Tuesday, January 7, 8319
German (b. c. 1319) - Flagellants - Black Death
German (b. c. 1319) - Geisslerlied "Maria muoter reinu mait" (1349)
(Flagellant Song) (Slide Trumpet)
[Hans Memling (1430-1494) - Angel Musicians - The slide trumpet is a type of trumpet that is fitted with a slide much like a trombone]
In medieval music, the Geisslerlieder, or Flagellant songs, were the songs of the wandering bands of flagellants, who overspread Europe during two periods of mass hysteria: the first during the middle of the 13th century, and the second during the Black Death in 1349. The music was simple, sung in the vernacular, often call-and-response, and closely related to folk song; indeed some of the flagellant songs survived into the 17th century as folk songs in Catholic parts of central Europe. Musically the Geisslerlied were related to the Laude spirituale: they were unaccompanied song, with instrumental accompaniment specifically forbidden.
The first period of Geisslerlied began in 1258 in response to the breakdown of civil order in northern Italy. Permanent warfare, famine, and an apparent demise of the moral order in contemporary life gave rise to a movement of public flagellation accompanied by singing; the penitents implored the help of God to ameliorate their sufferings, but never formed a specific sect, and neither did they attempt a social revolution. Initially, the flagellents were members of the mercantile and noble classes, but as the movement spread outside of Italy, lower social classes took part.
Of the first period of activity, only a single song has survived, although many of the words they sang have been recorded. Typically the texts were imploring, penitential, and apocalyptic.
The Black Death was one of the most traumatic events in European history, and the renewed desperation of the people, hopeful for divine intervention to end their sufferings, brought about a return of the flagellants and the Geisslerlieder. Unlike the situation with the first outbreak, much of the music was preserved. A single priest, Hugo Spechtshart of Reutlingen, who happened to be a capable musician, was impressed by the activity he witnessed, and transcribed exactly what he heard of the singing of the flagellants; indeed his work was one of the earliest examples of folk-song collection. He produced a chronicle of what he heard in the Chronicon Hugonis sacerdotis de Rutelinga (1349), and the content corresponded closely to the description of the lost music from a hundred years before: simple monophonic songs of verse and refrain, with a leader singing the verse and the group of flagellants singing the refrain in unison. Particularly interesting about Hugo's transcriptions was his notation of variation between successive verses sung by the lead singer, a procedure common in folk song.
This second outbreak of flagellants -- with the incessant and repetitive Geisslerlieder spread far wider than the first, reaching England, Poland, and Scandinavia -- probably attracted a greater number of participants, although it did not last as long: most of the records of the occurrence are from 1349.
The Geisslerlieder were suppressed, eventually, by the Church. Parodies of the movement quickly arose, as well: in Switzerland in 1350 a description survives of a group singing Geisslerlieder fitted with new words, as a bawdy drinking song; whether the drinkers flogged themselves is not known. A parody of a gesserlied (or rather a parallel-organum Dies Irae variant) is also found in the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where a group of monks chants the Pie Jesu while hitting themselves with boards.
The Black Death, or the Black Plague, was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, widely thought to have been caused by a bacterium named Yersinia pestis (Bubonic plague), but recently attributed by some to other diseases.
The pandemic is thought to have begun in Central Asia, India, or possibly Africa, and spread to Europe during the 1340's.
The total number of deaths worldwide is estimated at 75 million people; approximately 25-50 million of which occurred in Europe.
The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe's population. It may have reduced the world's population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in 1400.
Bubonic plague is thought to have returned to Europe every generation with varying virulence and mortalities until the 1700's.
During this period, more than 100 plague epidemics swept across Europe.
The 14th century eruption of the Black Death had a drastic effect on Europe's population, irrevocably changing the social structure. It was a serious blow to the Roman Catholic Church, and resulted in widespread persecution of minorities such as Jews, foreigners, beggars, and lepers. The uncertainty of daily survival created a general mood of morbidity, influencing people to "live for the moment," as illustrated by Giovanni Boccaccio in The Decameron (1353).
