Sunday, March 17, 2013

Echos of the Black Plague

England is excited these days about having uncovered a cemetery most likely from the time of the Black Plague. The assumption had been that, because of the enormous number of deaths, the bodies would have been thrown into communal pits; but that doesn’t appear to be the case, it looks like each body was separately dealt with in a respectful manner.

A story by the lyrical French author, Marcel Pagnol, tells a story of a suburb of Marseille, during a later plague, disguising themselves as a cart-load of dead bodies in order to pass the guards that had been posted to keep the residents of the plague city quarantined.

I find the Black Death as a convenient marker of European history, coming as it did in the middle of the fourteenth century, roughly 1348-1352. The Black Death was a pivotal point in European history because the survivors were instantly rich. Good land was plentiful and cheap. One hundred years later, 1450, the discovery of moveable type made books available to the general public, setting the stage for the Enlightenment. Put those dates together with 1066, the Norman invasion of England, and you’ve got everything you need to know about European history. Oh yeah, the Vikings were 800-1000 CE. That may not be so important if you’re Italian, but for us Scandinavians it was huge.

But every time the Black Plague is trotted out, commentators are sure to solemnly intone, “The Black Plague, the most devastating mass death in the history of the world…”

Fifty percent. That’s the usual estimate of the death rate for those four years, fifty percent. That’s bad, but compared to the fate of the American Indians—admittedly over a longer time period—who were felled by disease at rates of from 80-90-plus%, it was a piker.

Going further back, it is commonly thought that at one time the entire human population dropped to a few thousand people. What caused that, we don’t know, but it was a more serious time for our species than 1350.

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