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The Plague of Plagues

The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe

by Robert S. Gottfried
Free Press, 203 pp., $16.95

One of the things that separate us from our ancestors and make contemporary experience profoundly different from that of other ages is the disappearance of epidemic disease as a serious factor in human life. Nowadays, if a few score of people die of an infection, officials declare an epidemic, the newspapers are full of it, and medical resources are quickly marshaled to find the source and check the further progress of the disease. The reaction to cases of “Legionnaires’ disease” in Philadelphia was typical. And, of course, the result was to keep the outbreak from spreading. It became a spectator event, not a catastrophe engulfing the whole society.

The last time human beings experienced a real epidemic was in 1918 and 1919 when a virulent form of influenza went literally around the world, and killed far more people than died in action in World War I. Few can now remember those days, and by a strange trick of memory those who lived through the flu epidemic seldom recalled the catastrophe afterward. Though many died, most recovered; and the period when medical services were overwhelmed and ordinary rhythms of life suffered interruption was very short. Oblivion therefore came easily. As a result, antibodies in the bloodstreams of people over sixty-five remain the principal living evidence of what happened.

By contrast, the Black Death that came to Europe in the mid-fourteenth century was never forgotten, and still lies in the background of our thought about epidemic disease. Presumably this is because so many people died of it, suddenly and horribly; and because plague continued to recur for more than three hundred years, at frequent intervals and with little or no diminution of its lethal effects. Robert Gottfried explores this catastrophe in the light of recent historical scholarship, and his book serves as a reminder of what such epidemics could and did do to human lives. In the words of a contemporary who survived the first onslaught:

The mortality in Siena began in May. It was a cruel and horrible thing; and I do not know where to begin to tell of the cruelty and the pitiless ways. It seemed that almost everyone became stupified by seeing the pain. And it is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful truth. Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. And the victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in their groins, and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship…. And in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in these ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. And I, Agnolo di Tura… buried my five children with my own hands…. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.

And so they died,” leaving a father to bury his children and think the end of the world had come. Because such private tragedies were so widespread, and ran so contrary to all previous experience, the Black Death was recorded at the time and remembered afterward. It has therefore never been expunged from European historical memory.

Gottfried wants to remind us of that catastrophic time, of what happened, and how it happened, in one part of Europe after another. The epidemic reached Western Europe from the Crimea, and in a two-year span traveled by ship first to Messina in Sicily, and then to Genoa. From there it went inland and skipped erratically to other seaports, eventually reaching distant Iceland and remote Russia via the Baltic. Up to a third of the European population died at the first onset of the plague. People sometimes expired in a matter of hours after first falling sick. Everyone believed that such a disaster was indisputable evidence of God’s anger against sinful humanity. But there was considerable uncertainty about how to react to it. Some abandoned hope and tried to enjoy every pleasure, licit and illicit, in whatever time remained for them alive. On the other hand, medical men had ideas about how to evade contagion by diet and keeping the air pure with aromatic herbs. Many people preferred simply to flee from places where infection broke out—sometimes spreading the plague in doing so.

Public prayer and supplication were other logical ways to try to escape God’s wrath; and in parts of central Europe itinerant bands of laymen took the lead in organizing dramatic acts of public penance. The central feature was flogging themselves so as to draw blood—the more the better—while preaching against Jews and the inadequately pious priests and rulers who protected them. This quasi-revolutionary behavior did not get very far, however, for the ban of the Church and the repression of secular authorities soon broke up the bands of flagellants, though not before they had wreaked much violence on the Jewish communities of the Rhinelands.

Neither medical nor religious prophylaxis worked as it was expected to, though Gottfried makes something of a case for believing that medical men did rather better than priests in rising to the occasion. But despite every effort to ward it off, the plague flared up and subsided unaccountably in one community after another, killing some and sparing others in a seemingly random way. Not until the very end of the nineteenth century, in 1896, did doctors finally figure out how the causative bacillus, Yersinia pestis, moved from fleas and rats to human beings—or, alternatively, and more lethally, from one infected person to another by airborne droplets, launched by the coughing of infected sufferers. And it was not until the 1940s, with the discovery of antibiotics, that an easy and dependable cure for plague came within medical capacity. Thereafter, the only problem was to make an accurate diagnosis before administering penicillin.

Thanks to modern understanding of how plague is transmitted, historians have been able, in the last thirty years or so, to recognize many of the circumstances and ecological conditions for the drastic waves of death that occurred in Europe when the Black Death first appeared, and continued to recur for centuries thereafter. One factor was a population already undernourished, owing to inadequate food supplies. fourteenth-century Europe was especially vulnerable on this score because a cooling climate brought partial harvest failures year after year. Transport and communication patterns were also critical, for the deadly bacillus could invade new populations, which lacked acquired immunities, only when infected human beings, rats, or fleas carried it to new places.

This sort of ecological awareness allows Gottfried to improve on earlier accounts of the Black Death as presented, for example, by Philip Ziegler.1 Gottfried’s narrative description usually falls short of Ziegler’s, but his analysis of the ecological setting is clearly superior. This book therefore marks a distinct intellectual advance; and Gottfried’s account of how things went suddenly askew in the fourteenth century, bringing entirely unexpected disaster to human lives, is a powerful reminder of how drastically ecological balances can be upset, regardless of human intentions or understanding of what it was that hit them.

