Monday, May 21, 2007

Wake of the Plague

My reading list has expanded quite a bit in the last few weeks, with a couple of very interesting books. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Einstein by Walter Isaacson, In the Wake of the Plague by Norman Cantor, most of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.

The last is sci-fi fluff, but I've been entirely drawn in by the book about the Black Death, In the Wake of the Plague. It's fascinating. It was recommended to me by a fellow air traveler as an interesting book on medieval life, more than a history book. It covers the basics of the bubonic plague outbreak in the 14th century (1347-1350 or so) and weaves it in with fascinating details about the way people lived and how the plague changed society.

Fir example, he whole "not bathing" thing was a result of churchmen deciding that bathing would "open the pores" to the miasma and make you susceptible to plague (it was thought that "bad air" was the cause of contagion). The tapestry industry in Bruge wa sa direct result of the idea that closing off the windows (again, to keep out "bad air") was necessary.

We rely on the descriptions of contemporary records to identify the "Black Death", and the common belief is that it was bubonic plague -- vivid descriptions of black welts and buboes (hence, bubonic plague) on the victims, who died a particularly gruesome death in a matter of a week or so left us with the clear idea that the pestilence that wiped out 20 million people in Europe in the 14th century was, indeed, a form of bubonic plague. But writers also described people who died without these symptoms, often within a few days.

Bubonic plague is spread by fleas, carried by specific species of rats. (For a really detailed description of how it affects the flea, check out Wikipedia. Ugh). But the plague spread too quicky, and in odd patterns, to be entirely dependent on this infested-rat idea. There are a few people who have hypothesized that the "plague" was not plague at all, but a form of anthrax spread by contact with (or ingestion of) diseased cattle -- a topic which also had much contemporary documentation.

In 1984, Graham Twigg argued that the climate made it nearly impossible for rats and fleas to have transmitted bubonic plague. His suggested alternative was anthrax. In 2001, scientists in Liverpool posited that the Black Death was more likely an ebola-like virus, since the human-to-human transmission rate was unsupportable in the fleas-on-the-rate model. Both of these alternative explainations are detailed at Wikipedia: Black Death.

One of the most interesting theories, however, relates to a genetic mutation and seeming immunity to HIV/AIDS in modern times. This got a half-page treatment in Cantor's book, but I happened upon a Science Channel show discussing this mutation -- CCR5 -- and how they had traced it back to people who had contracted the plague and survived. It is related in some way to people who have survived plague and possibly smallpox, and is a promising avenue of research into AIDS drugs or vaccines. Apparently about 15% of caucasians have this mutation, which showed up only a few hundred years ago.

Of course, it's all theory, and there are just as many scientists with alternate hypotheses. But it's fascinating reading, nonetheless. Considering that we we haven't wiped out bubonic and pneumonic plague (although we can treat them now), and the real risk of biological warfare, knowing about how earlier mass deaths occured is pretty critical. I strongly recommend the book -- not necessary for it's scientific accuracy, but for its interesting and engaging coverage of the period.

More info:
Black Death in Western Europe
Shifting Definitions of Plague
Encyclopedia of Death and Dying

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