Medieval people called the fourteenth century catastrophe either the "Great Pestilence"' or the "Great Plague."
Writers contemporary to the plague referred to the event as the "Great Mortality".
The term "Black Death" was introduced for the first time in 1833.
It has been popularly thought that the name came from a striking late-stage sign of the disease, in which the sufferer's skin would blacken due to subepidermal hemorrhages (purpura), and the extremities would darken with gangrene (acral necrosis). However, the term is more likely to refer black in the sense of glum, lugubrious or dreadful.
The Black Death was, according to historical accounts, characterized by buboes (swellings in lymph nodes), like the late 19th century Asian Bubonic plague. Scientists and historians at the beginning of the 20th century assumed that the Black Death was an outbreak of the same disease, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and spread by fleas with the help of animals like the black rat (Rattus rattus). However, this view has recently been questioned by some scientists and historians.
New research suggests Black Death is lying dormant.
The plague disease, caused by Yersinia pestis, is enzootic (commonly present) in populations of ground rodents in central Asia, but it is not entirely clear where the 14th century pandemic started. The most popular theory places the first cases in the steppes of Central Asia, although some speculate that it originated around northern India, and others, such as the historian Michael W. Dols, argue that the historical evidence concerning epidemics in the Mediterranean and specifically the Plague of Justinian point to a probability that the Black Death originated in Africa and spread to central Asia, where it then became entrenched among the rodent population. Nevertheless, from central Asia it was carried east and west along the Silk Road, by Mongol armies and traders making use of the opportunities of free passage within the Mongol Empire offered by the Pax Mongolica. It was reportedly first introduced to Europe at the trading city of Caffa in the Crimea in 1347. After a protracted siege, during which the Mongol army under Janibeg was suffering the disease, they catapulted the infected corpses over the city walls to infect the inhabitants. The Genoese traders fled, bringing the plague by ship into Sicily and the south of Europe, whence it spread.
Whether or not this hypothesis is accurate, it is clear that several pre-existing conditions such as war, famine, and weather contributed to the severity of the Black Death. In China, the thirteenth century Mongol conquest disrupted farming and trading, and led to widespread famine. The population dropped from approximately 120 to 60 million.
The 14th century plague is estimated to have killed 30% of the population of China.
In Europe, the Medieval warm period ended sometime towards the end of the fourteenth century, bringing harsher winters and reduced harvests. In the years 1315 to 1317 a catastrophic famine, known as the Great Famine, struck much of North Western Europe. The famine came about as the result of a large population growth in the previous centuries, with the result that, in the early fourteenth century the poulation began to exceed the number that could be sustained by productive capacity of the land and farmers.
In Northern Europe, new technological innovations such as the heavy plough and the three-field system were not as effective in clearing new fields for harvest as they were in the Mediterranean because the north had poor, clay-like, soil.
Food shortages and skyrocketing prices were a fact of life for as much as a century before the plague. Wheat, oats, hay, and consequently livestock, were all in short supply, and their scarcity resulted in hunger and malnutrition. The result was a mounting human vulnerability to disease, due to weakened immune systems.
The European economy entered a vicious circle in which hunger and chronic, low-level debilitating disease reduced the productivity of labourers, and so the grain output was reduced, causing grain prices to increase. This situation was worsened when landowners and monarchs like Edward III of England (r. 1327-1377) and Philip VI of France (r. 1328-1350), out of a fear that their comparatively high standard of living would decline, raised the fines and rents of their tenants. Standards of living then fell drastically, diets grew more limited, and Europeans as a whole experienced more health problems.
In autumn of 1314, heavy rains began to fall, which led to several years of cold and wet winters. The already weak harvests of the north suffered and the seven-year famine ensued. The Great Famine was the worst in European history, reducing the poulation by at least ten percsnt.
Records recreated from dendrochronological studies show a hiatus in building construction during the period, as well as a deterioration in climate.
