Thursday, April 14, 2005

A Plague Upon Your House

John Kelly's book, The Great Mortality, falls prey to the trend of long subtitles the NY Times was complaining about not long ago (sorry, can't find the link to the article). The full title of the book is: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. Whew! Quite a mouthful, and is it really necessary? Why not just A History of the Black Death? But enough quibbling about the title, it's what comes after the title that matters most. And what comes after is pretty gruesome. Unless you have a strong stomach, I recommend not eating and reading at the same time. Kelly researched primary source documents for this book and he includes much of the eye witness information here. He also seems to take delight in describing just what someone with the plague was going through--the stench, the leakage from bodily orifices, the buboes, the buboes bursting. He also describes in minute detail the filth that our ancestors lived in--butchers slaughtering animals on the street, open sewers, chamber pots being dumped from windows, garbage, rats--not to mention personal hygiene; changing and/or washing your clothes was rare and bathing more than once a year was so unusual family, friends and neighbors would remark upon it. The origins of the Black Death have been traced to the Gobi desert. By the time 1347 rolled around Europe had an estimated population of 75 million people. That doesn't sound like much by today's standards but at that time resources were strained. The technology they had was not enough to feed everyone nor were the sewer systems sophisticated enough to handle the volume of sewage from overcrowded cities. Most of the time they relied on rain to wash everything away into the rivers, but even a heavy rain was often not enough. It is generally accepted that the outbreak began in the city of Caffa on the Black Sea sometime in 1346-47. No one knows for sure how it arrived in Caffa, it could have arrived via an invading Mongol army or through traders or both. But once it arrived there was nothing that could stop it. Caffa at that time was a Genoan city. A small fleet of Genoan ships fled from Caffa making stops at Pera, Constantinople, Messina (Sicily), Genoa and Marseille. From there the plague spread through all of mainland Europe before jumping the channel to Great Britain, Ireland and then Scandanavia and Russia. The plague was spread mainly by the flea of the black rat. It is theorized that the fleas picked up the plague from marmots in the Gobi. But in some cities the plague transformed to a pneumonic form which could then be passed directly from person to person. No one was safe, even animals died of the plague. When it was all done about 24 million people had died. We can gasp and be amazed at the devastation, but cannot begin to imagine living during that time. It is in this regard that the voices of those who were alive then speak most movingly. One man wrote:

I am overwhelmed. ..I can't go on. Everywhere one turns there is death and bitterness....The hand of the Almighty strikes repeatedly, to greater and greater effect. The terrible judgment gains in power as time goes by.
So many people died so quickly that customary funeral rites were abandoned, pits dug, and people layered in like "lasagna" as one chronicler in Italy phrased it. At that time no one knew what caused the plague so speculation abounded. Many called it the wrath of God. What God was angry about varied. According to Friar Knighton of England, "it was tournament groupies that brought down God's wrath against the English." Tournament groupies were "bands of beautiful young women who corrupted public morals by attending tournaments in provocative dress." Others blamed the Jews and as a consequence a good many of Europe's Jews were murdered in massacres. Kelly relates a compelling time in history and it is hard to not be drawn in to the book and the story. However, he tends to wander off topic. He'll begin to tell about, for instance, Caffa, but then interrupt it with a long history of Genoa before returning back to Caffa to reiterate what he had begun to tell earlier and then go on from there. The other annoying thing about this book was the copyediting. One or two errors in a book is bothersome but acceptable. This book was rife with them. There were missing words, missing letters in words (though instead of through), and words that didn't belong there at all. If the story itself weren't so interesting I would have tossed the book aside and not finished it. But in spite of these flaws it was, as I said earlier, difficult not to be drawn in. The plague, and plague in general, has clearly affected our culture psyche. The Decameron by Boccaccio takes place during the Black Death outbreak, a time through which the author lived. Petrarch also lived through the "Great Mortality." Even now it will make an appearance in a book. The Plague by Albert Camus, Blindness by Jose Saramago and the short story "Masque of the Red Death" by Poe come to mind. And more thriller type novels like Outbreak by Robin Cook. With the appearance of SARS and the fear of bird flu, it is likely to be even more in our minds. Update: My Bookman found the missing link! Here's there subtitle article I referred to at the beginning of the post.