Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Holy Shit, The Plague!

The Triumph of Death

I sometimes like to think of history as a hulking behemoth lumbering forward without altering his course or taking much notice of his surroundings. Every once in awhile, an event will come along and punch history directly in his smug little face, laying him flat and leaving him bewildered and unsure of where to go. One such event was an occasion we like to call the Black Death, which was every bit as fun as its name suggests.

The Black Death is known today as the Bubonic Plague and is caused by a pesky bacterium named Yersinia pestis. It probably originated in China, where it casually murdered about 25 million people. At the time, that was a whopping 30% of China's population, and this tenacious little fella was just getting started. Through the Silk Road, which was a terrific avenue for trading items like silk, spices, and deadly bacteria, the Plague spread to Eastern Europe, where some friendly fleas pulled over and gave it a lift. The fleas hopped aboard rats, who hopped aboard merchant vessels, which set sail for Sicily.
Oriental Rat Flea
Look at his face. He knows what he's doing.
Once the Plague hit, Europe was utterly at its mercy. Today we freak the hell out when we hear about a new type of flu that causes mild discomfort and possibly serious illness if you're very young or very old. Swine flu, for example, has a mortality rate of under 10% and it scared the collective bejesus out of the world. Without any method of treatment available, the Bubonic Plague had a mortality rate of 90%. That's an apocalypse-grade mortality rate given how quickly it spread. How did it get around so fast? The lack of sanitation was the biggest factor, but it was partially due to the unfortunate truth that, in the immortal words of Kay from Men in Black, "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it."

It being close to Halloween, we're seeing a lot of symbolic black cats around. Black cats are considered bad luck today. Way back in the day, people were much more committed to that superstition. As a result, black cats were frequently slaughtered for no goddamn reason. I'm sure you can see where this is going. The cat murder rate went up when the Plague hit and people drew an asinine link between black cats and Black Death. It would have a nice ring of poetic justice to it if it weren't so horrifying. With a reduced cat population, the rat population skyrocketed, and with them came pure, unadulterated death.
His name is Albert
Seriously though, this scares you?
 Within four years of its arrival, the Black Death cut the population of Europe in half. I could stop right there, because holy shit, 50% of Europe straight up died. Throughout its initial course, the plague killed 100 million people worldwide. Keep in mind that we have an absurdly high population count right now. Back then, 100 million people was roughly 1/4th of humanity, for god's sake.
Plague Victims
This kind of death was not what you'd call "dignified," either.
So how, aside from just flat out killing folks, did the Black Death punch history directly in the face? Well, when the people of Europe turned to their political and spiritual leaders for some idea of what the hell was going on with all the death, the response was a dumbfounded, slack-jawed, "Uh...Jews?"

Sadly, that excuse often worked. People believed God was angry, and when God was angry it was usually assumed that the reason was a lack of healthy anti-Semitic violence, so they went ahead and killed a bunch of Jews. Imagine their confusion when a good old fashioned Jew-killing somehow didn't stem the tide. So they went back to their political and spiritual leaders and said, "Seriously, guys, what the hell?!"
Burning Jews Alive. Seriously.
For years, there was no further response, because no one had any way to answer the question. The church, the nobility, and the institution of monarchy took an enormous beating when it became clear that they didn't actually have as buddy-buddy a relationship with heaven as they claimed. The resulting loss of faith, coupled with the sudden depletion of peasant workers, meant that it was time for some major overhauls in how things were run.

Peasants, finding themselves in a unique position where they were in higher demand, petitioned for -- and were often granted -- higher wages, less outright abuse, and the right to leave their jobs without being arrested (because yes, that was a thing that happened). In many cases, the peasants got so fed up they outright revolted. It was the beginning of a power shift that would ultimately tear down the institution of Feudalism and plant the seeds of Capitalism.

For the church, the consequences were equally severe. Their moral authority was damaged almost irreparably. There were already voices of dissent criticizing the corrupt excesses of the Vatican, and this plague was evidence enough that God was pissed off. That dissent would continue to spread at a much faster rate until finally, when conditions were right, a German monk nailed some papers to a door and kicked off the Reformation, in which almost half of Europe took one last look at Catholicism and said, "No, thank you."
Who's up for some horrific holy wars?

Here's the part that really boggles the hell out of my mind: this obscene body count and massive social upheaval was all caused by something so tiny that it was never observed and wouldn't even be discovered until 1894, about 500 years after the fact.
Yersinia pestis
The Microscopic Destroyer of Worlds

Holy shit.

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