These days, it is hard to escape the end times predictions and their prognosticators. The most recent is of course, the end of the Mayan calendar this month. Cable news and websites, always eager to grab public attention with frightening headlines, have been quick to trumpet the coming cataclysm. History tells us that end of the world stories are common in every age, but one event stands out as a point when such dark imaginings had roots in some very scary current events.
The frightful stories began as rumors. Ships washed up on shore with the entire crew dead at their posts. Some made it into port with sailors dead and dying, telling stories of whole towns wiped out, of empty cities in the east, thousands of bodies dead and left to rot in the streets. Survivors reported strange, hooded and cloaked figures roaming the fields, some carrying scythes. They walked through the grain, ripened and ready for harvest, swinging their blades, yet no stalks fell. Within the month, the dreaded sickness came. The hooded figures also walked, silent and menacing, through the streets of towns and villages at night. There were reports of foul-smelling mists, earthquakes, floods, famine, swarms of locusts and other earthly natural disasters. The sky filled with shooting stars arcing across the heavens. On other nights, there were strange constellations, blinking lights, globes of fire. And again, the dreaded sickness came. Many believed it was the end of the world as foretold in the Book of Revelation. Death walked the earth, and the sickness was retribution for human sin and decadence, as certain as the floods of Noah or the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Pestilence, or the Great Mortality, as it was called at the time, arrived in Europe from Asia in 1347, although there were rumored smaller outbreaks before, but those could just as well have been typhus. In fact, there is little hard evidence of the plague’s origins other than secondhand sources and accounts. Many of the best known stories were written years later, like Daniel Defoe’s fictionalized A Journal of the Plague Year, or Samuel Pepys’ diary. Pepys’ work described an outbreak of the plague in the 1600s, but Pepys himself was removed from most of the danger due to his position as an administrator and Member of Parliament. However, the devastation and terror brought about by the Yersinia pestis is clear in the accounts of the time. The plague crippled trade across the region, and Europe faced cataclysmic destruction of critical infrastructure and trade practices, as well as a death toll in the millions.
The Bubonic Plague, as it came to be known, took three forms: a lymph infection causing buboes, apple-sized swellings that became purple or black in the armpits and groin; a blood infection resulting in deep purple bruising and skin discolorations all over the body; and a pneumonic form causing the coughing up of blood and respiratory failure. In the first form, these swellings would appear and multiply quickly. The masses were hard and painful, and would sometimes rupture, spewing bloody pus. The infected person suffered relentless pain, and doctors vacillated in their prescribed treatments between lancing the boils or packing them with poultices with dubious results. The second form turned the patient’s trunk and extremities black, seemingly indicating the body was rotting while still alive. Often the darkened skin and high fever were accompanied by bloody urine and excrement. The third manifestation was the most puzzling for medieval doctors and patients; as an airborne infectious agent, people in the same room or even house as a sick patient would be taken sick even without skin to skin contact. No one at the time knew or understood a contagion that spread through the air. In all its manifestations, the disease ended in painful death, and only a very few inexplicably survived. The plague was decisive and amazingly fast in its virulent, deadly work.
There were stories of people going to bed well and dying before they woke up the next morning. Others died within twenty-four hours of first symptoms. Whole households perished, while others would be untouched, or have only a few family members die. Entire monasteries were obliterated, and in a few cases, a surviving monk might leave the only written record of the disease’s progress. Priests disappeared, either dying in their ministries to the ill or fleeing the cities and towns to avoid infection. Doctors, too, fell victim at an alarming rate, leaving a dearth of medical aid for those who remained and became ill. Husbands abandoned sick wives and children. Children left their parents, or were forced to fend for themselves once their parents died. The plague destroyed the very structure of family and communal life in cities, towns and villages.
The actual death toll varies, but most scholars believe between 75 and 200 million people perished. The losses piled up in the Middle East as well, near where the plague may have originated. Pope Clement VI put the death toll at 23,840,000 from his seat at Avignon. Whatever the actual number, the losses were staggering.
We know now that the plague can be cured, and that it is carried by fleas and rats, as well as other rodents. To the people of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, finding the cause of the sickness and avoiding the deepening cataclysm was of utmost importance. Obviously, they were not successful. In some years, the plague died down in winter, and increased in spring and summer. In hindsight, this makes sense. Rats and fleas were more active in warmer weather. When the pattern reversed itself, was it because people stayed indoors more and therefore, the disease could be spread quickly from person to person in the closed up rooms? Often, the disease would decimate one household, but skip others whose members had contact with the sick. In a single household, the plague might take the life of the father, but not the mother. There were a few commonalities in the cases: mere contact with a dead body almost always brought death; there were rumors of contagion by breathing, although with primitive medical understanding, nothing could be proven.
