The Black Death
The Black Death, a pandemic of bubonic plague, wiped out a good portion of the earth’s population, devastating Europe in the 14th century. Six centuries later the Spanish flu contagion joined the Black Death among the deadliest natural disasters to befall humankind. The virulence of these two global scourges changed the course of history and leaves us wondering what other epidemics may lie in our future.
A global outbreak of bubonic plague peaked in Europe between 1348 and 1350. Estimates suggest the disease that came to be known as the Black Death killed as many as 50 million Europeans—half the population—or even more. Symptoms of this affliction include swellings in the armpits and groin, fever, chills, seizures, and hemorrhaging that turns the skin blue-black. Until the modern advent of antibiotics, death among the infected was often inevitable, and most victims breathed their last within a few days.
The plague broke out several more times through the centuries—annihilating perhaps 100,000 Londoners between 1664 and 1665—but not until the early 20th century did a disease on the scale of the Black Death appear again. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 reached almost every corner of the globe, and some 50 to 100 million people perished. Although most flu strains affect the elderly and weak, the Spanish influenza took an especially heavy toll on the young and healthy. Victims suffered high fever, fatigue, violent coughing, and bleeding from the nose and mouth. As with the Black Death, the end could come within a day or two—or even a few hours.
Bubonic plague is caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis, which lives in the guts of fleas that often dwell in the scraggly fur of black rats. These hitchhiker insects jump from rats to humans, passing the bacilli into the bloodstream when the fleas bite—or so the standard theory goes. The rat connection is backed by such evidence as the presence of Y. pestis in the tooth pulp of plague victims exhumed from mass graves. But some researchers let rats off the hook, pointing out that the plague has raged through the harshest winter months, when rat-borne fleas would not have survived the cold, and that the disease has spread so rapidly, it could have been passed only from human to human. And missing are huge piles of rat bones or other signs of a massive rat die-off; as carriers, the rodents should have succumbed to the bites of plague-ridden fleas in the same devastating numbers as humans did. If not the plague, what caused this medieval pandemic? Some researchers suggest the disease that wiped out so many in the 14th century was instead Ebola or anthrax, two agents that still threaten the 21st-century world.
If only Marco Polo had been a cat fancier. The Venetian traveled (without feline rat catchers, apparently) throughout Asia from 1271 to 1295, eventually residing at the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor of China. Polo wrote about his adventures in Il Milione—a handbook for other merchant sailors and one of the first widely circulated travelogues. His voyages blazed the trade routes Christopher Columbus and other Europeans would follow for centuries to come.
But Marco Polo was also the unwitting agent of doom. It is widely believed that scampering gamely among the spices and other treasures merchant ships brought back from the Far East were rats laden with the fleas that would spread the Black Death. Polo died in Venice in 1324, when some 35,000 Venetian sailors plied the seas in a fleet of 3,500 ships, and his native city was the greatest and wealthiest maritime republic in the Western world. But a quarter century after his death, the plague he unwittingly helped import to Europe had killed off more than half the population of Venice.
The black rat, credited with wiping out much of the world’s population during plague outbreaks across the centuries, finally met its match in the brown rat. This larger and more aggressive species, also known as the Norway rat, originated in Asia but spread throughout Europe and the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries. It quickly eliminated the black rat in most places and is said to be, after humans, the most successful creature on the planet.
New York officials estimate there is a brown rat for each of the city’s 8 million human inhabitants. Although a precise rat head count would be difficult to obtain, it’s worth noting that a female rat can give birth to 50 pups a year—and of course even a single rat, meandering through a restaurant or a hotel lobby, is a menacing sight that evokes filth, contagion and other urban ills. Brown rats have superhero strength: They can gnaw through concrete, can swim for half a mile and have survived an atomic blast. Hardy and prolific, brown rats aren’t going anywhere soon—so it’s a relief that, unlike black rats, they do not spread bubonic plague.
The first report of a Spanish flu outbreak in the United States came from Haskell County, Kansas, in January 1918. In March a cook at nearby Fort Riley came down with the symptoms, and within weeks, more than 1,100 soldiers had been stricken and 46 had died. Flu was reported in the New York City borough of Queens only about a week after the Fort Riley outbreak and soon appeared throughout Europe, carried there by troops shipped off to World War I battlefields. As one of the few European countries not engaged in the war, Spain lent its name to the disease only because it did not censor reports of it, making the flu seem more virulent there than elsewhere.
