usually been described in quasi-military language when it comes to assessing its relationship with human society: bacilli, microbes and viruses ‘attack’ human societies, who organize a ‘defence’ against them that was usually overwhelmed by the ‘invading’ hordes of micro-organisms. So disease is often presented as an independently acting factor on human history, although in practice, especially with McNeill, its spread is frequently explained in relation to changes in patterns of trade, exploration or warfare that bring together hitherto separate ‘disease pools’ in areas of the globe geographically isolated from each other in a ‘confluence’ with devastating effects on previously unaffected areas where human society has not acquired immunity to the new disease through previous exposure to it. So in this series of lectures I hope to show that epidemics, sudden, mass outbreaks of disease, have their origins in changes in the way people interact, that political, military, economic, social and cultural developments have been their ultimate cause. I want in other words to approach epidemics historically, as an integral part of human history, rather than as a factor impacting upon it from outside. McNeill was writing some 35 years ago, too, and since that time the social 1 | P a g e history of medicine has grown to be an integral part of modern historical studies; we know a lot more than we did in his day, and I will incorporate as much of this new knowledge as I can in this series of lectures. As McNeill suggests, and as I hope to show in later lectures in the series, it would be wrong to claim any kind of superiority over people in the past in this respect. Human society continues to interact with disease in a variety of ways, and although we’ve managed to banish some diseases like smallpox, others have emerged to take their place, like AIDS or SARS. Medical science has identified the causes of most diseases, and suggested ways of preventing and treating them, and I’ll devote part of each lecture to the ways in which past societies deals with epidemic disease; but whether or not the methods used at any time, including the present, are successful is more often than not dependent on far more intractable factors of human society and politics. In some cases, the decline of a particular disease, such as tuberculosis, which was non-epidemic but pervasive right up to the twentieth century, owes, as I’ll suggest in a later lecture, far more to general social and economic developments than to the intervention of medical science. I’ve chosen to approach this subject through the study of six distinct diseases, each of which interacted with, and was influenced by, human society in a different way, though I will also of course be trying to set each of them in a broader context and make some comparisons with other diseases too. This way of approaching the topic is not completely problem-free, however. Making retrospective diagnoses with the tools of twenty-first-century medical science isn’t always possible, not least because past societies had a different concept of medicine, describing diseases by their symptoms and using generic and undifferentiated terms to denote what we might nowadays think of as a whole range of distinct infections. Even more problematical is the fact that micro-organisms can and often do mutate, as with for example the dominant strain of cholera in the twentieth century, known as El Tor from the place where it was discovered, in Egypt, in 1905; its symptoms far milder than those of the classic cholera of the nineteenth-century epidemics. Diseases often have many different strains – there are more than 200 in the case of cholera –and these may have slightly differing symptoms, so that relying on descriptions of symptoms by contemporaries can be fraught with perils of interpretation, perils to which some historians have too easily succumbed. These problems are particularly acute in the first of the diseases I want to consider, namely bubonic plague. The word plague which is found in a whole variety of written sources from the Ancient World to the early modern period in Europe, just meant a terrible and sudden mass visitation such as the Biblical Plague of Locusts or the cattle disease known as Rinderpest, Pest being the German for plague – incidentally only the second disease, after smallpox, to have been completely eradicated from the globe. The modern use of the word Plague to denote a specific disease of human beings generally refers, as it will in these lectures, to bubonic plague, now known to be caused by a bacillus, Yersinia pestis, noted for the very high death rates to which it led, normally between a quarter and a half of the population in infected areas, with a morbidity – in other words, the number of people affected in all, whether they died or not – running at twice that level. These very high rates of morbidity and mortality ensured that chroniclers, diarists and officials recorded plague epidemics whenever they occurred, usually describing the symptoms in detail. We can’t be sure that all plagues described in the sources refer to the same disease, but attempts by historians like Samuel Cohn and Graham Twigg to suggest that, for example, the Black Death, the visitation of ‘plague’ widely recorded in medieval Europe, was not bubonic plague but some other disease, have fallen foul of recent DNA testing of skeletons from a variety of plague burial sites in Europe have found definitively that Yersinia pestis was present in all of them, albeit in different strains or biovars indicating that it found its way from China to Europe around 600 B.C. along a variety of routes. Just because