This was the economic and social situation in which the predictor of the coming disaster, a typhoid (Infected Water) epidemic, emerged. Many thousands died in populated urban centres, most significantly Ypres. In 1318 a pestilence of unknown origin, sometimes identified as anthrax, targeted the animals of Europe, notably sheep and cattle, further reducing the food supply and income of the peasantry.
It is probable that the Mongols and merchant caravans inadvertently brought the plague from central Asia to the Middle East and Europe. The plague was reported in the trading cities of Constantinople and Trebizond in 1347.
The Black Death rapidly spread along the major European sea and land trade routes.
In October 1347, a fleet of Genoese trading ships fleeing Caffa reached the port of Messina in Sicily. By the time the fleet reached Messina, all the crew members were either infected or dead. It is presumed that the ships also carried infected rats and/or fleas. Some ships were found grounded on shorelines, with no one aboard remaining alive.
Looting of these lost ships also helped spread the disease. From there, the plague spread to Genoa and Venice by the turn of 1347–1348.
From Italy the disease spread northwest across Europe, striking France, Spain, Portugal and England by June 1348, then turned and spread east through Germany and Scandinavia from 1348 to 1350. It was introduced in Norway in 1349 when a ship landed at Askøy, then proceeded to spread to Bjørgvin (modern Bergen). Finally it spread to north-western Russia in 1351; however, the plague largely spared some parts of Europe, including the Kingdom of Poland and isolated parts of Belgium and The Netherlands.
At Siena, Agnolo di Tura wrote:
"They died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in … ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. And I, Agnolo di Tura … buried my five children with my own hands … And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world."
The plague struck various countries in the Middle East during the pandemic, leading to serious depopulation and permanent change in both economic and social structures. As it spread to western Europe, the disease also entered the region from southern Russia. By autumn 1347, the plague reached Alexandria in Egypt, probably through the port's trade with Constantinople, and ports on the Black Sea. During 1348, the disease traveled eastward to Gaza, and north along the eastern coast to cities in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, including Ashkelon, Acre, Jerusalem, Sidon, Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. In 1348–49, the disease reached Antioch. The city's residents fled to the north, most of them dying during the journey, but the infection had been spread to the people of Asia Minor.
Mecca became infected in 1349. During the same year, records show the city of Mawsil (Mosul) suffered a massive epidemic, and the city of Baghdad experienced a second round of the disease. In 1351, Yemen experienced an outbreak of the plague. This coincided with the return of King Mujahid of Yemen from imprisonment in Cairo. His party may have brought the disease with them from Egypt.
In England, in the absence of census figures, historians propose a range of pre-incident population figures from as high as 7 million to as low as 4 million in 1300, and a post-incident population figure as low as 2 million.
By the end of 1350 the Black Death had subsided, but it never really died out in England over the next few hundred years: there were further outbreaks in 1361–62, 1369, 1379–83, 1389–93, and throughout the first half of the 15th century.
Plague often killed 10% of a community in less than a year - in the worst epidemics, such as at Norwich in 1579 and Newcastle in 1636, as many as 30 or 40%. The most general outbreaks in Tudor and Stuart England, all coinciding with years of plague in Germany and the Low Countries, seem to have begun in 1498, 1535, 1543, 1563, 1589, 1603, 1625 and 1636.
The plague repeatedly returned to haunt Europe and the Mediterranean throughout the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, and although bubonic plague still occurs in isolated cases today, the Great Plague of London in 1665–1666 is generally recognized as one of the last major outbreaks.
Figures for the death toll vary widely by area and from source to source as new research and discoveries come to light. It killed an estimated 75-200 million people in the 14th century.
During 1353–54, outbreaks in eight distinct areas throughout the Mongol/Chinese empires may have possibly caused the death of two-thirds of China's population, often yielding an estimate of twenty-five million deaths.
It is estimated that between one-quarter and one-third of the European population (35 million people) died from the outbreak between 1348 and 1350.
