Hi, 7E! You must wonder whether I’ve caught the bubonic plague myself, I’ve seen you so rarely lately. Today I have been bludgeoned (if that’s not too strong a word) into going to an in-service. That’s a day where teachers all sit around for hours talking about the future of education and other gruesome topics. I would much prefer to be in the classroom with you, telling you all the even more gruesome details of the Black Death. Since I’m absent, you’ll have to read about them below. I promise to be back tomorrow and not to accept any more forceful invitations to go to these conferences. Sigh.
Australia recently had a bit of a scare with the swine flu, but it has been much less dangerous than the Black Death in Europe in 1348. Mind you, we have been affected by serious flu viruses in the past. We have even had an outbreak of the Black Death, but this is not a virus; it is spread by bacteria. In 1900, 303 people in Sydney caught this disease and 103 died. By this stage in history people knew what caused the disease (unlike in 1348, when absurd and false theories abounded). A bounty was put on rats – sixpence a rat according to one Melbourne report. Poor and unemployed men became professional rat catchers. Here is a picture of them at work:
This picture is copyright to the State of NSW and is kindly provided by the State Records Authority of NSW, who allow free dissemination of knowledge. I love public authorities with that kind of attitude. That pile in the middle is dead rats. Ewwwww….
Go to this link to view other fascinating and gruesome pictures, including closeups of rat heaps, quarantine areas being demolished, etc:
And marvellous Melbourne (or Smellbourne as one wag of the period called it) also suffered from a case of the disease; read about this mild case in Collingwood. The man who had the plague had a bubo and bacteriological examination established the nature of the affliction beyond doubt:
Clipart of rat kindly provided by http://www.phillipmartin.info/clipart/
Anyway, back to the Black Death. One-third of the people of Europe died from this disease – and that was only counting the first time it struck them. In 1348 it struck a population without any immunity at all, a little like smallpox striking the native populations of South America and Australia. The situation in medieval Europe made people particularly vulnerable to such a disease:
Sanitation was very bad. People didn’t know about bacteria and as you walked along streets you had to step over faeces. Cities stank. Rats and fleas were commonplace. Peasants expected to have fleas, for instance.
There was a great deal of poverty, malnutrition and poor health in a large percentage of the population. When the Black Death came it attacked a weakened population.The rate of mortality in untreated cases is reportedly around 40–60%. Presumably a healthy, well-fed person would have a better chance of survival than a poor, malnourished peasant – and Europe’s population was largely made up of poor, malnourished peasants.
Watch pic kindly provided by http://desktoppub.about.com
According to a book from our school library, “The Death” by Amanda Braxton-Smith, some historians believe, based on evidence from digs in Ireland, that the average lifespan in the Middle Ages could have been about 25 years. This evidence suggests over half the women were dead by the age of 35 and one-third of the population had died before the age of 14. Of course, this may not be true of Europe as a whole but it gives an insight into medieval life (and death).
To read about the mortality rate of the plague, go to the link below. You should be aware that just to complicate matters there were three kinds of plague, and the prognosis (likely medical outcome) for each was different.
Medical knowledge, at least amongst Christians, was woeful. While Islamic physicians were quite scientific in their methods, Christian doctors were ignorant of anatomy and other vital information. The Church was partly to blame. It controlled what doctors learned and it didn’t allow dissection of bodies. This meant that in one French medical school, for instance, there was only one practical anatomy lesson in two years. An abdomen was opened and looked at; that was it. The prescriptions of doctors at the time of the plague were dangerous rather than therapeutic. (Read the examples further down.)
Another problem was that the Church viewed disease as a punishment for sin. Some people believed that if you had leprosy it had been brought on by too much lust. In such an environment of blame and ignorance, you can imagine that careful scientific examination and rigorous observation of symptoms would be uncommon.
If doctors were ignorant, then the rest of the population, mostly illiterate, was even more so. It was a very superstitious period and wild rumours and prejudices rapidly took hold. This meant that instead of doing useful things like quarantining people, cleaning up filthy areas and burning plague-infested areas (all done by the Sydney administration in 1900), medieval people often reacted by blaming the innocent.
From Wikipedia Commons, originally from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901–1906, and now in the Public Domain; picture titled, “French Jews of the Middle Ages”
The Jews were one group who were accused of poisoning wells and infecting people with plague. They were massacred, tortured and even burned alive. It was horrific. Some writers believe it was the worst persecution of the Jews before the Nazis in the 20th century showed atrocious cruelty on an even greater scale and with all the technology of the modern world behind them.
“Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob…” – Jeuan Gethin (died 1349) – quoted in “The Death” by Amanda Braxton-Smith.
Picture in Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons. Check the buboes. The man in the background may be holding a bunch of herbs, which were erroneously thought to help ward off disease by filling the air or at least the person’s breathing space with healthy odours.
Some medieval ideas for dealing with the plague were:
People should seclude themselves from others and stay away from the infected air. This wasn’t a bad idea, but it would have been difficult to put into practice. You can’t stay home for ever.
People should burn scented woods to purify the bad air and fill their homes with pleasant-smelling plants and flowers.
Tranquility! Try to keep a tranquil mind while the world around you is ending.
Open and cauterize the buboes (burn them with a hot iron or caustic agent) and apply some substance to draw out the poison. One recipe for such a substance was a plaster made from gum resin, roots of white lilies and dried human excrement. Yurghh…
Take soothing potions. Some of the recipes don’t sound very soothing though! Here was one: take an ounce (28 grams) of gold, 11 ounces of quicksilver, dissolve and let the quicksilver escape; add 47 ounces of water and drink. Somehow I doubt that many people would have had the wealth or resources to make this potion – which is just as well.
Animated book kindly provided by www.animatedclipart.net
1. Go to the site below to discover what the three types of plague were. Make notes on each one: transmission, symptoms, prognosis (progress and likely outcome of illness), etc.
2. How did people react to the coming of the plague? Answer this quesiton by reading this famous document from the prologue to the great book, The Decameron, written by Giovanni Boccaccio at the time of the Black Death:
3. Leave a comment: what do you think you would do if your city were suddenly besieged by a killer disease? Would you party (because tomorrow you could die), would you hole up in your house, would you go and live in the country or would you meditate twice a day whilst thinking pure thoughts? I’m sure you have many ideas that are not amongst my suggestions! Write a comment about what you might do.
Frenetic typing student pic below kindly provided by www.animatedclipart.net
4. Take the Diabolical Black Death Quiz, which is accurate and informative, at this site:
The tiny picture of Duerer’s “Praying Hands” that I have used as a bullet in the list of “remedies” above was drawn by a student of mine about 12 years ago. I am ashamed to say I cannot remember for sure which student it was, but I suspect it was a talented boy called Morgan. If so, I hope he does not object to the use of his beautiful drawing, which I photocopied at the time because I was so impressed. It was an appropriate “bullet” to use because prayer seemed the only recourse for people with the plague – and that, sadly, didn’t help either.