Troops returning to the U.S. brought back European strains, and a second wave of the epidemic swept across the country in autumn 1918. All told, an estimated 675,000 Americans died in the pandemic. Cities were especially hard-hit. At Maple Grove, one of many cemeteries in Queens, New York, a bronze marker above the mass grave of more than 300 flu victims ends with a simple statement: “This virus took a powerful toll in our community.”
Rats get a bad rap, and for good reason: Rodents clear a room just by appearing, and they eat humans out of house and home, devouring an estimated one fifth of the world’s food supply annually. We’re schooled to loathe rats from the time we begin listening to nursery rhymes. In Robert Browning’s “Pied Piper of Hamelin” (1888), a poem based on the popular Brothers Grimm folktale, rats are not only annoying (“They ate the cheeses out of the vats, / And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles”) but vicious (“They fought the dogs and killed the cats, / And bit the babies in the cradles”). In Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Samuel Whiskers (1908), fiendish rats scheme to bake a kitten in a dumpling.
These storybook rats get their comeuppance. In the “Pied Piper” nursery rhymes, which some scholars interpret as being about Hamelin’s children perishing in the Black Death, they drown in the River Weser; in Potter’s story, cats “hang up the rats’ tails in a row…to show how many they have caught—dozens and dozens of them.” But real-life rats, as evidenced by modern infestations in New York and London, are holding their own.
Medieval authors began writing about the Black Death before it subsided. Tuscan poet Petrarch (1304–1374) asks his brother, the lone plague survivor at a French monastery, “How will posterity believe that there has been a time when…well-nigh the whole globe has remained without inhabitants,…houses were left vacant, cities deserted, the country neglected, the fields too small for the dead?” Petrarch’s contemporary, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) sets his Decameron in a hillside Florentine villa, where 10 storytelling nobles take refuge from the epidemic.
British novelist Daniel Defoe writes about the 1665 London plague in his Journal of the Plague Year, and Frenchman Albert Camus’s La Peste recounts a fictional 1947 plague outbreak in Algeria. But plague is not solely the province of high art. Even the simple nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie” may actually be about the Black Death. Ring and rosie could refer to the redness around the flea bite, the disease’s first sign; a pocket full of posies to herb sachets thought to prevent infection; ashes, ashes to the funeral Mass (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”); and we all fall down to the plague’s indiscriminate ability to affect anyone, regardless of status.
In director Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece The Seventh Seal, bubonic plague sweeps through 14th-century Sweden. Life’s brevity, God’s absence and other concerns born of existential angst hang heavily in the air as a knight (played by Max von Sydow), returning home from the Crusades, ventures into the countryside. Flagellants stagger under heavy crosses. A caged woman is to be burned for “causing” the pestilence by sleeping with the devil. Plague victims beg for water. On a windswept beach, the knight encounters Death, an eerie black-hooded figure. They play chess for the knight’s soul.
Such doom and gloom has been ripe picking for Monty Python and other parodists. One reviewer summed up the film in eight words: “Chess on the beach with Death. Death wins.” Yet a scene of Death leading his victims in a hilltop danse macabre is beautiful and timeless, and the film’s one glimpse of hope—when the knight sacrifices the chess game, and thus his life, to save the wholesome little family that shelters him—is one of cinema’s sweetest moments. “I shall remember this hour of peace,” he says, savoring his respite from pestilence and despair, “the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk.”
About 3,000 cases of bubonic plague surface worldwide each year, with some 20 cases in the United States. About half of those occur in New Mexico, probably because the state has so many rock squirrels, which host the fleas carrying the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis. Most cases are treatable with antibiotics.
Reports of bubonic plague rattled New York City in 2002 for the first time in a century, when two tourists from New Mexico fell ill. New Yorkers had suffered a related plague of their own in 1946, when rickettsialpox broke out in an apartment complex in the borough of Queens. Like bubonic plague, the disease is carried by rodents—in this case, mice host infected mites that transmit bacteria when they bite humans. Symptoms, like the plague’s swollen lymph nodes and fever, are treated with antibiotics. Unlike bubonic plague, however, rickettsialpox is rarely fatal, and even if not treated, it resolves itself in a few weeks.
The New Mexico tourists survived to comment on their bad luck: There is a greater statistical chance of winning the lottery than of getting bubonic plague. Then again, surviving one of the most devastating diseases ever to infect mankind makes you pretty lucky.