Contemporary observers, such as Jean Froissart, estimated the toll to be one-third—less an accurate assessment than an allusion to the Book of Revelation meant to suggest the scope of the plague.
Many rural villages were depopulated, mostly the smaller communities, as the few survivors fled to larger towns and cities leaving behind abandoned villages.
The Black Death hit the culture of towns and cities disproportionately hard, although rural areas (where most of the population lived) were also significantly affected. A few rural areas, such as Eastern Poland and Lithuania, had such low populations and were so isolated that the plague made little progress. Parts of Hungary and, in modern Belgium, the Brabant region, Hainaut and Limbourg, as well as Santiago de Compostella, were unaffected for unknown reasons (some historians have assumed that the presence of resistant blood groups in the local population helped them resist the disease, although these regions would be touched by the second plague outbreak in 1360–63 and later during the numerous resurgences of the plague).
Other areas which escaped the plague were isolated mountainous regions (e.g. the Pyrenees). Larger cities were the worst off, as population densities and close living quarters made disease transmission easier. Cities were also strikingly filthy, infested with lice, fleas and rats, and subject to diseases related to malnutrition and poor hygiene. According to journalist John Kelly, "[w]oefully inadequate sanitation made medieval urban Europe so disease-ridden, no city of any size could maintain its population without a constant influx of immigrants from the countryside".(p. 68) The influx of new citizens facilitated the movement of the plague between communities, and contributed to the longevity of the plague within larger communities.
In Italy, Florence's population was reduced from 110,000 or 120,000 inhabitants in 1338 to 50,000 in 1351. Between 60 to 70% of Hamburg and Bremen's population died. In Provence, Dauphiné and Normandy, historians observe a decrease of 60% of fiscal hearths. In some regions, two thirds of the population was annihilated. In the town of Givry, in the Bourgogne region in France, the friar, who used to note 28 to 29 funerals a year, recorded 649 deaths in 1348, half of them in September. About half of Perpignan's population died in several months (only two of the eight physicians survived the plague). England lost 70% of its population, which declined from 7 million before the plague, to 2 million in 1400.
All social classes were affected, although the lower classes, living together in unhealthy places, were most vulnerable. Alfonso XI of Castile was the only European monarch to die of the plague, but Peter IV of Aragon lost his wife, his daughter and a niece in six months. Joan of England, daughter of Edward III, died in Bordeaux on her way to Castile to marry Alfonso's son, Pedro. The Byzantine Emperor lost his son, while in the kingdom of France, Joan of Navarre, daughter of Louis X le Hutin and of Margaret of Burgundy, was killed by the plague, as well as Bonne of Luxembourg, the wife of the future John II of France.
Furthermore, resurgences of the plague in later years must also be counted: in 1360–62 (the "little mortality"), in 1366–69, 1374–75, 1400, 1407, etc. The plague was not eradicated until the 19th century.
The governments of Europe had no apparent response to the crisis because no one knew its cause or how it spread. In 1348, the plague spread so rapidly that before any physicians or government authorities had time to reflect upon its origins, about a third of the European population had already perished. In crowded cities, it was not uncommon for as much as fifty percent of the population to die. Europeans living in isolated areas suffered less, and monasteries and priests were especially hard hit since they cared for the Black Death's victims.
Because fourteenth century healers were at a loss to explain the cause, Europeans turned to astrological forces, earthquakes, and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for the plague's emergence.
No one in the fourteenth century considered rat control a way to ward off the plague, and people began to believe only God's anger could produce such horrific displays. There were many attacks against Jewish communities. In August of 1349, the Jewish communities of Mainz and Cologne were exterminated. In February of that same year, Christians murdered two thousand Jews in Strasbourg.
