The Ghosts of The Black Death

Posted on March 24, 2020

The Triumph Of Death, Pieter Brugel The Elder – painted c. 1562. (Museum Of Prado).

In the scope of semi-modern human history, no other event has had more impact on our walkabout on spaceship Earth than the Black Death. It was an unparalleled kick in the groin to the whole species. When we envision apocalyptic events, the sort that inspires the Walking Dead, that funky Dustin Huffman movie with the monkey, and Bruce Willis playing fisticuffs with an astroid we always come short when we read a paragraph or two on the history of the Black Death. This thing, for there really is no other way to quantify it properly, this act of God was so catastrophic that its consequences are still felt today. Almost 7 centuries later and we’re still haunted by the ghosts of the Black Death or the Black Plague. 

What Is The Black Death?

The truth is, no one really knows. The general idea is that the Black Death, also known as the Pestilence, Great Bubonic Plague, The Great Mortality, The GREAT Plague, was a pandemic that resulted from the widespread migration of a bacterium called, Yersinia Pesti. That’s what most scientists believe, might, maybe, perhaps, who knows to have been the cause. Notice how I put in all those classifiers of doubt? Why?

The bacterium under the scope.

 

Mainly because that explanation is formed from hindsight and dubious forensic studies. All other Bubonic Plagues in history were in fact caused by that nasty anaerobic organism that hitched its ride on the back of fleas. Yersinia Pestis is even thought to have been responsible for the Neolithic Decline of 3000 BC – when for no specific explanation the human race and settlements simply seized to exist. The only ones to survive were nomads and hermits. Nonetheless, epidemiologists as a whole are still on the fence whether that horrible population control method of Satan was, in fact, responsible for the savagery and insanity that was The Black Plague. Why? Because to this day, there hasn’t been a pandemic, or other recorded Plague, as Biblical and fatal as the Black Plague. The ghosts of the Black Death are still felt today.

The Black Plague didn’t just decimate humanity, it obliterated almost everything we had accomplished until then. 

The Black Death, between 1347-1351 – in the span of 4 years –  ripped humanity apart and killed over 200 million people on Eurasia. In that short while, like the Pale Horse from Revelation, the thing galloped across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and reduced the population by 60%.

It took Europe an average of 200 years to recover its population levels and regions like Florence only managed to get their census up to previous standards in the 19th century. 

Black Death’s Timeline.

Death traveled through Europe on the back of capitalism and trading. It flew out of the Mongolian desert, where most eggheads believe the epicenter of this hellish monster originated, using trading routes. Its first pipeline from that isolated backwoods moorland was through the Silk Road. Once it found its way into this highway it spread out and conquered a world barely held together with twine and baling wire. 

And, here’s a tidbit, the whole calamity started in the walled city of Kaffa during a protracted siege by a Mongol army under Jani Beg. The Genovese were hauled up behind the fortified gates, while the Mongols – infected to the gills with the plague which they had unsuspectingly brought in from the desert – started dying off. Jani Beg, knowing that his army would perish from the pestilence and that he would never conquer the city, started catapulting his infected dead over the ramparts. Biological warfare 101. A petty act of spite by the Mongol army contaminated the Genovese, which then fled on ships and trading routes once the siege stopped… and the rest is history. 

1345: Plague occurs in the Volga River basin and spreads through Eastern and Central Europe eventually reaching Constantinople the main trade link between Europe and Asia.

1347: Black plague reaches Italy

Jan. 1348: Plague reaches Marseille, France

Nov. 1348: Plague reaches London

May 1349: Plague reaches Scotland, Wales, and Ireland

1349: Scandinavia affected by the plague

1350: Uncharted Eastern Europe affected by the plague

Black Death’s Symptoms

Xenopsylla cheopis/Oriental Rat Flea

The primary vector, the oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) would engorge itself on blood. A bacterium (Yersina Pestis) within the flea would block its guts. The blood would then start to coagulate and turn septic. It would transform into a black biofilm within the flea. When the flea, with all that pestilence within its body, jumped on an uninfected host, it would bite and instead of taking new blood it would regurgitate the foul abomination it had been cultivating into the open wound. 

The bacterium would then start to spread like wildfire in the new host causing massive damage in the healthy body. 

Accounts of how the plague affected people are a bit spotty and all over the place. The plague affected people differently depending on their genetic makeup, regional weather, and uniqueness. The symptoms were varied and imprecise, but what was known was that over 90% of people struck with it would eventually die. 

The most common symptom was the appearance of buboes (or gavocciolos) in the groin, the neck and armpits, which oozed pus and bled when opened.

Boccaccio‘s – a medical doctor – descriptions:

“In men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg … From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. As the gavocciolo had been and still was an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they showed themselves.”

