A History of the Medieval Plague

Did Plague Really Cause Black Death?

Dr Dorsey Armstrong

Film Review

This film is actually a (free) 24-lecture course on the “Black Death,” a plague epidemic that recurred over approximately 300 years in medieval Europe. Given the COVID19 pandemic, the topic is of particular interest in 2020. The lecturer is Purdue Associate Professor of English and medieval literature Dr Dorsey Armstrong.

Personally I found the first nine lectures riveting. They become somewhat repetitive from lecture 10 on. I also highly recommend lecture 21, which covers the growing political-economic power experienced by the medieval peasantry (particularly women) with the loss of approximately 50% of Europe’s population to plague. Both Ciompi’s Rebellion (1378-1382) in Florence and the Peasants Revolt (1381) in England are discussed in extensive detail.

Despite my medical training, I had very little knowledge of plague prior to watching this series. I had no idea the disease first appeared in the 6th century in the Eastern Roman Empire and was considered pivotal in the ultimate fall of Rome.

I was also unaware that medieval plague appeared in three discrete forms, leading some modern scientists to speculate it may represent three distinct illnesses:

  • Bubonic plague – characterized by “buboes” (severely inflamed lymph nodes). It had the lowest mortality rate (approximately 20%) and couldn’t be transmitted to other human beings unless the buboes were lanced. It could only be transmitted through flea bites of infected rats.
  • Pneumonic plague – plague pneumonia, in which patients coughed up blood and easily transmitted it to other people. The mortality rate was nearly 100%.
  • Septicemic plague – a hemorrhagic fever (like Ebola) resulting from Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC), a condition in which a patient’s blood can’t clot and they bleed from all their orifices and into subcutaneous tissues. Non-transmissible to other humans, it was 100% fatal.

The plague recurred in Europe 15 times, every decade or so. The last European outbreak ended in 1676. It would take 300 years for the continent to return to its pre-plague population of 150 million.

Yersinia pestis, the organism believed responsible for medieval plague, was first identified in 1896 in an epidemic occurring in India and China.

There are still periodic plague outbreaks in Asia and the Southwestern US. The disease responds well to antibiotics if recognized in time. Because it’s so rare, doctors sometimes misdiagnose it, and there are still deaths.

Anyone with a public library card can watch the course free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into the search engine.

 

 

 

Witch Burning and Women’s Oppression

 

caliban

Caliban and the Witch

by Silvia Federici

AK Press (2004)

Free PDF download Caliban and the Witch

Book Review

Caliban and the Witch*discusses the critical role witch burning played in the enclosure movement that drove our ancestors from the commons.

Feudalism Characterized by Continuous Rebellion

As Federici ably documents, medieval Europe was characterized by nearly continuous rebellion by serfs against their slave-like conditions. According to Federici, it was only by introducing a reign of terror involving the execution of nearly 200,000 women that the ruling elite succeeding in preventing total insurrection.

In all European countries (both Catholic and Protestant), witch burning was accompanied by legislation expelling women from most occupations and severely restricting their legal and reproductive freedom. The control over women’s reproduction (including a ban on birth control, abortion and all non-procreative sex) was a direct reaction to the population decline caused by famine and plague. Their lower numbers enabled peasants and urban workers to cause an economic crisis by demanding higher pay and improved working conditions.

The True Purpose of the Inquisition

Contrary to what we’re taught in high school and college history classes, the true purpose of the Inquisition was to not to stamp out heresy but to end the continuous peasant revolts. The hundreds of heretical movements (eg the Cathars) the Catholic Church persecuted during the Middle Ages were actually political revolts aimed at creating genuine political and economic democracy. Women figured very prominently in the Cathars and similar heretical religions. In addition to exercising the same rights as men, they also led many food riots and other revolts against enclosure.

Although none of these insurrections succeeded in overthrowing class society, they were extremely effective in winning greater political and economic freedom for both serfs and proletarian workers in the textile industry and other crafts.

The First Worker-Run Democracies

According to Federici’s research, the strength of peasant resistance peaked between 1350 and 1500, due to a severe labor shortage resulting from the Black Death (which wiped out 30-40% of the European population), small pox and high food prices. Highlights of this period include Ghent, which created the first dictatorship of the proletariat in 1378, and Florence, which created the first worker-run democracy in 1379.

The mass refusal of peasants to work under slave-like conditions created a major economic crisis, which the ruling elite addressed through wars of acquisition against other European countries, the colonization of Asia, Africa, America and Oceania and the reimposition of slavery (both in Europe and the Americas).


*Caliban is the subhuman son of the malevolent witch Sycorax in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

A big shout-out to the reader who recommended this book to me. I loved it.

Climate Change Throughout History

forecast

Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley

by Stephan Faris

Henry Holt (2009)

Book Review

Forecast is about historic and present day political, economic and health consequences of extreme climate disruption.

Farr begins by unpacking the Sudan civil war that began in Darfur in 2003. He makes a convincing case that decreased rainfall and desertification led to a bloody land war d between nomadic Arab camel herders and African farmers. He disputes that the conflict arose out of ethnic and religious differences, as the two groups shared the region harmoniously for hundreds of years until the climate changed.

He goes on to discuss studies comparing ice core findings to historical records. They conclude that all major European wars and Chinese dynastic changes followed major climate change.

Arctic Territorial Disputes

At the present time, the melting of Arctic sea ice has led to major border conflicts between countries eager to exploit the region’s vast mineral wealth. Tension is particularly high between Russian and Norway, Canada and Denmark and Canada and the US (over the border between the Yukon and Alaska). The opening of the Northwest Passage* to navigation for the first time in 2007 has led to an ongoing dispute whether these waters are Canadian territory or an international right of way, as claimed by the US.

International Alert predicts that forty-four countries are at risk of conflict (mainly over water rights) due to climate change. At the top of the list are India, Pakistan, China, Iran, Indonesia, Algeria, Nigeria, Somalia, Bolivia, Columbia, Peru and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Emergence of Epidemics

Faris’s section on the health consequences of climate change discusses the major epidemics that have emerged due to warmer, wetter weather patterns. This includes a big increase in malaria in Brazil and Mexico; in hantavirus, West Nile virus and Lyme disease in the US; ebola in Africa and in plague in Kazakhstan and India.

Ice core findings suggest the medieval Black Death (plague) in Europe was also triggered by climate change.

The Effect of Native American Genocide

The most interesting section of the book argues than human beings have been altering the climate, through deforestation, livestock husbandry and population explosions since the agricultural revolution. Climate scientists believe major deforestation in Europe started 7,500-8,000 years ago. Atmospheric carbon concentrations reached a peak during the Roman period and took a big dip (most likely due to depopulation) after Rome collapsed. They began to rise again in 1000 AD. Their sharp decline in 1500 coincided with a Little Ice Age characterized by brutally cold winters.

Faris agrees with William Ruddiman (Plows, Plagues and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate) who believes this steep drop stemmed from the decimation of Native American agricultural settlements (from genocide, smallpox, typhus, cholera and measles, diseases to which they had no immunity) in North and South America. Over two centuries, their population dropped from 50-60 million (one tenth of the global population) to five million. As they disappeared, forests and jungles, particularly in the Amazon, reclaimed the fields they had cleared for cultivation.


*The Northwest Passage is a sea through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America via waterways through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It decreases the transit time from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean (compared to the Panama Canal) by four days.