Where government authorities were concerned, most monarchs instituted measures that prohibited exports of foodstuffs, condemned black market speculators, set price controls on grain, and outlawed large-scale fishing. At best, they proved mostly unenforceable, and at worst they contributed to a continent-wide downward spiral. The hardest hit lands, like England, were unable to buy grain abroad: from France because of the prohibition, and from most of the rest of the grain producers because of crop failures from shortage of labour. Any grain that could be shipped was eventually taken by pirates or looters to be sold on the black market. Meanwhile, many of the largest countries, most notably England and Scotland, had been at war, using up much of their treasury and exacerbating inflation. In 1337, on the eve of the first wave of the Black Death, England and France went to war in what would become known as the Hundred Years' War. Malnutrition, poverty, disease and hunger, coupled with war, growing inflation and other economic concerns made Europe in the mid-fourteenth century ripe for tragedy.
The plague did more than just devastate the medieval population; it caused a substantial change in economy and society in all areas of the world. Economic historians like Fernand Braudel have concluded that Black Death exacerbated a recession in the European economy that had been under way since the beginning of the century. As a consequence, social and economic change greatly accelerated during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The church's power was weakened, and in some cases, the social roles it had played were taken over by secular groups. Also the plague led to peasant uprisings in many parts of Europe, such as France (the Jacquerie rebellion), Italy (the Ciompi rebellion, which swept the city of Florence), and in England (the English Peasant Revolt).
Europe had been overpopulated before the plague, and a reduction of 30% to 50% of the population could have resulted in higher wages and more available land and food for peasants because of less competition for resources. However, for reasons that are still debated, population levels declined after the Black Death's first outbreak until around 1420 and did not begin to rise again until 1470, so the initial Black Death event on its own does not entirely provide a satisfactory explanation to this extended period of decline in prosperity. See Medieval demography for a more complete treatment of this issue and current theories on why improvements in living standards took longer to evolve.
The great population loss brought economic changes based on increased social mobility, as depopulation further eroded the peasants' already weakened obligations to remain on their traditional holdings. In the wake of the drastic population decline brought on by the plague, authorities in Western Europe worked to maintain social order through instituting wage controls.
These governmental controls were set in place to ensure that workers received the same salary post-plague as they had before the onslaught of the Black Death.
Within England, for example, the Ordinance of Labourers, created in 1349, and the Statute of Labourers, created in 1351, restricted both wage increases and the relocation of workers.
If workers attempted to leave their current post, employers were given the right to have them imprisoned.
The Statute was strictly enforced in some areas. For example, 7,556 people in the county of Essex were fined for deviating from the Statute in 1352.
However, despite examples such as Essex County, the Statute quickly proved to be difficult to enforce due to the scarcity of labor.
In Western Europe, the sudden shortage of cheap labour provided an incentive for landlords to compete for peasants with wages and freedoms, an innovation that, some argue, represents the roots of capitalism, and the resulting social upheaval "caused" the Renaissance, and even the Reformation. In many ways the Black Death and its aftermath improved the situation of surviving peasants, notably by the end of the 15th century. In Western Europe, labourers gained more power and were more in demand because of the shortage of labour. In gaining more power, workers following the Black Death often moved away from annual contracts in favour of taking on successive temporary jobs that offered higher wages.
Workers such as servants now had the opportunity to leave their current employment to seek better-paying, more attractive positions in areas previously off limits to them.
Another positive aspect of the period was that there was more fertile land available to the population; however, the benefits would not be fully realized until 1470, nearly 120 years later, when overall population levels finally began to rise again.
In Eastern Europe, by contrast, renewed stringency of laws tied the remaining peasant population more tightly to the land than ever before through serfdom. Sparsely populated Eastern Europe was less affected by the Black Death and so peasant revolts were less common in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, not occurring in the east until the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Since it is believed to have in part caused the social upheavals of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Western Europe, some see the Black Death as a factor in the Renaissance and even the Reformation in Western Europe. Therefore, some historians have cited the smaller impact of the plague as a contributing factor in Eastern Europe's failure to experience either of these movements on a similar scale. Extrapolating from this, the Black Death may be seen as partly responsible for Eastern Europe's considerable lag in the move to liberalise government by restricting the power of the monarch and aristocracy. A common example is that by the mid-sixteenth century, England began the process that ultimately ended serfdom there and gave rise to representative government; meanwhile, Russia did not formally abolish serfdom until an autocratic tsar decreed so in 1861.
