Thursday, September 13, 2007

History Channel: The Plague: 14th Century bubonic plague provides a warning for today


The History Channel offers a vivid documentary, The Plague (2005, 90 min) about the Black Death, the bubonic (and perhaps pneumonic) plague that swept through Europe during the mid 14th Century, and wiped out thirty percent of its population. In some cities, like Barcelona, as much as sixty percent of the population died.

Europe had been, relatively speaking (given its feudal society), economically prosperous as the epidemic swept across from China through Muslim lands, brought by invaders from Mongolia. The speed with which it spread suggests pneumonic plague, which could be casually contagious, as well as bubonic, spread by flea bites. It is even possible that it could have been accelerated by something like Ebola. The plague may have provided the first known opportunity for biological warfare (it would occur again in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars with smallpox, as well in the conquests of South America by the Spaniards and Portuguese). Ken Gage, from the Centers for Disease Control, provides some commentary.

During the worst of the epidemic, religious authorities scapegoated people for vices like prostitution and gambling, and then blamed the Jews. People tried to atone by self-flagellation. The legacy of anti-Semitism has many roots in the plague.

After the plague subsided, with a population reduced by a “purification”, social and economic changes advanced. Former peasants became landowners, and former nobles did manual labor, since labor was more scarce. The printing press was invented, and the more efficient spread of information undermined some of the seedier practice of the Church (like simony). The stage was set for Renaissance and a gradual growth of individualism.

But the epidemic certainly provides an object lesson for today, about how changing social conditions can accelerate an epidemic (whether HIV, SARS, or H5N1). The film ends with a warning to that effect.

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