some of the symptoms described in Ancient or medieval sources were different from those exhibited by the disease today doesn’t mean, therefore, that it wasn’t bubonic plague. The first pandemic – that is, a global or almost global series of linked epidemics of the same disease – that can be described as bubonic plague with any degree of plausibility is that generally known as the Plague of Justinian, sweeping across the Roman Empire and its former 2 | P a g e territories in the West from 541 to 767 A.D. in a series of fifteen great waves. It was described by the chronicler Propopius, who wrote in 752 A.D. of a ‘plague that threatened to annihilate the human race’: It started from the Egyptians who dwell in Pelusium. Then it divided and moved in one direction towards Alexandria and the rest of Egypt, and in the other direction it came to Palestine on the borders of Egypt; and from there it spread over the whole world, always moving forward and travelling at times favourable to it. … And this disease always took its start from the coast, and from there went up to the interior…[People] had a sudden fever, some when just roused from sleep, others while walking about, and others while otherwise engaged, without any regard to what they were doing. And the body showed no change from its previous colour, nor was it hot as might be expected when attacked by a fever… But on the same day in some cases, in others on the following day, and in the rest not many days later, a bubonic swelling developed; and this took place not only in the particular part of the body which is called boubon, that is, "below the abdomen," but also inside the armpit, and in some cases also beside the ears, and at different points on the thighs. As Procopius suggested, with his reference to the plague spreading from the sea, the disease was mainly spread by trade. It’s carried by fleas which jump from rats, specifically the black rat, universally present on seaborne trading vessels in the Mediterranean, to human; in some cases it’s also spread by droplet infection, by people coughing or sneezing. Justinian’s plague spread not least because Justinian, who had become Emperor in 527, had succeeded in re-conquering many of the lost territories of the former Empire, taking North Africa from the Vandals and Italy from the Goths and bringing Spain under Byzantine control once more. Political unity in the Mediterranean brought wider regions into trading with Byzantium, specifically the Middle East, and by the same token, the massive mortality caused by the plague, generally agreed to have been around 30 per cent of the population at least of the towns and cities affected, brought a halt to the expansion of the Empire by leaving fields untilled, taxes unpaid, and armies fatally under strength; indeed it subsequently opened up the Empire to the advance of Islam. At the same time, however, climate historians using studies of ice-cores and tree-rings have dated a sharp and serious deterioration in the climate to the years between 536 and 545, caused by volcanic eruptions in south-east Asia covering the globe with a film of dust in the upper atmosphere, causing poor harvests and bringing people into the towns, particularly Constantinople, in search of food. Lower temperatures and wetter summers also favoured the growth of rat populations in Africa, which expanded their territory until they reached the shores of Justinian’s newly enlarged Empire. Here is a graph of various estimates of climate change over a long period where you can see a sharp drop of the red line in the 530s and 540s before the climate recovers. A similar graph of climate fluctuations taken from sedimentary deposits in the Sargasso Sea tells a similar story. You can see the dip as we move from left to right, back in time, around 1500 years from the present. While there’s little doubt that the Plague of Justinian itself was bubonic plague, there’s less certainty about the epidemics that swept across the Empire in the following decades. What is certain, however, is that the disease more or less vanished from Europe and even the Middle East from the eighth century to the middle of the fourteenth. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this coincided with a period when the climate warmed up, to the extent indeed that the Vikings were able to settle Iceland in 974 and from there establish a viable agricultural colony on the shores of Greenland (here are Viking ruins at Hvalsey in southern Greenland). Correspondingly, bubonic plague reappeared as the climate began to deteriorate as the so- called Medieval Warm Period came to an end in the second half of the thirteenth century, bringing the Viking Settlements in Greenland into serious difficulties until they were abandoned early in the fifteenth century. Well before that, in the years 1315 to 1322, wet and cold summers were causing crop failures and leading to an epidemic of cattle disease. In the 1340s the climate deteriorated further, possibly because of cosmic debris circling the earth following the break-up of a comet, a hypothesis supported by contemporary references to strange sights in the night sky. 3 | P a g e However, these factors, even if you accept their importance, were only enabling; it took once more the expansion of trade, the growth of cities, and above all the massive east-west movthent of the Mongol Hordes under Genghis Khan, who established a vast empire in the 13 century across which not only silk and other Asian products could travel but also rats and fleas, aided by the cooler climate in the 14 century; the opening of the Straits of Gibraltar to trade following the ending of Islamic control in 1291 