Aside from these swollen lymph nodes, your body would simply start to wither and die. You could have an acute fever and start vomiting blood. You could have aural gangrene – your flesh would begin to die and turn black. You could have respiratory problems. The truth is that by all accounts, to put it mildly, once the flea bit you, you would start to rot.

There was a reason why it was called the Black Death… It was because you were slowly turned into a black skeleton. Most people would die within two days. Turning in hours in ghosts of the Black Death.

The Ghosts Of The Black Death

When we talk about the Ghosts of The Black Death, we’re probably left barking up a tree looking for spooks, specters, monsters and the occasional poltergeist rattling its chains in some old abbey… well, the Black Death has those in spades. You can’t travel through the places this act of God visited without coming upon monuments to it, mass gravesites, and even churches constructed from the actual bleached bones of its victims.

Mass Grave, Martigues France

We could – and if my editor is really nice and wants to throw a bone my way – talk eons about those haunted places… About the ghosts of the Black Death as in ectoplasmic operations.

BUT, the real ghosts of the Black Death are those that have a nagging way of slinking into our lives, all our lives, on a daily basis. The phantoms and charnel house of terror that poke us in the shoulder while we’re having our Rice Krispies and remind us that we are byproducts of those 4 long excruciating years. 

After the Black Death, humanity recoiled and went into hiding to lick its wounds. For almost 100 years humanity did nothing more than wallow in misery and mourn its dead… all the while scared straight that the plague would come back. Here’s a quick idea as to the extent of our inaction… Europe went into a mild Ice Age. Trees grew back rather quickly. Due to the lack of able hands and folks who wanted to come out of their fox-hole, huge canopies arose from nature and started to blot out the sun. There was no further deforestation and weather patterns returned to what they used to be before sapiens went and mucked everything up.

We went into the darkest alcoves of Dark Ages and hunkered down.

Consequences and Phantoms of The Black Death

But, let’s go back to the ghosts of the Black Death that haunt us still, what consequences of the Black Plague do we still carry.

The Renaissance, almost 150 years after the Black Plague, was a consequence of this trial by fire humanity had lived through. The word quite literally means: “rebirth” and all the paintings, art-works, basilicas, and funky cool things – not to mention scientific advances – were a result of humanity’s need to not only reinvigorate themselves but show that bum the Black Plague that we were a resilient and plucky bunch. All the Ninja Turtles, and their namesakes – not to mention the span of the great empires, like the Ottoman and British, were ghosts of the Black Death.

You are who you are because of the Black Death

The known world lost over 60% of its population. All that rich genetic material simply seized to exist. There’s a reason why Michelle Williams and Carey Mulligan look practically the same. Or why there’s a Hemingway lookalike contest in Key West. Or why you look at David Lynch and sometimes mistake him for Jim Jarmusch… or why for that matter you might seem like a long lost relative of that barista at Starbucks. You’re being haunted by a ghost of the Black Death.

When the plague hit humankind it leveled over 60% off our genetic makeup. In 4 years it created a funnel and took an ax to our evolution. We look how we look because the Black Death grabbed 6 out of 10 variables in our DNA and made them extinct. It snuffed out characteristics, immunities and mutable traits out of existence. We are but a pale shadow of what we used to be. 

When we stare in the mirror, every morning, we are taking in a ghost of Black Death. We are a byproduct on a genetic level, which to be honest doesn’t get more intimate than that, of the Black Plague.

The Psychological Ghosts of Black Death

And engraving of The Danse Macabre

Have you ever heard of the Danse Macabre? The Dance Macabre was a motif left over by the Black Plague. In essence, people started to become obsessed with death. People started to understand their own mortality. Death personified, as the Grim Reaper, is a consequence of The Black Death. 

Psychologically, we are in awe of death and are partly fatalistic because of the literature and cultural change produced on account of the Black Death. Each time we see a skull and crossbones, each time my Chemical Romance prances around rambling about “The Black Parade,” each time a goth kid goes into a Hot Topic, it is the ghosts of the Black Plague making their presence known.


 

We are more complex, and also more insightful with our emotions and genetic predisposition because of the Black Plague. 

Sure, we were walloped hard over the head by that miscreant, but like they say: “what doesn’t kill us only makes us tougher.” And in these Coronavirus infused days there’s no better retelling of our perseverance and our gung-ho attitude than the tragedy of the Black Death. Why? Because the only thing that is left of that scoundrel is just that, a ghost. 

Antibiotics, the WHO and strict government control, not to mention our now advance immunity system, killed off Yersinia Pestis. It took ages but at the end of the day, I ask you… what species went extinct? We didn’t just punch Black Death, the worst pandemic in history in the teeth, we made it as relevant as the Dodo.

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