Tag Archives: plague

We’ll be right back!

Yup, there’s been a big interruption in blog posts. There’s been a lot going on. We sustained some heavy losses here at Western Civ World Headquarters: my beloved pets Lizzie and Gus passed on in the last few months (Lord help me, I’m still a mess). Also, I moved from Syracuse, NY back to my house in Franklin, PA and my dad lives with me here now. I’ve been busy making the place accessible for him. I apologize for the lapse. Life happens.

For the past year-and-a half I’d been able to take advantage of the almighty worldwide plague to post regularly. Much of the information had already been researched, so it was kind of easy to crank out paragraphs every weekday morning while we were all locked down.

In the end, though, it’s unhealthy to be glued to one’s desk, writing about stuff I already know.

While reorganizing my work-space I unearthed my library of books that had been in cardboard boxes for a long time. One of my interests is plagues. I own a handful of books about rats and lice and bacilli (I’m a nerd. You know this already). I mention it because these books tell me humankind has been through pandemics dozens of times. We always react the same way: like idiots.

Johns Hopkins released a study this past week that says the lockdown was unproductive and caused more harm than good. It shows that there was little discernible curtailing of COVID by keeping everyone in their homes. I’ll go further than that. The lockdown was a giant squashing of creativity.

There’s a big exciting world out there, but you and I were discouraged—prohibited—from experiencing it. That kept us from growing. How? Well, I used to be a graphic design instructor at Pittsburgh Technical Institute. PTI’s president, Jack McCartan, was fond of saying at faculty meetings that ‘the answers aren’t in here.’ He meant that there’s only so much a teacher can bring to the classroom. You need to go outside the school’s walls to find what you’re looking for. I took that message to heart and helped organize field trips to New York City and Chicago where we met some bigshots of the graphic design world (Seymour Chwast, you guys). Listening to successful designers and art directors, those students got more education in an afternoon than I could ever hope to give them in an entire quarter. To learn, to stretch yourself, you need to go outside.

Gang, get out there and live your lives. Wash your hands, keep your fingers away from your faces, don’t lick any doorknobs. We only get this one life and it’s a pretty short run. Make the most of it.

We’re coming up to the grand finale of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing. Posts will resume soon.

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Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.

The Peasant’s Revolt

So that was the Black Death. An estimated 25-30 million people in Europe died from bubonic plague—maybe a third to a half of the population. Under those circumstances, the feudal system was what the experts call ‘unsustainable.’ Serfs were expected to keep the food supply going full steam with only a partial crew on each manor. The way it was supposed to work was serfs paid their rent by giving the lord of the manor their harvest and keeping some for themselves. With smaller harvests, the serfs saw their portion get cut. They were working harder for lower pay.

Did I mention? Serfs had to pay taxes to the king, too—so there goes another chunk of the food they’d hoped to live off of that year. If you’re a serf, you’re starting to get plenty torqued. It was at this moment the geniuses who run the English government thought, “Now’s an ideal time to collect those unpaid poll taxes.”



It was too much. Serfs and peasants from all over England got together—they gathered a bigger crowd with each manor they passed—and marched on London to tell whoever would listen that they weren’t paying the poll tax. A guy named Wat Tyler emerged as the peasants’ leader. They broke into the Temple and destroyed tax records. They killed the Lord Chancellor and Lord High Treasurer and other officials. Finally, 14-year-old King Richard II rode out to meet the mob and somehow talked them out of killing him, too. Richard promised a bunch of reforms. He kept the peasants there long enough for the London militia to arrive and arrest or break up the crowd. Wat Tyler was killed.

I include this episode merely to show the effects of the bubonic plague, its terrible death toll and the cheesed-offedness of the serfs. The Peasants’ Revolt didn’t accomplish anything much that wasn’t going to happen anyway. Richard (or his handlers) didn’t keep his promises, but the feudal system was already over, kaput, done, stick a fork in it. Why? The Laws of Supply and Demand, gang. It eventually dawned on the serfs that they were in short supply—a limited resource—which increased the demand for them. Lots of farm fields, only a few farmers. There was nothing to keep serfs tied to one lord’s manor anymore. They could set up on their own and negotiate terms. A voluntary exchange of labor for wages. The beauty of the free market.

“That’s nice, Manders. What’s it got to do with reading and writing?” That’s an excellent question and I’m glad you asked. It turns out not only were people fed up with feudalism, they’d begun to question the way the Church was run, too. One guy in particular thought that more people ought to read the Bible.

I love this little illumination of Richard II in his ship meeting the peasants (although it looks more like an army to me)—https://www.worldhistory.org/image/11780/richard-ii–the-peasants-revolt/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peasants%27_Revolt
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner_Temple
Laws of Supply & Demand:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9aDizJpd_s

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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

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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.

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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

Rats and fleas

Living conditions in the big cities of the Mongolian Empire were no better than in the Holy Roman Empire. Mediæval cities literally stunk from all the pee and poop. Wherever you get a lot of people living closely together you’ll also find rats. Why not? Rats gotta eat and there’s always kitchen trash around wherever people are. The good thing was: rats got rid of a lot of garbage by eating it. The bad thing was: rats had fleas. The worse thing was: rats and fleas carried bubonic plague bacteria.

People who didn’t take baths much had fleas, too. A flea who’d bitten a rat with the plague might jump onto a human being and bite him. By the mid-1300s, Mongolian traders carried fleas and plague bacteria east and west along the Silk Road. Plaguey rats and their fleas hitched rides on grain-laden caravans. Everywhere traders went, they spread bubonic plague.

Study hard, pay attention in class and you may land a job looking at 2,000-year-old turds: https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/2000-year-old-feces-silk-road-reveal-spread-infectious-diseases-006326
https://www.wearewater.org/en/sewage-the-trace-of-our-history_281141
https://www.quora.com/How-did-the-Roman-sewage-system-become-unutilized-during-the-Middle-Ages-in-Europe-People-during-that-time-were-literally-throwing-their-wastes-out-of-their-windows-and-into-the-streets
https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1001550/seats%2C-squats%2C-and-leaves-a-brief-history-of-chinese-toilets

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That old wheel of fortune

The Hagia Sophia. This style of church is called a basilica: an enormous dome set on a square base. I drew it as it was in its heyday, before being goombah’d up with minarets.

You see how this went? Christianity, which had been oppressed and persecuted 500 years earlier, grew popular within the Roman Empire until the Church came to be in charge and so now it squashed down the other religions. It’s never a bad idea to be aware of this stuff—what they call a ‘cultural shift.’ Which religion (or ideology) is in charge now? Where is it promoted? How is it promoted? Which religion or ideology is being discouraged? An easy way to tell is: look at what ideology you can make fun of—and what you’re not allowed to make fun of. If you mock a way of thinking and scorn is heaped upon your head, or your opinion gets you in trouble, or your opinion gets blocked on social media—the ideology you’re mocking is in charge.

I’m a Christian, which means Jesus is my Savior. You can expect me to champion Christianity’s indispensable role in shaping our great civilization. Nevertheless, I try to stay clear-eyed about Christianity’s past. All human beings are flawed. We Christians regularly fail at being Christ-like. Not only that, we live in a fallen, constantly-changing world. Religions and ideologies gain and lose their influence. Justinian built what may be the most magnificent Christian church human beings had ever seen—the Hagia Sophia. Fifteen hundred years later, it’s a mosque—a Muslim house of worship. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-greece/hagia-sophia

If you’d like to learn more about Justinian, try this fascinating book: Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen. It covers everything about that place and time but its focus is the bubonic plague. This year seems like a good time to read it. Highly recommended by me! http://www.justiniansflea.com/

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