The 1348 Project: Feast, Famine, Climate Change, and Genocide

 

During the pandemic, I started listening to some of the Great Courses on Audible. I went through the history of language, cuisine, and Rome until, inspired by the current pandemic, I spent several months with the Black Death. I figured there might be something to learn about how we were dealing with the present pandemic by looking at the most famous one. Not the first one. The first pandemic was the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century AD. The second was the Great Mortality of 1348, which we now know as the Black Death, and the third was the plague in India and China at the end of the 19th Century.  It was the latter where the likely cause of the Great Mortality was discovered, the bacillus Yersina Pestis, spread primarily by rat fleas. We all know that story, but there are still many mysteries about the Great Mortality, what it was and how it spread. There is still disagreement as to whether Y. Pestis caused the Great Mortality or whether other diseases were involved.

Understanding the response to the Black Death puts a few things in perspective for our current predicament. It moved with astonishing swiftness out of the East and killed 30-60% of Europe. Germ theory did not exist. The medievalers had no idea what hit them or why. Civilization held, miraculously enough. Whatever was left to function, functioned as best it could. Faith in the Church and medicine took a big hit though, as they were helpless to stop it. Governments reacted, trying to stop the dying, but their mandates were largely ineffective. The King of Sweden passed an edict requiring Swedes to fast on Fridays and go to Mass to stop the plague. Didn’t work. Florence forbade selling the clothes of a plague victim. That might have worked some, as fleas lived in clothes.

As plague continued to reoccur, governments tried additional measures. The first boards of health arose from the plague and its aftermath as cities began to think more about hygiene. The word quarantine dates from 1377 during the next wave of plague, as ships were required to anchor for 40 days (quaranta) before they could dock. Governments imposed strict travel restrictions, sometimes on pain of death. Plague houses were established to isolate the victims. If you didn’t isolate, you could be fined, arrested or executed. Plague reoccurred about every 10 years after that first wave until the 1600s. Over time lethality diminished, particularly in places that had already been devastated, although it was still high in the 5-20% range. So maybe some of the government edicts worked; then again, there likely were myriad reasons for the decline in lethality. I suspect governments took credit just the same.

The economic upheaval in its wake was significant. It severely disrupted the feudal system. Laborers were needed to work the manors but they were in very short supply, so those that lived could pretty much name their price and go where they wished. Land was abundant. Shortages of labor fueled technologies to make up for the labor shortage. Inflation raged for decades afterward.

Nothing new under the sun.

The period preceding the Black Death in 1348 provided an interesting arc that fed the plague. Europe was undergoing a prosperous period starting around 1000 AD.  The population roughly doubled between 1000-1300. The early 1200s seem to have been a relatively great time to be alive. Not so the 1300s. The earth did not get the memo that climate only changes when humans drive a lot of cars and raise too many cattle. The Little Ice Age descended in the late 13th/early 14th century, leading to a dramatic collapse in food production as the growing season shortened and the ice sheets advanced in Northern Europe. Starting around 1315, unusual amounts of rain fell leading to conditions that may have exploded rat populations and also hampered food production. By the time plague hit, Europe’s population was enfeebled, perhaps leading to Y. Pestis’ terrible mortality. Some studies have shown that areas harder hit by the plague were also harder hit by the earlier famine.

Like our current contagion, Y. Pestis came from China. I had always thought it came along the trade routes, and so it did. But the Mongols were also busy invading Europe through much of the 13th century. The Mongols were eventually stopped although they made it into Eastern Europe and parts of Western Europe. Their influence on Europe was significant and interactions continued. The plague is thought to have been brought to Europe in 1347 via Genoese soldiers and merchants who were fleeing the Mongol siege of Kaffa, in modern Ukraine. The Mongol army was badly affected by plague and were alleged to have catapulted the bodies of those who died into the city to provoke terror, often cited as the first use of biological warfare, although this is disputed by some. A few years later, at least a third of the European population was dead.

Famine, genocide, and climate change: pretty grim fare for Thanksgiving week, but increasingly these are the themes pushed at holiday time by the woke. Even as I wrote this, some are pushing to change the name of Thanksgiving to a Day of Mourning. But 1348 is a reminder that Europeans are indigenous people too, and they didn’t fare well either in their encounters with foreign peoples. The Mongols didn’t take over Europe, for a variety of reasons, but wholesale death came just the same. Europe’s population didn’t recover for another 300 years.

Plague, war, and weather. In 1348, these were ascribed to divine will or mans’ innate wickedness as part of the human condition. In 2021, these forces are increasingly ascribed to only certain humans and only their innate wickedness. But the Black Death shows clearly the folly of labeling populations as eternal oppressors or the eternally oppressed. If the Mongols had made it to the Americas, the result would likely have been the same for the indigenous populations, regardless of skin pigmentation. Just via different diseases.

Plagues, war, and weather remake the world on a regular basis. I suspect they always will. So it is right that we all give thanks for whatever forces and dumb luck led to us being alive, right here and right now, even if others were not so fortunate.

I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving.

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Fascinating post, GC! And in a sense, there’s nothing new under the sun, too. Thanks.

    • #1
  2. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Gossamer Cat: Famine, genocide and climate change: pretty grim fare for Thanksgiving week, but increasingly these are the themes pushed at holiday time by the woke.  Even as I wrote this, some are pushing to change the name of Thanksgiving to a Day of Mourning.  But 1348 is a reminder that Europeans are indigenous people too, and they didn’t fare well either in their encounters with foreign  peoples.  The Mongols didn’t take over Europe, for a variety of reasons, but wholesale death came just the same. 

