The Black Death and Ebola

Bought secondhand for £2.49 in Oxfam, Carlisle. Bookcase also sells secondhand books in the city, while Waterstones offers new books.

Bought secondhand for £2.49 in Oxfam, Carlisle. Bookcase also sells secondhand books in the city, while Waterstones offers new books.

I wanted to read Gottfried’s The Black Death because of the current outbreak of ebola in West Africa. I thought it might be good to get an historical perspective on a pandemic of a pernicious disease to get some idea of how things might look if the global response to ebola goes catastrophically wrong.

The current outbreak reminded me of a horror novel I read in 1987 called The Plague Pit by Mark Ronson (now only available secondhand). Its conceit was that a surviving strain of plague from a former burial pit gets unearthed in London during construction work. Modern travel and air-conditioning soon threaten mankind with a swift and grisly end (though not so swift as to limit the grisliness to a short story). The images were alarming. More soberly (almost), I’ve previously read enough to know the profound influence that the 14th century plagues had on the history that followed – for example, the European Reformations, the authority gained by the scientific method, and the movement away from feudalism. Gottfried covers the world before, during and after the four apocalyptic years from 1347.

There’s a surprising amount of good news. The main impact of the plagues was to trigger changes in medicine, sanitation, and the governance of both in the interest of public safety. But the goods that arise after a pandemic are too late to help anyone caught up in one. The reactions to the black death varied widely. Processions of people walked through towns whipping themselves and praying. Some people looted homes and indulged in excesses of drinking and sex. The worst accounts are of widespread anti-semitic pogroms. From Europe to North Africa to Asia, flight from disease offered no protection – even the Faroe Islands and Iceland were devastated. Worse, smaller plagues recurred for centuries afterwards.

These are the sorts of images that a book like this can both portray and then balance with context. What is apparent is how today’s West African nations are among the many nations whose resources and institutions are nearly as vulnerable as those that suffered in the 14th century. It’ll be much harder for ebola to get a foothold in wealthy nations. Additionally, the black death was easily contracted. Crucially, it wasn’t known at the time that it was passed on by fleas in rodents. This is not to say that ebola is nothing to worry about. But large-scale measures should be able to curtail its progress if they’re carried out quickly.

The Black Death was one of those secondhand books that appears on a shelf with uncanny timing. Books like it may seem too academic or old to offer anything useful in assessing contemporary pandemic. However, the fact that they predate diseases such as ebola, marburg, and avian flu means that they’re unhampered by any need to use risk and sensation to compete, whether with other books or 24-hour news.

It’ll be interesting to see whether books that compare both periods of plague will inform future thinking about how problems in distant parts of the world might be getting closer? What drew me to buy this book was what ebola might mean for me and my kin. It leaves me thinking more about what it might mean for those who are likely to be affected.


Extract from p.122

Another step in the evolution of modern medicine came in advances in public health and sanitation. The deplorable state of sanitation in preplague Europe has been discussed in Chapter 4, as have some of the new laws enacted by a few towns, such as Nuremberg. But most important were the public health laws which developed in postplague Italy, and the rise of municipal boards of health. From Italy, they would spread to northern and central Europe until, by the sixteenth century, public health was a common phenomenon in most of Europe’s urban centers. The idea of a municipal surgeons was an old one in Italy; it dated from the twelfth century and was based on the notion of free medical care for the poor. But the concept of a single, centrally controlled board of public health was born of the Black Death. At first, the boards’ sole concern was plague prevention. But, by 1400, they had added supervision and, in some cases, actual control over virtually every aspect of health and sanitation.

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