Wednesday, March 30, 2016


The Black Death is perdition and salvation


An interesting book because it brings together a lot of information that is generally scattered around and it updates that information at all levels, particularly the medical level.

If the first chapters sound very technical and factual, the author reaches later on the cultural level and that is essential. The Black Death was a traumatic experience for the world and particularly for Europe, or it is rather better known for Europe.

The trauma can be explained easily. Let’s say the European population went down 50% in about ten years. I lengthen the period slightly because it did not disappear as fast as it appeared. It took three years to reach the whole of Europe and then five to eight years to ease out (not completely but mostly). If you consider the lowering of the population to be 50% you have to add to this the births (one child per woman every 18 months or so) from which you could subtract the normal infantile death rate which was enormous, about 50% within the first six or eight years of a child’s life. That means that over ten years the death toll of the Black Death was a lot more important than 50% and probably closer to 75% of the potential population that should have been reached ten years after the arrival of this Black Death.

The only records we have for the population are church records. Priests died just like anyone else. As soon as the priest was dead the various christening, marriage and burial registers could not be held any more. We would have to wait for a new priest to arrive in the parish.

We have to take into account the fact that the epidemic spread in rural areas along different ways than those in urban areas. The Middles Ages were a time of a great improvement of agriculture, proto-industry, food and social conditions (the religious reform of the 10th century that brought 52 Sundays and about 25 days of no work at all: nearly 80 days of non-working time a year). The result was a tremendous demographic expansion that reached its limits in the last third of the 13th century and then overpopulation in rural areas caused some younger ones to just become vagrant people moving to cities or moving around in rural areas and becoming thieves of some kind. That’s long before the Black Death. But the Black Death will be spread in rural areas by these vagrants and of course by the numerous markets in cities that attracted the rural producers who went back to their rural areas after market day with the disease. We do not know when the markets were closed down, if ever; because the cities had to get food from the rural areas in a time when supermarkets did not exist.

A last element has to be added. The monasteries are essential for religious and cultural reasons. The monks have duties towards the outside population and towards the “beggars” and “travelers.” The beggars and travelers were bringing in the disease, whereas the monks going out to take care of the living and the dead outside brought the disease back inside. That explains for example that the Abbey Church of La Chaise Dieu built by Clement VI, the Jew-friendly pope suoted by this book and who was a monk in this abbey before becoming the Pope, contains a Danse Macabre of great fame. We are here in a rural and mountainous area and that area was touched by the Black Death drastically. In rural areas it is not rare that a whole village be erased from the map; and when in any village the priest died (high risk since the priests were taking care of the dying at least at first and maybe longer prudence would justify) there was no religious connection and recording of anything, explaining why we cannot have figures. We may have the figures up to the death of the priest and then we have to wait for the arrival of a new priest – eventually – several years later to catch up haphazardly on the blank spot.

Two ideas are slightly surprising. Vernacular languages did not start being used at the time or after the Black Death. Vernacular languages had been commonly used for at least three centuries by minstrels, Meistersänger, troubadours, trouveres and many others of this poets-singers profession who went around from one castle to the next, from one market place to the next, from one fair to the next to recite the poetry they had composed or they had learned by heart from other colleagues whose apprentices they were because there were no books, not even one bible in every church because there was no printing press. Literature, poetry was essentially oral and orally transmitted and distributed in the vernacular languages. One famous example is of course the Welsh triads and the story of Tristan and Iseult coming from these triads down into Cornwall and then into French Brittany to be recorded in the 12th century in French (and later to be translanted into Old Norse and German in the 13th century), the French of the time spoken among the Norman nobility and population that had taken over England in Hastings (1066). All that is long before the Black Death. What is original about Chaucer is that he wrote or composed his poetry in Middle English which was no longer the French of the older times but the new language of the elite, the court, the nobility and the socially superior classes. Note we must have three copies (all of them with serious variations) of the original Canterbury Tales and they were popular because Chaucer himself went around to recite them from memory of course. Very often these “readings” were accompanied by music on some kind of lute or harp, at times a pipe. See for that the sculptures known as the musician angels of the Abbey Church of La Chaise Dieu, once again of Clement VI.

Another surprising element is the connection between the Black Death and the Renaissance. The Renaissance would not have been possible without a deep reflection on life and death;, on cultural matters that took place during and after the Black Death period that has to be seen as longer than four years. This evolution and the dire need of a whole new generation of educated people to replace the dead in all managerial and administrative positions made it urgent to enter some “mass education” for a new enlarged elite. This is the evolution that brings up one invention without which the Renaissance is not possible: the printing press (1450) which made universities possible with books, which brought the Reformation and it is this boiling pot of needs, wants and desires that brought the Quattro Cento (that includes late Gothic art and culture and the first phase of the Renaissance) and the Renaissance itself. But the Renaissance is still a feudal period economically and socially. The ownership of the land is still feudal and it will take several centuries to get that feudal system out, first England starting with Henry VIII, though very limited as for anti-feudal reforms, and then the Stuarts, Cromwell and the Glorious Revolution; then France in 1789 and Germany and Italy in the 19th century, not to speak of Russia. Voltaire still defended before the French Revolution  that no subject of a modern king, like the French one for instance, the one he called “my king”, was supposed to refuse obeying the king’s orders and could not ask in any way for the king to be removed, let alone be beheaded (Charles I of England is not far from his own consciousness). That is pure political feudalism. Though it is true Leibnitz is slightly more advanced but check the English Bill of Rights and it states freedom of speech only for the members of parliament and within the normal locales for the various parliamentarian and electoral activities of MPs, the latter concerning at the very most 5% of the population. That is not exactly a non-feudal democracy, is it?

But this short book could be very useful as an introduction to the historical reflection on the impact of a pandemic on human society.


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