enabled the disease to spread to north- west Europe as well. Bubonic plague was actually brought to the Crimea in 1346 from the Caucasus by a Mongol army, one of many trying to establish their power following the break- up of Genghis Khan’s Empire. The army was devastated and had to retreat, but the disease infected local inhabitants and was carried by ship to Constantinople and thence following seaborne trading routes to the rest of the Mediterranean and beyond. The best-known medieval description of the symptoms as they occurred in the Black Death is by the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, whose Decameron features stories told to each other by a group of Florentines fleeing from the city after plague has struck in 1348: Its earliest symptom, in men and women alike, was the appearance of certain swellings in the groin or armpit, some of which were egg-shaped while others were roughly the size of the common apple…within a short time [they]…would appear at random all over the body. Later on, the symptoms of the disease changed, and many people began to find dark blotches and bruises on their arms, thighs, and other parts of the body…in most cases death occurred within three days from the appearance of the symptoms we have described…the majority without any fever or other complications. Like other Italians, Boccaccio had no doubt that the plague, as he wrote, ‘had originated some years earlier in the East, where it had claimed countless lives before it unhappily spread westward, growing in strength as it swept relentlessly on from one place to the next.’ By 1348 it was in London, from where it moved northwards to Oslo and then to Ireland and Germany, reaching the Danube in 1349 and Scotland and Sweden in 1350, Poland in 1351, Kiev in 1352 and Muscovy in 1353, by which time it had more or less run its course in the rest of Europe. The devastation was immense: recent estimates have put the number of dead across Europe at 50 million out of a total population of 80 million. In other words more than half the entire population of Europe died from the disease. The local impact was often even more severe, with the number of households in Chambéry in France falling from 403 in 1348 to 184 the following year, a population of 11,400 in San Gimignano in Italy in 1322 collapsing to 4,500 in 1349, and the number of wills proved in London courts increasing fifteenfold between 1348 and 1349. The disease affected everyone, rich and poor alike, and the countryside as much as towns and cities. No-one seemed immune. The Black Death was only the opening, if the most serious, episode in what historians have called the second pandemic of bubonic plague in Europe, lasting all the way up to the eighteenth century. Despite McNeill’s assumption that repeated exposure to a disease confers a degree of immunity on human populations, morbidity and mortality rates remained high in all subsequent epidemics of bubonic plague, even though it became increasingly confined to Europe’s cities. Here’s a chart of burials among the laity at San Domenico, Siena, for example, showing plague years through the second half of the fourteenth and the first half of the fifteenth century. The Plague of London in 1665 killed around a fifth of the population, or some 68,596 people as recorded by the summary of the year’s bills of mortality – the figure can be seen in the right-hand column just below the middle section. The plagues in Genoa and Naples in 1656-7 and Marseilles in 1720-21 had a mortality rate of around 50%, its effects suggested in this engraving from 1727 by Simon Thomassin. So the question arises, first, what was the broader social, economic, cultural and political impact of these repeated epidemics, secondly, how did medicine try to cope with them, thirdly what did governments do, and finally why did the bubonic plague eventually disappear from Europe? Obviously, when the population is drastically reduced, labour becomes scarce, so it increases in price, meaning that there’s a shift in the balance of power in society away from landlords and employers and towards tenants, mostly small peasant farmers, and workers. Labourers on the land could and did demand a reduction of feudal exactions as the price of providing 4 | P a g e their labour. There was also more to go round among a much smaller population, so the overall standard of living of ordinary people rose. Wages doubled or trebled, while rents and the general price of land fell. Feudal obligations and labour services could no longer be enforced. For those who survived, times were better, while measured by GDP per capita the economy became more productive. There were widespread complaints from the upper classes about the overturning of the social order all this implied. Attitudes towards authority became less deferential, culminating in France in the Jacquerie of 1356-58, in Florence in a great popular rebellion in 1378, and in England in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, here seen being defeated, with the death of its leader Wat Tyler, as Richard II addresses the rebels. In all these rebellions peasants were protesting against feudal exactions which governments were trying to impose, or re-impose, by force. ‘When Adam delved and Eve span’, as the peasants’ rhetorical question went, ‘who was then the gentleman?’ More prosaically, as an Italian commentator declared in 1363, peasants were moving from poor land to occupy the best plots whose owners and their families had died, while workers were demanding a threefold increase in wages. ‘The common people’, he wrote, ‘by reason of the abundan
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