'The Black Death': a lesson for today

April 08, 2001|By Scott Shane | By Scott Shane,Sun Staff

"In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made," by Norman F. Cantor. The Free Press, 245 pages, $25.

From the 1950s to the early 1980s, Americans popped antibiotics, vaccinated their children and assumed that infectious disease would soon be an enemy as obsolete as the woolly mammoth.

Then came AIDS.

Today it seems naive to believe humans will ever achieve total victory in their ancient contest with microbes. Human immunodeficiency virus is annihilating half a generation in parts of Africa. Old scourges such as malaria and tuberculosis are outmaneuvering standard treatments. Military planners say the question about a major bioterror attack is not if, but when.

So it is a propitious time to read about the most devastating microbial assault on human life in recorded history, the pandemic that killed at least one-third of Europe's population, more than 20 million people, between 1347 and 1350. The only comparable phenomena since then were the rage of smallpox and other European diseases through the Americas starting in the 1500s; the global influenza epidemic of 1918; and AIDS today (20 million dead so far, 34 million more infected -- but from a world population 1,000 times greater than in 1350).

This compact book by Norman F. Cantor, a leading American historian of the Middle Ages, is a fascinating account of the plague, the social chaos it caused and its unpredictable influence on European development. Always lively, often provocative, "In the Wake of the Plague" brings the 14th century out of the haze of history and paints it in vivid colors. It was a time when 300 families, each with incomes equal today to $1 billion or more a year, controlled 60 percent of Western Europe's wealth; when the rich lived on a virtually all-meat diet, consuming two pounds per person per day; when bathing was considered hazardous and everyone stank.

Cantor argues that the Black Death was caused not just by bubonic plague, carried by rats, but also by anthrax, transmitted from cattle. And he seriously discusses even the outlandish modern theory that plague arrived in a rain of bacteria from outer space.

According to his ingenious analysis, the killing produced an astonishing range of consequences. The tapestry industry got a huge boost, since rich folk wanted window coverings to keep out contagious air. Modern real estate law was born from tangled disputes over landholdings of the dead. ("A barrister of 1350, deep frozen and thawed out today," Cantor writes with entertaining irreverence, "would need only a six-month refresher course.") Women won surprising gains in status, since the black death disproportionately slaughtered men, leaving widows in charge of grand enterprises.

Among the losers were Europe's Jews. Hysterical rumors blamed the plague on a Jewish conspiracy to poison water supplies. Vicious pogroms resulted, and thousands of Jews fled east to Poland, whose ruler offered protection. That migration, Cantor writes, created the Eastern European communities where modern Jewish culture was shaped.

Both the Roman empire and the Anglo-French empire of the Plantagenets, Cantor says, were done in largely by epidemic disease. He adds wryly: "There is a lesson for the American empire today."

Scott Shane, a Sun reporter since 1983 who is currently on leave writing a novel, wrote a series of stories last October on a public health project in Nepal. He is the author of "Dismantling Utopia," an account of the fall of the Soviet Union.

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