    Fascinating.  Great article.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    A lot of factors went into the world as it is, rather than the fantasies of children that we hear about in the news.

    • #3
  4. Illiniguy Member
    Illiniguy
    @Illiniguy

    Barbara Tuchman’s book “A Distant Mirror” is a fascinating account of “The Calamitous 14th Century”.

    • #4
  5. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Fascinating post, GC! And in a sense, there’s nothing new under the sun, too. Thanks.

    Thank you Susan. Whenever you delve into history, you are just hit in the face with that eternal truth.

    • #5
  6. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    Illiniguy (View Comment):

    Barbara Tuchman’s book “A Distant Mirror” is a fascinating account of “The Calamitous 14th Century”.

    Thanks for reminding me. It has been sitting on my bookshelf for a very long time, so time to literally dust it off.

    • #6
  7. Illiniguy Member
    Illiniguy
    @Illiniguy

    Gossamer Cat (View Comment):

    Illiniguy (View Comment):

    Barbara Tuchman’s book “A Distant Mirror” is a fascinating account of “The Calamitous 14th Century”.

    Thanks for reminding me. It has been sitting on my bookshelf for a very long time, so time to literally dust it off.

    My copy is still in the box I packed it in when I moved 5 years ago. Probably not as much dust on it as your copy.

    • #7
  8. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Thanks for providing a summary. I may add that course (courses?) to those in my audible queue.

    A question. Did you take notes as you went along, or did you write this all from memory after listening?  One problem with audio books (for me) is that I listen while engaged in activities that make it impossible for me to take notes. Sometimes I buy a text copy of the book after listening to the audible version, so I can look things up and refer to them in internet conversations. 

    In the case of Samuel Cohn’s 2018 book, Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS, the Kindle and hardcover books were too expensive for me to buy without special authorization from my wife, and I don’t care to tell her I want to spend $100 to get a book so I can correct people who are wrong on the internet. 

    Though I see that the price is now a little lower, and a used book seller now has a “new” copy for $45, which is well under half the cost of anything that was available back when I listened to it on audio. This book covers some of the same ground as the course (courses?) you described, but emphasizes  the issues of who gets blamed for the epidemics and people’s reaction to those they think are to blame. But it’s really not quite as narrow a coverage as that, especially for the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic. 

    • #8
  9. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Thanks for providing a summary. I may add that course (courses?) to those in my audible queue.

    A question. Did you take notes as you went along, or did you write this all from memory after listening? One problem with audio books (for me) is that I listen while engaged in activities that make it impossible for me to take notes. Sometimes I buy a text copy of the book after listening to the audible version, so I can look things up and refer to them in internet conversations.

    In the case of Samuel Cohn’s 2018 book, Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS, the Kindle and hardcover books were too expensive for me to buy without special authorization from my wife, and I don’t care to tell her I want to spend $100 to get a book so I can correct people who are wrong on the internet.

    Though I see that the price is now a little lower, and a used book seller now has a “new” copy for $45, which is well under half the cost of anything that was available back when I listened to it on audio. This book covers some of the same ground as the course (courses?) you described, but emphasizes the issues of who gets blamed for the epidemics and people’s reaction to those they think are to blame. But it’s really not quite as narrow a coverage as that, especially for the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic.

    I did this from memory, although with liberal fact checking as my memory isn’t what it used to be.  Maybe it never was!  I listened to one great course by Dorsey Armstrong:  The Black Death:  The World’s Most Devastating Plague.  I thought I had used my credits for another, but it turned out to be an audiobook:  John Kelly, The Great Mortality.  I understand your frustration with the cost of really delving into a subject.  But there is a lot of material in the open access scientific literature, some of which I’ve linked to here.  I will check out Samuel Cohn’s book.  It is really interesting reading these books written just before the pandemic.  They all imply pandemics will happen again, but none realized how quickly I think. 

    • #9
  10. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Illiniguy (View Comment):

    Gossamer Cat (View Comment):

    Illiniguy (View Comment):

    Barbara Tuchman’s book “A Distant Mirror” is a fascinating account of “The Calamitous 14th Century”.

    Thanks for reminding me. It has been sitting on my bookshelf for a very long time, so time to literally dust it off.

    My copy is still in the box I packed it in when I moved 5 years ago. Probably not as much dust on it as your copy.

    Excellent book.

    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Gossamer Cat (View Comment):
    I listened to one great course by Dorsey Armstrong:  The Black Death:  The World’s Most Devastating Plague. 

    Good. That’s the one I added to my audible queue after reading your article. 

    • #11
  12. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Percival (View Comment):

    Illiniguy (View Comment):

    Gossamer Cat (View Comment):

    Illiniguy (View Comment):

    Barbara Tuchman’s book “A Distant Mirror” is a fascinating account of “The Calamitous 14th Century”.

    Thanks for reminding me. It has been sitting on my bookshelf for a very long time, so time to literally dust it off.

    My copy is still in the box I packed it in when I moved 5 years ago. Probably not as much dust on it as your copy.

    Excellent book.

    I’ve added that one to my audible queue, too. I had known she wrote a book with that title, but the conversation here convinced me I should listen to it. 

    • #12
  13. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    This post is part of our group writing November theme: “Feast, Famine, Fast.”

    Sign up now to share your own dish, or just to dish with us this month! We have had a feast of posts so far, but now face a famine for the weeks ahead. Act fast! There are eight open days left this month.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #13