The pleasure of the plague (reading about it, not experiencing it.)

by Jamie Lutton

I was conferring with my business partner John Watkins about whether to change our Twice Sold Tales shop T-shirt design.
We have had a 'bubonic plague' or 'black death' theme for over 25 years now, and we thought about getting a new slogan.
Why bubonic plague t-shirts? I got interested in history back in 1981 when I read Barbara Tuchman's history book of the 1340s -1380's, A Distant Mirror. When you read history in high school, they don't dwell on the dark stuff.
I have concluded that  there have been two major catastrophes in Western Europe  in the last thousand years. One is the  Black Death outbreaks, which appear to have killed 50 to 60% of Europe's population, and kept the population from growing much for 400 years. The second was World War l, which killed more than half the mobilized forces, which included many of the men between 15 and 50.
 It radically changed society. Women moved into the work force during this war in all Western countries, including the United States, and never went 'home' again. Women's clothing weight was reduced by some 80%, as hems rose and corsets were discarded.

World War I encouraged a new cynicism about the intelligence of those in charge among not only  the intelligentsia,  but everybody.
 But the Black Death was inexplicable, something you couldn't blame on human nature, but which no authority could stop.
The Black Death overran all of Eurasia.  A person could go to bed healthy and not live though the night. Society nearly broke down as people fled the sick and dying, taking the disease with them to the next town. And the Black Death, after running over Europe for three years, came back 10 years later and killed another 20% of the population - mostly children.
This happened for the next 400 years, popping up in one country or another, wiping out 5% to 30% of the population each time.  The population of Europe did not return to the numbers of 1348 until the mid 1740's or so.

People then felt that Death was at close hand at all times. For us terrorism or even atomic warfare is a shadow over us.  Both eras live with sudden death as a ever present possibility. 
The Black death also helped create the modern world.  Because there were a lot fewer people, labor was suddenly expensive, and poor people began to demand better treatment.  There was nearly a revolution in the 1370's in England, as the poor rose up in a huge mob,  and walked to London to demand better treatment from the king of the time, Richard ll.
Unlike the long- lasting and very successful Roman Empire, which depended on a huge slave labor population to keep it's elite in power, the elites of the West began to encourage inventions that saved on expensive labor. With a constant labor shortage, there was money to be made in labor saving devices. There was a shortage of cheap labor in the monasteries to copy books, for example, so the frantic search for an alternative gave rise to the printing press 100 years later in Germany.

And with the ruination  of the world-view that the Catholic Church was infallible, new heresies were born and grew. People wanted to read the Bible themselves, not have priests interpret it for them. By the time Martin Luther, with the new invention the printing press at his back was able to break with the Church, with his writings  passed from hand to hand in new, printed form. .
Western Europe might have been like China and resisted new inventiuons and ideas, if the Black Death had not occurred.
When ships returned in the 1420's with reports to the Emperor of new lands to the West, the Chinese Emperor, successor to the man who had ordered the voyages, had ships that could voyage burned. He wanted to maintain political stability at home. He did not want new ideas in his land.
A few decades later, in 1491,  when Columbus said he could get to India by sailing west, the twin rulers of Spain, Fernande and Isabella, encouraged him and gave him money to buy ships, instead of burning his ships and locking him up. The tenor of the time was looking outward. Portugal was exploring Africa, seeking new trade routes The old institutions had failed by not stopping the disaster that was The Black Death, so people invented new institutions and new ideas. 
Careful observers in the 1720's or so noticed that if plague victims were walled up in their houses for 40 days, the disease would not spread further. This was a good 175 years before 'germ theory' finally proved that the fleas on rats were the vectors. And so the Black Death was finally halted, and the disease ebbed and nearly vanished in the West. This was helped by the black rat that carried the disease being displaced by the brown rat, and cities generally realizing that they had to clean the streets and have municipal l garbage pickup.
After reading A Distant Mirror I began to collect books on the Black Death. Here is a short list of some of my favorite books on the subject:
The Black Death by the French scholar Rosemary Horrox, in the Manchester Medieval Sources series
The Black Death By Phillip Zeigler published in 1969 - Folio Society.
The Black Death by Robert S. Gottifried published by the Free Press 1983.
Daughters, Wives and Widows after the Black Death by Mavis Mate 1998 The Boydell Press.
The Great Mortality by John Kelly 2005 Harper Collins.
My personal favorite is The Black Death: The Complete History 1346-1351 Ole Benedictow - this one is a contrarian book. It claims that the 'black death' might actu8ally have been an anthrax outbreak.
A novelized account that is VERY good is The Black Death - A Personal Story by John Hatcher. For the lover of fiction, this is the one great book on the subject. It focuses the impact on one small English Town for which we have very good records. Highly recommended. Also novel is  Daniel Defoe's book Journal of a Plague Year which is a novelized account of the Black Death epidmeic of 1666 in London.
a few related titles include:
More Cunning than Man (about rats in civilation) by Robert Hendrickson Kensington Books 1983.
The Great Famine by William Chester Jordan about the famine of 1315-1322 that arose from a period of 'global cooling. This famine, from years of no summers and failed crops, killed 10% of Europe's population before the Black Death.