Furthermore, the plague's great population reduction brought cheaper land prices, more food for the average peasant, and a relatively large increase in per capita income among the peasantry, if not immediately, in the coming century. Since the plague left vast areas of farmland untended, they were made available for pasture and put more meat on the market; the consumption of meat and dairy products went up, as did the export of beef and butter from the Low Countries, Scandinavia and northern Germany. However, the upper class often attempted to stop these changes, initially in Western Europe, and more forcefully and successfully in Eastern Europe, by instituting sumptuary laws. These regulated what people (particularly of the peasant class) could wear, so that nobles could ensure that peasants did not begin to dress and act as a higher class member with their increased wealth. Another tactic was to fix prices and wages so that peasants could not demand more with increasing value. This was met with varying success depending on the amount of rebellion it inspired; such a law was one of the causes of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England.
As previously mentioned in reference to the plague's sociocultural impacts, renewed religious fervor and fanaticism bloomed in the wake of the Black Death. This spelled trouble for minority populations of all sorts, as some Christians targeted "various groups such as Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims," lepers, and gypsies, thinking that they were to blame for the crisis.
Lepers, and other individuals with skin diseases such as acne or psoriasis, were singled out and exterminated throughout Europe. Anyone with leprosy was believed to show an outward sign of a defect of the soul.
Differences in cultural and lifestyle practices between Jews and Christians also led to persecution. Jews were charged by some with having provoked the plague. Because Jews had a religious obligation to be ritually clean, they did not use water from public wells. And so as previously mentioned, Jews were suspected of causing the plague by deliberately poisoning wells. Typically, comparatively fewer Jews died from the Black Death, in part due to rabbinical laws that promoted habits that were generally cleaner than that of a typical medieval villager.
Jews were also socially isolated, often living in Jewish ghettos. Because isolated people were less likely to be infected, there were differences in mortality rates between Jews and non-Jews and this led to raised suspicions in people who had no concept of bacterial transmission.
Christian mobs attacked Jewish settlements across Europe; by 1351, sixty major and 150 smaller Jewish communities had been destroyed, and more than 350 separate massacres had occurred. This persecution reflected more than ethnic hatred. In many places, attacking Jews was a way to criticize the monarchs who protected them (Jews were under the protection of the king, and often called the "royal treasure"), and monarchic fiscal policies, which were often administered by Jews. An important legacy of the Black Death was to cause the eastward movement of what was left of north European Jewry to Poland and Russia, where it remained until the twentieth century.
According to Joseph P. Byrne in his book, The Black Plague, women also faced persecution during the Black Death. Muslim women in Cairo became scapegoats when the plague struck.
Flagellants practiced self-flogging (whipping of oneself) to atone for sins. The movement became popular after general disillusionment with the church's reaction to the Black Death.
The Black Death led to cynicism toward religious officials who could not keep their promises of curing plague victims and banishing the disease. No one, the Church included, was able to cure or accurately explain the reasons for the plague outbreaks. One theory of transmission was that it spread through air, and was referred to as miasma, or 'bad air'. This increased doubt in the clergy's abilities. Extreme alienation with the Church culminated in either support for different religious groups such as the flagellants, which from their late 13th century beginnings grew tremendously during the opening years of the Black Death, and later to a pursuit of pleasure and hedonism. It was a common belief at the time that the plague was due to God's wrath, caused by the sins of mankind; In response, the flagellants travelled from town to town, whipping themselves in an effort to mimic the sufferings of Jesus prior to his crucifixion. Originating in Germany, several miraculous tales emerged from their efforts, such as a child being revived from the dead, and a talking cow. These stories further fuelled the belief that the flagellants were more effective than church leaders. It may have been that the flagellant's later involvement in hedonism was an effort to accelerate or absorb God's wrath, to shorten the time with which others suffered. More likely, the focus of attention and popularity of their cause contributed to a sense that the world itself was ending, and that their individual actions were of no consequence.
