The physical suffering of the disease and its aspect of evil mystery were expressed in a strange Welsh lament which saw “death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy for fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the armpit!”
The above is from Barbara W. Tuchman’s massive but oh so easy to read history of Medieval Europe (and beyond), A Distant Mirror and specifically Chapter 5: “This Is the End of the World”: The Black Death.
Of course bubonic plague, as we know the Black Death today, was a cataclysmic event for almost every pre-modern culture that it touched but for some time scientists have engaged in heated debate over the actual nature of historical plague. Were the Justinian plague that rocked Byzantium in the 500s and the Black Death of Medieval Europe, Asia and Africa the same as bubonic plague seen today all over the world? Is our modern Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes plague, the same as the one that felled 1/3rd of the European population beginning at fateful Venice, Italy in 1347?
According to this article from the New York Times, researchers finally have to say yes.
Two separate teams of biologist have been studying what actually caused the famous plagues of history and they came to the same conclusion. First a group at the Institut Pasteur de Paris and a while later another at Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany analyzed DNA collected from so called “plague pits” which are the mass burial places resorted to in the bleakest of times. Various pits were used for collection of DNA across Europe and into Asia Minor giving the biologists a broad spectrum of data to refer to. Both groups feel that their research proves, as the article notes “beyond doubt” That the Black Death was indeed caused by Yersinia pestis.
Of interest to me, besides the finding that plague as a bacterium has not changed significantly for well over 1,000 years, is the seafaring connection. The first “plague ships” sailed into Byzantium from points east (according to the two studies referenced in the article, the location was certainly China) and brought with them not only mysteriously sick sailors but infested rats as well. As the article points out almost wryly:
The bacterium has no interest in people or crowded cities, whom it slaughters by accident. Its natural hosts are various species of rodent…
As any elementary school kid can tell you, the fleas that inhabit the rodents bite humans and transmit the disease to their bloodstream. The fact that the humans tend to die so quickly is inconvenient not only for Yersinia pestis but for the fleas as well. There is a strain called pneumonic plague that becomes airborne once it has lived a life cycle through a human host and it is thought that at least some deaths in large urban areas around the world may have been caused by this more easily spread form of the disease.
At any rate, sailors were often the first victims of the plague and the horror of a “plague ship” has stuck in the European psyche for centuries. Look at the spine-tingling effect that image has in novels like Dracula and films like Nosferatu. It frightens even those who have no truck with revenants. A ship full of the dead and the dying should most rightly – and has at times – be sent back to sea, ablaze if possible. Like the pit full of plague dead it will lead to, a plague ship is a shocking, surreal and untenable occurrence.
Other research points to the many port towns in Europe that have been visited by the plague as ships unloaded cargo and rats simultaneously. Even Zheng He, the famous “Nelson of the East” who led a flotilla from China all the way to Africa, brought bubonic plague to the unsuspecting shores of East Africa and Madagascar.
The title of Tuchman’s book is instructive here as elsewhere. We call our world “small” for our ability to “think globally” and travel at will. But, though the journeys may have taken more time, world travel is by no means a new phenomenon. And as in that distant mirror, horrifying killers may lurk in the very means of global expansion. Thank goodness for antibiotics.
Header: Italian fresco of the “Danse Macabre”