Deciphering the consequences of such a drastic change in ecological balances is, however, a task on which historians have as yet made little progress. Gottfried has provided a summary of what various scholars have said on the subject during the past seventy-five years or so, and a miscellany of “consequences,” running from the “seeds of empirical, experimental science” to a “new sense of time” and a “heightened sense of class identity,” with many others besides. This litany is the least satisfactory part of Gottfried’s book. Clearly, other social factors were always there, affecting and affected by exposure to plague; and any analysis that fastens on one key variable and attributes farranging changes to it alone distorts the actual complexity. Gottfried is well aware of this, yet it does not prevent him from oversimplifying what new exposure to the disease did to transform medieval Europe. Here is his summary:

Plague, in general, and the Black Death, in particular, caused enormous upheaval—“the world turned upside down,” as a popular poem put it. It engendered a new society with new attitudes, layers and bonds of authority, sources of wealth, and, most important, new ideas…. For this reason, alone, the Black Death should be ranked as the greatest biological-environmental event of history, and one of the major turning points of Western Civilization.

One can only observe that the Black Death had lots of help in engendering the new society that emerged in parts of Western Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Moreover, we cannot assign causal primacy to plague, as Gottfried does in this passage, if only because in other parts of the civilized world, where the disaster of the Black Death reached approximately equal proportions, none of the consequences that became manifest in Europe followed.

This highlights one of the conspicuous limitations of Gottfried’s book. He does say something about the ravages of the plague in the Middle East, and mentions its existence in China too. But he has almost nothing to say about the consequences for those societies of a shock equivalent to that which Europe suffered. This, of course, reflects the state of historical scholarship. Much has been written about the effects of the plague in Europe, but the subject is almost unexplored for the rest of the world. I have myself argued that the really important global consequence of the plague was the weakening of steppe nomad communities.2 They suddenly found themselves exposed to a very lethal infection, which had become established among the burrowing rodents of the Eurasian grasslands for the first time in the fourteenth century. This is admittedly speculative; and Gottfried paraphrases my idea without endorsing it, just as he cites scores of other historians about the consequences of the plague without commenting on the plausibility of their arguments. Instead he has produced a catalogue which tends, despite his repeated disclaimers, to exaggerate the importance of the plague beyond belief.

Nonetheless, a new thesis about the consequences of the plague seems to be suggested by passages in which Gottfried describes beneficent changes that followed from Europe’s depopulation. For example, “Forest and pasture lands were restored and overcropping ended.” Again, “Population density in preplague Europe was so high and the size of the arable was so extensive that it was in danger of undergoing the natural impoverishment that troubled parts of Africa and Asia. The Black Death reversed this; with a few exceptions, the forests of twentieth-century Europe date from the Late Middle Ages.” Or “The postplague period was the era of the rich and prosperous peasant”; and “Depopulation was also directly responsible for advances in industrial technology.”

I should emphasize that Gottfried does not flatly conclude that cutting back Europe’s population by about one third was a good thing; and he scatters remarks about the negative effects of the plague throughout the book. He therefore merely flirts with the idea that the Black Death was a disguised blessing for Western Europeans.

Yet it is an idea worth thinking about. Can one believe that the sudden cutback in population that happened in Western Europe between 1346 and 1420, when postplague population densities were at their lowest, spared that part of the world from the sort of retrograde agriculture that has become all too familiar during the last two centuries throughout much of Asia and Africa? A pattern that currently threatens also to engulf those parts of Latin America inhabited largely by descendants of Amerindians? Did the loss of population in the late Middle Ages give Europeans a second chance to guard against rural impoverishment and overcrowding by developing more complex and active urban communities, by intensifying economic exchanges between regions, by linking reproduction to subsistence more accurately than before? In yet other ways, still unknown, did Europeans somehow adjust their social behavior so as to avoid the trap of overpopulation, environmental degradation, and ineluctable impoverishment from which so many non-European peasantries have suffered in modern times?

Perhaps so. Much depends on how desperate one thinks the overcrowding in Europe was before about 1300, when worsening climate and partial crop failures began a process of depopulation that went into high gear with the arrival of Yersinia pestis in 1346. Clearly, the exact situation varied from one part of Europe to another, and we cannot really tell whether the kinds of economic integration and technological advance that did occur in fourteenth- to seventeenth-century Europe would have occurred faster, slower, or not at all in a Europe spared from the plague disaster.

What made Europe’s recovery so successful was a series of technological innovations that brought the Far West abreast of China and then swiftly propelled it into the world lead. Mining, metallurgy, shipbuilding, printing, gun making, wind and water mills, and the like were what mattered; and for these, it seems to me, the drop in population was less important than cheaper transportation and the improvement of communications. Now one may argue that shortage of labor power, causing (at least temporarily) higher wages, may have contributed to making transport cheaper and to other important technological improvements. Substitution of capital for labor is one expected response to changing relative prices. In late medieval Europe this response may have had a stimulating effect on technology.

Yet I am inclined to doubt whether the decrease in rural crowding had much to do with the new machines and skills that altered European life so deeply. Much of this technology originally came from China, and its arrival in Europe was a consequence of the improved communications across Asia established by the Mongol Empire—the same process that, according to my own hypothesis, allowed the plague bacillus to enter a new ecological niche in the rodent burrows of the northern steppe and thereby exposed European and Middle Eastern populations to devastating disease.

Important features of the thrusting European progress in technology seem to depend more than anything else on political competition among rival states and rulers. Anything connected with military success responded to the sort of forced draft that such competition imposed. Moreover, for many technologies, the loss of population must have been more of a handicap than an advantage, slowing down the introduction of new methods of production and distribution because of lessened demand. Who can tell? The complexities of ecological, social, technological, political, and intellectual interactions are simply beyond our full understanding; and are likely to remain so for a long time to come.

The Black Death and succeeding plagues certainly did make a big difference to European and world history. But just how can its impact be described without an unmanageably complicated examination of all the other things that were also changing while the plague kept coming back? That is a problem which still escapes historians.

  1. 1

    The Black Death: A Study of the Plague in Fourteenth-Century Europe (John Day, 1969).

  2. 2

    Plagues and Peoples (Doubleday, 1976).

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