Tag Archives: flu

The Dance of Death

The bubonic plague left a big mark on Europe’s psyche (people’s imaginations). With death everywhere it was impossible not to think about the fact that we’re given only a brief time on Earth. Artists portrayed Death as a skeletal figure who led the living—young, old, rich, poor—in a merry dance before dragging them off to their doom. Le danse macabre in French, der totentanz in German, the dance of death was a popular subject. The brilliant artist Hans Holbein drew a series of Dance of Death woodcuts before he became Henry VIII’s court painter.

https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/hans-holbeins-dance-of-death-1523-5
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danse_Macabre
https://www.amazon.com/Dance-Death-Dover-Fine-History/dp/0486228045
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/955496.The_Dance_of_Death
https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/psyche

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Doom

The plague doctor was somebody whose job was to venture among the plague victims and keep a tally of the sick and dead. He burned herbs in the end of his mask to discourage plague germs. I’m kind of surprised no one wore one of these get-ups in the past year.*

The Black Death was a proper pandemic. Coffin-makers couldn’t keep up with the business. Bodies needed to be buried in mass graves. Entire towns were left empty. A huge chunk of the Holy Roman Empire’s population just wasn’t there anymore. Church attendance plummeted. Food was in short supply because there weren’t enough serfs left to plant and harvest crops. The devastation was so comprehensive that it took a couple centuries to recover.

* GAAAAH! Update! I did this sketch as a kind of tribute to my pal Chuck Dillon who wrote and illustrated Which Art Student Are You? that features art student stereotypes with all their attributes called out—and then I forgot to mention Chuck when I posted! I tell you, I’m losing my marbles.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

 

Biological warfare

Let’s zoom in on the western chunk of the Mongolian Empire—where the Ukraine is now. Caffa was a trading port on the northern shore of the Black Sea used by merchants from Genoa, Italy. The Khan allowed them to build the port. It was protected by 2 walls, one inside the other. The Genovese traded with people throughout the Mongolian Empire who came to Caffa by the Silk Road. They made a nice living.
https://www.google.com/maps/place/Feodosia/@45.0519847,26.4132688,5z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x40eb858afb281d9b:0x3c1c98ca88a2653e!8m2!3d45.031933!4d35.382433

Caffa was a cosmopolitan city, full of people of different religions and cultures. I suppose it was bound to happen that religions and cultures would clash; sure enough there was a brawl between 2 disagreeing factions that escalated into a riot. The Khan decided to settle the riot with his army but somebody had barred the city gates and he couldn’t get in. So he put Caffa under siege. A siege is when you use an army to trap your enemy inside a walled town. You don’t let them out and they eventually run out of food and water. The Mongols were on the outside and the Genovese were on the inside. The Mongols decided to use a never-tried-before secret weapon. They had cartloads of dead bodies infected with bubonic plague. The Mongols catapulted the infected bodies over the walls and into Caffa where no one was wearing masks or social-distancing or sneezing into their elbows. Soon after that, people in Caffa started to drop dead. The Genovese traders took a look around, said “arrivederci” and jumped onto their ships headed back to Sicily and Italy. Of course, they were already infected and took the plague with them. From there, rats and fleas and the plague spread throughout Europe. This was the Black Death. An estimated 25-30 million people in Europe died from bubonic plague.

https://www.worldhistory.org/Black_Death/
https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/mongol-siege-caffa-black-plague.html
https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/8/9/01-0536_article
I’ve recommended Justinian’s Flea before and I’ll do it again: http://www.justiniansflea.com/
The plague came back more than once—people got reinfected because no one figured out where it came from. I read DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1665) in my youth during subway commutes in New York City. It was summertime, and every time the subway doors opened a blast of hot hobo-pee-smelling air whooshed into the car. It was the perfect accompaniment for reading about the plague. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/376/376-h/376-h.htm
Rats (my buddy Pastor Trip recommended this one to me) zeroes in on rats living in New York City right now: https://www.amazon.com/Rats-Observations-History-Unwanted-Inhabitants/dp/1582344779
https://benjaminzlee001.wixsite.com/catapults/trebuchet