The Plague of Plagues

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,…

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