Cleanliness might also have been an issue. Sewage often flowed through the streets, and trash piled up in alleys and lots. People did not bathe regularly because water had to be heated, and some carried oranges studded with cloves in their pockets and drenched themselves in perfumes to cover the stench of body odor.
Home remedies multiplied. Burning fragrant wood like cedar or eucalyptus was thought to ward of the germs, so even in summer, people burned fires. Pope Clement VI kept huge fires burning in the papal apartments during the dead heat of summer, and sat between them, sweltering, in an effort to avoid becoming infected.
Many who died in their homes would not be discovered until the stench hit the street. Others were stacked like cord wood by the side of the road. With the near certain knowledge that the disease was spread by the dead, cities like Florence formed brigades to pick up the human remains that clogged the streets. This group was called the Campagnia della Misericordia. The members wore red or black hooded cloaks that hid their faces. They moved quietly through the streets, often late at night, gathering the bodies and hauling them off to the boneyard or charnel house. In the Misericordia we find the roots of the Grim Reaper, the hooded figure carrying a large scythe who travels the world gathering the souls of the newly dead. Often in art, the death figure carried a sword; this is apparent in the Danse Macabre images of Hans Holbein. The sword changed into a scythe is understandable in an agrarian society.
Documentary evidence of the plague’s destruction tells of 400 dead per day in Avignon. Homes were left vacant, and pets and livestock roamed the streets unattended. One cemetery received 11,000 bodies in six weeks. To dispose of so much human detritus meant burning the bodies in massive fires, layering corpses in trenches and burying them, or simply leaving them to rot in the fields. Death was everywhere, as was the smell of putrefying flesh.
One military leader found an interesting way to dispose of his dead soldiers, and may also have inadvertently stumbled on an early method of biological warfare. The Mongol army besieging the city of Caffa, gathered their dead and hurled them by catapult over the city walls, hoping to infect the citizens inside. The citizens, not to be outdone, shoveled the remains over another wall into the ocean.
Many believed the disease was spread through the water supply, and the likely suspects, they erroneously believed, were Jews. Charges that the wells were poisoned and that the disease was a deliberate attempt to kill Christians multiplied throughout the region. This led to Jews being rounded up, beaten, tortured, and murdered. Pope Clement VI tried to stop the carnage, but was unsuccessful. Jewish people were victims of homicidal fury as well as the plague, and the death toll continued to rise.
Clement VI had another problem added to his already full plate: because the plague was seen as punishment for sin, people walked the streets in macabre parades, whipping themselves in a bloody frenzy to make amends for the evil of mankind. The pope desperately tried to stop the horrific display, because all along the route, cases of the disease spiked after the bloodshed.
In the end, the idea that plague was carried by rats and fleas escaped the attention of physician, saint and sinner in these times, although both vermin were mentioned in plague accounts. Many preferred to believe their loved ones were struck down by the flaming sword of an angel, or were made sick by incubi or succubi, demons that attacked men and women in their beds. Europe was decimated, destabilized, and crushed. It would take years for order to be restored, infrastructure to be rebuilt, and society to be reestablished. The twentieth century saw several outbreaks of plague in America, most significantly in San Francisco, California. Every year, a handful of people across the nation become infected with Bubonic Plague, but the mortality rate is near zero. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), “significantly more cases occur in parts of Africa and Asia. The biggest fear among biological researchers is that a strain will appear one day that is resistant to modern antibiotics, or that a version of the disease will be manufactured in a lab somewhere and unleashed on the world, impervious to all drugs and remedies, a microscopic killer bringing death and destruction once again to the world.
It is unlikely the world will end in a single day, a month, or a year. More likely, we will face a slow demise due to climate change, deadly pollution, or as a result of the rippling effects from a weapon of mass destruction. There is always the possibility of meteors and comets colliding with earth, a scenario fit for a special effects-laden movie. The date, December 21, 2012, will probably pass without swaths of destruction and human carnage, leaving all of us in fine shape to resume our hedonistic materialism at the after-Christmas sales on the 26th. People of the future will see that as the plague of our particular time.