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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Regarding the "Black Death": A small point of nomenclature and a few bits of trivia 


The paper of "record" has a story about the epidemiology of plague, the disease that is believed to be behind the 14th century's "Black Death," Europe's last great demographic disaster before the wars of the 20th century. A new study suggests that plague preferentially killed people who were already weak from some other illness. Not the biggest surprise in the annals of medicine, but a useful little addition to our store of knowledge.

Never wanting to miss a chance, however petty, to whack the New York Times, as the son of a medievalist who had written about the "Black Death" it is my bounden duty to pick at the Grey Lady's headline: "Clues to Black Plague’s Fury in 650-Year-Old Skeletons". There is no such thing as the "black plague". The disease in question is simply "plague," and it comes in three forms: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. The term "Black Death" refers to the specific plague pandemic that swept Europe in the 14th century. Plague at other times and places is not "black death." While septicemic plague can cause a certain blackening of the skin in the extremities, it is not "black plague." The "black" part of the Black Death was mostly metaphorical, arising from the suddenly and shocking mortality that would sweep a medieval village seemingly from nowhere, an apparently portent of the end times.

I admit this little rant was petty, but I did it for our dear departed Dad.

Now, there are some interesting bits of trivia around the transmission of plague. The bacterium involved rejoices in the name Yersinia pestis, and most of the time it resides harmlessly in the stomachs of fleas. Under certain conditions believed to be driven by certain weather conditions, however, Y. pestis will start to reproduce at frightening speed, quickly filling up the flea's stomach. The next time the bacteria-engorged flea bites another great or small creature in the hope of feeding on blood, it will regurgitate into the bloodstream of its new host.

Yes, plague is spread by flea vomit.

But wait, I have more. The Black Death pandemic killed a huge proportion of Europeans, and we now have reason to believe that it took the weakest among them. The Europeans alive at the end of the 14th century were systematically different from those at the beginning. Is there something unique about the descendents of the survivors of the Black Death? Disproportionate immunity to HIV, perhaps? There is real science that suggests as much.

CWCID: Glenn Reynolds.


4 Comments:

By Blogger JPMcT, at Wed Jan 30, 05:51:00 PM:

It's truly a fascinating disease, spread by filthy living conditions. We played with the Pasteurella organism in micrbiology class...a pretty harmless bug under most circumstances. My sarcastic side wonders how modern governments would react to a similar outbreak today. I can't help but wonder whether we would be forced to show no discrimination against the rats.  

By Blogger Titus, at Wed Jan 30, 09:59:00 PM:

The disease had a much greater impact than just the massive death it directly caused: pogroms and witch-burnings as scapegoats were sought, agricultural collapse causing famine, increase in death and damnation imagery in the arts, and peasant uprisings, to name a few. Truly fascinating, indeed.  

By Anonymous dawnfire82, at Thu Jan 31, 07:30:00 PM:

History often is; it's the banal public education system that sucks the fun out of it. Many stories in history read like an excerpt from 'Dallas.'  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jul 26, 03:00:00 AM:

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