The Black Death has always fascinated me, so I figured the next couple of posts at least would be devoted to various subjects concerning this tenuous topic. I read several sources this week concerning the black death, learning that the name “black death” came from a latin mistranslation, “atra mors”, in which atra could be translated to mean both black and terrible.
In his book, “Daily Life During the Black Plague” author Joseph Byrne explores the various causes speculated in the medieval period to have caused the plague.
1) No one, Byrne writes, was “arrogant” enough to dismiss the possibility that the plague was a punishment sent to mankind. According to Byrne’s the King of Sweden was even quoted saying “God for the sins of man has struck down this great punishment of death”. Thus unlike the Muslim’s who believed that the plague was a source of martyrdom, Christians viewed it as a source of punishment.
2) Corruption of the air. This second reason associated stench in the air with the black plague.
3) Earthquakes observed during the black plague were connected to the cause of the black plague. Apparently, earthquake tremors broke the earth apart, allowing pestilent substances to rise and contaminate the air.
4) Those who were “warm and moist” opposed to “cool and dry” were thought to be more susceptible to the plague. Thus bathing and exercising were thought to increase your likelihood of catching the plague.
5) The alignment of certain planets were also thought to relate to the black death, as it seemed the the alignment of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter preceded an outbreak of the plague.
Perhaps the most interesting discovery this week is this article, in which immunologist Mihai Netea in the Netherlands claims to have discovered evidence that the black death favored those who carried certain immune genes. An article posted on sciencemag.org reports,
“Geneticists know that human populations evolve in the face of disease. Certain versions of our genes help us fight infections better than others, and people who carry those genes tend to have more children than those who don’t. So the beneficial genetic versions persist, while other versions tend to disappear as those carrying them die. This weeding-out of all but the best genes is called positive selection. But researchers have trouble pinpointing positively selected genes in humans, as many genes vary from one individual to the next.”
Perhaps what I find most interesting in my research of the black death is how one natural disease or disaster can effect every aspect of human society; religion, science, social structure, government structure etc. This is often the case with natural disasters or diseases, it only takes one force to destroy that which society has built up for years. It is dizzying to think how nature only has to make one move; one disease; in order to affect a whole population that has taken years to build up, and is wiped away in a comparably short time by something that is created rapidly, sweeps through, and then is gone.