The Triumph of Death, c. 1562, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
I admit that I’m fascinated by pandemics, and am morbidly curious to see how the Ebola epidemic works its way through the First World.
Doktor Schnabel von Rom, engraving by Paul Fürst, 1656. Plague doctors were hired by towns to control epidemic. Some wore a beak-like mask which was filled with aromatic herbs designed to prevent the spread of disease through “miasma” or putrid air.
The mother of all pandemics was the Black Death, which peaked in Europe in 1346–53. It killed between 75 and 200 million people at a time when the world’s population was only 450 million people. (Amazingly, it wasn’t until a few years ago that the pathogen responsible for it—the Yersinia pestis bacterium—was definitively identified.)
The Triumph of Death, c. 1446, fresco, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo
Originating in the plains of central Asia—the ‘Stans’—it traveled down the Silk Road to the Crimea. From there, it was carried into Europe by fleas on the rats on merchant ships. It is estimated to have killed 30-60% of Europe’s population.
Knight, Death and the Devil, 1513, engraving by Albrecht Dürer
The plague returned repeatedly in Europe through the 14th to 17th centuries. It came to the United States as part of a 19th century pandemic that started in China. It is still active today, although treatable with antibiotics; each year a dozen or so Americans are diagnosed with it. Rather more worrisome, a drug-resistant form of the disease was found in Africa in the 1990s.
The plague caused great social upheaval in Europe. Those with means left their urban homes and shut themselves off from the world—the first recorded ‘survivalists’. The dead received perfunctory attention, since their corpses were dangerous. Faith was bifurcated: some abandoned it in an ‘eat, drink and be merry’ hedonism, while others became more frenzied. Local and global trade was frozen, resulting in shortages and spiraling inflation. On the other hand, the sudden, extreme shortage of laborers led to the end of the manorial system of serfdom and the beginning of a wage-based economy in Europe.
Danse Macabre, Bernt Notke, end of the 15th century, St. Nicholas' Church, Tallinn, Estonia. The Danse Macabre is a medieval art genre which tells us that—no matter our station in life—Death unites us all.
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