Thursday, April 3, 2014
The Black Death
Did you see the recent articles suggesting that the Black Death, the 14th-century outbreak of Bubonic Plague that killed six of every ten Londoners, wasn't spread by fleas on rats after all?
Based on an examination of 25 skeletons found beneath London's Charterhouse Square just last year -- the same Charterhouse Square that is home to the elegant Art Deco apartment building featured on the TV show "Poirot" -- scientists now think the plague was pneumonic. In other words, it infected people through the lungs and spread from person to person.
The reason for this, careful study of those skeletons reveals, is not that the plague was any more virulent than the modern variety. It's just that Londoners were in terrible health. They had rickets. They had anemia. They were malnourished. They were, in short, sitting ducks for infection.
It can't help but make me contemplate how hard life must have been in those days. Backbreaking labor, filthy cities, no medicine beyond basic superstition. Did you ever see "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"? Those scenes of peasants mucking about in the mud? That's probably fairly accurate.
I can understand why the church was so strong. It was the only place of beauty and peace in anyone's life, certainly in the life of any city dweller. And amid wholesale catastrophe -- the death of entire families from an illness that must have seemed positively apocalyptic -- it answered questions that were otherwise unanswerable. It didn't answer them correctly, but still. No one else had anything better.
(I was interested enough in medieval history to try to take a course in it in college. It was the only course I ever dropped. Sitting in lectures about a head-spinning assortment of Plantagenet royalty, I quickly discovered that my interest is strictly that of a layman, not a scholar.)
It's also amazing to think there are still skeletons from the Black Death beneath our feet in modern London. When I walked through Charterhouse Square in 2011, it never occurred to me that I might be walking in a place of burial. I suppose any plot of land in a city as densely populated, for so long a period of time, as Central London is likely to contain some bodies. I just assumed skeletons that old would have disintegrated by now.
Nope -- they're still there, waiting to surrender their secrets to our thankfully modern science.
(Photo: Balcony in Notting Hill, on Saturday.)