Ebola? I spit on your Ebola.
Let me tell you about the plague that came to Europe 668 years ago. It is known to history as the Black Death, and we think it killed about 200 million people worldwide.
In 1966 the Rand Corporation did a study for the U.S. Government. They were asked to look at natural disasters in history and find one that came closest to thermonuclear war. The Black Death is what they picked.
Now, the thing you need to understand about plague is that it didn’t necessarily kill you. When an infected flea bites you, you get a starter set of 20,000 plague bacteria and they go for the lymphatic system, inflaming your lymph nodes, which swell up. Those black, swollen nodes are called “bubos,”which is where we get “bubonic plague.” If you got that, you had about a 2 in 5 chance of living.
But there was another form that was quicker, deadlier, and didn’t need fleas. It was called pneumonic, and you got it either when the bacteria got to your lungs—or just when a sick guy coughed on you. With this, you developed a cough strong enough to throw you up against a wall as blood dribbled down your front. In three days, tops, you dropped dead. The survival for this was less than one in 20.
But the worst was septicemic. Here bacteria get into your bloodstream. The toxic shock turns your hands and feet into something like coal. About 14 hours after the first symptoms appear, you’re dead. And your chance of surviving this one untreated? Zero.
So it came from fleas. But the fleas rode in on rodents. Plague is endemic with rodents, and each rodent—mostly rats, but could be a squirrel or a marmot—can carry 100-200 fleas. And medieval European cities? The height of public sanitation in most of ‘em was to call “look out below” three times before dumping shit and garbage over the railing and into the street, where it heaped up until the pigs ate it or a heavy rain sluiced it down to the river. The rat population was enormous. And people, who never bathed, and who changed their clothes about as often as you change your oil, housed lots of fleas. So when bubonic plague broke into Europe it spread like fire.
This all began somewhere in Asia. Rodent colonies were disturbed in some way and the rodents came into contact with people; we don’t know how or where. One Chinese province reported a 90-percent die-off in the 1330s. But when it came to Europe, it came in by air—catapulted over the walls of Caffa by Mongols. They had the city under siege when the plague broke out among them. So they catapulted in warriors who’d died of the plague. Then they rode away, having inaugurated bacteriological warfare.
Caffa was up on the north shore of the Black Sea. Most of the people living there were Genoese traders. They hurried to get on their ships and sail back to Europe. We have lots of reports from cities like Constantinople, Messina and Marseilles that all say pretty much the same thing—those goddamn Genoese plague ships showed up and most of those on board were dead and if you so much as looked at a ship hard you were dead too, and in a matter of days. Port cities tried to drive off plague ships with fire arrows, but it was too late. The plague had landed and it couldn’t be stopped.
Of course, European cities were no strangers to disease. Death was a routine fact of existence. This guy would get the flu or there would be a breakout of typhoid or dysentery, and when that happened you looked after your loved ones, and made out wills, and priests heard confession, and the dead were buried with due reverence. Property was passed on, newcomers entered the city to replace the dead, and life continued.
But plague blasted through all that. In Avignon some 62,000 died in three months, leaving 7,000 empty houses in the city. No one could keep track. The good doctors and responsible priests, who attended the dying, were among the first to die themselves, leaving behind the irresponsible ones, who fled. The countryside was no better. The sight of overgrown fields and derelict houses became common. In France some 3,000 villages went silent because they had no living inhabitants. You can tell where they used to be when the crops come up in the spring, following the contours of old walls and roads. And everywhere, people prayed and despaired and wondered what was happening.
The medical faculty of the University of Paris tried hard to figure it out. These were the most educated men in Europe, and the report they gave made its way across the continent, reaching Arab doctors. It all started just after noon on March 20, 1345, they said, when a conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars occurred in the 40th degree of Aquarius. This drew up evil vapors and ignited them, leading to corrupt air spread by the winds. This air, when breathed, corrupted the blood and changed certain humors into a poisonous character. And the solution? Avoid poultry and fish. Don’t sleep during the day. Avoid stagnant water. Keep northern windows open to admit cool, dry air. And everyone kept right on coughing and dying.
Of course, common people came up with causes of their own. One monk in England insisted that this was God’s punishment for so many of England’s young women turning into tournament groupies, who wore “thick belts studded with gold and silver slung across their hips, below the navel.” And if that’s not enough to make the Creator of the Universe decide to kill everyone on earth, I don’t know what is.
But most people did think the plague had to be punishment for something. So naturally, they had to show God they were sorry. One bizarre group of men reasoned that if they whipped themselves bloody, God would conclude we’d learned our lesson. Pretty soon bands of a hundred or more such men began travelling from village to village, ritually whipping themselves into a frenzy in a public theater of atonement. Over time, as one historian observed, these flagellants became younger, poorer, more criminal, more ignorant, and more arrogant. They disrupted masses, drove priests from churches, looted property, and killed Jews wherever they found them.
Because, of course, it was the Jews. In an international conspiracy, they had distributed poison to be placed in the wells and cisterns of European cities, doing away with Christians and leaving the world open for Jewish domination. The Pope himself pointed out that Jews were dying like everyone else. But commoners loved the idea so much they began torturing Jews until they confessed. And with that, Jews in Central European cities were rounded up. Those in Basel were taken to an island and shut into a specially built house that was set on fire. In Strasburg, Jews were tied to hundreds of stakes and burned alive. In Brandenburg, they were placed on enormous grills and roasted like meat.
What happens to us at times like this? It’s like there’s a war, and we’re scared, so there has to be an enemy and we have to find him. But in real wars you know who the enemy is. During a plague the enemy is the unknown—so it becomes anyone you don’t like. Or anyone who gets sick.
People were so scared that they turned their backs on each other. It wasn’t uncommon for a family to walk out of their home, leaving a sick father, mother or child behind to die. The abandoned one might go to the window and plead to passers-by, but nobody would help, and they died alone, untended, and unloved. They had become the enemy.
It took about five years for this wheel of death and horror to roll across Europe and back into Russia, throwing about a third of its population into common, unmarked graves. We’re still finding them.
And what did it leave behind? Well, everyone left was pretty glad to be alive, and the dead had left a lot of unclaimed property, so a population that had once piously wiped flagellants’ blood on their eyes now moved into dead men’s houses and sinned all they could.
There were fewer people to work the land, but only the best land was left to be worked. So the price of labor went way up and the price of food went way down. For the first time in history, the peasants had the advantage, and were able to break the bonds of serfdom and buy land of their own.
The organized church hadn’t seemed to accomplish much, so people turned to mysticism. Medical doctors increased their clinical work and relied less on the theory of astral conjunctions. Municipal health boards were established to oversee sanitation. So there were some things that changed.
But what about us? I spit on Ebola at the start of this story, but Ebola’s a pretty dreadful disease. So is SARS. So is HIV. So is Avian flu. H1N1 proved no worse than normal flu strains when it broke out in Mexico a few years ago and spread worldwide. But if we’d had no immunity it could have cut through us like a knife, filling hospitals until there was no room. And plague itself still kills about 3,000 people worldwide each year. Resistant strains are said to be growing right now.
So let me ask you. If death comes to overwhelm us again one day . . . this time . . . how will we act?
Rob Norris is an adjunct faculty member of the Indiana University School of Journalism and the Butler University School of Strategic Communications. Most of his career was spent in corporate communications, first for Duke Energy and then for Cummins Inc.
But his first love is history. He earned his undergraduate degree in history and decided in his forties to earn a Master’s degree.
Rob lives in Indianapolis with his wife of 40 years and keeps sneaking history lessons into his communications classes.