Sadly, the flagellants may have more likely contributed to the actual spreading of the disease, rather than its cure. Presumably, there were towns that the flagellants visited or passed through which were largely unaffected by the plague until that point, only to be infected by fleas carried either by the flagellant's followers, or the flagellants themselves. This is a common ironic theme in how individuals at the time dealt with the plague -- that in nearly all cases, the methods employed to defend against the plague encouraged its spread.
The Black Death hit the monasteries very hard because of their proximity with the sick, who sought refuge there, so that there was a severe shortage of clergy after the epidemic cycle. This resulted in a mass influx of hastily-trained and inexperienced clergy members, many of whom knew little of the discipline and rigor of the veterans they replaced. This led to abuses by the clergy in years afterwards and a further deterioration of the position of the Church in the eyes of the people.
[Inspired by Black Death, Danse Macabre is an allegory on the universality of death and a common painting motif in late-medieval periods]
After 1350, European culture in general turned very morbid. The general mood was one of pessimism, and contemporary art turned dark with representations of death.
In retrospect, it seemed like everything the people thought to do at the time simply made the problem worse. For example, since many equated the plague with God's wrath against sin, and that cats were often considered in league with the Devil, cats were killed en masse. Had this bias toward cats not existed, local rodent populations could have been kept down, lessening the spread of plague-infected fleas from host to host.
The practice of alchemy as medicine, previously considered to be normal for most doctors, slowly began to wane as the citizenry began to realize that it seldom affected the progress of the epidemic and that some of the potions and "cures" used by many alchemists only served to worsen the condition of the sick. Liquor, originally made by alchemists, was commonly applied as a remedy for the Black Death, and, as a result, the consumption of liquor in Europe rose dramatically after the plague. The Church often tried to meet the medical need.
A plague doctor's duties were often limited to visiting victims to verify whether they had been afflicted or not. Surviving records of contracts drawn up between cities and plague doctors often gave the plague doctor enormous latitude and heavy financial compensation, given the risk of death involved for the plague doctor himself. Most plague doctors were essentially volunteers, as qualified doctors had (usually) already fled, knowing they could do nothing for those affected.
Considered an early form of hazardous materials suit, a plague doctor's clothing consisted of:
A wide-brimmed black hat worn close to the head. At the time, a wide-brimmed black hat would have been identified a person as a doctor, much the same as how nowadays a hat may identify chefs, soldiers, and workers. The wide-brimmed hat may have also been used as partial shielding from infection.
A primitive gas mask in the shape of a abbys beak. A common belief at the time was that the plague was spread by birds. There may have been a belief that by dressing in a bird-like mask, the wearer could draw the plague away from the patient and onto the garment the plague doctor wore. The mask also included red glass eyepieces, which were thought to make the wearer impervious to evil. The beak of the mask was often filled with strongly aromatic herbs and spices to overpower the miasmas or "bad air" which was also thought to carry the plague. At the very least, it may have served a dual purpose of dulling the smell of unburied corpses, sputum, and ruptured bouboules in plague victims.
A long, black overcoat. The overcoat worn by the plague doctor was tucked in behind the beak mask at the neckline to minimize skin exposure. It extended to the feet, and was often coated head to toe in suet or wax. A coating of suet may have been used with the thought that the plague could be drawn away from the flesh of the infected victim and either trapped by the suet, or repelled by the wax. The coating of wax likely served as protection against respiratory droplet contamination, but it was not known at the time if coughing carried the plague. It was likely that the overcoat was waxed to simply prevent sputum or other bodily fluids from clinging to it.
A wooden cane. The cane was used to both direct family members to move the patient, other individuals nearby, and possibly to examine the patient with directly. Its precise purpose with relation to the plague victim isn't known.
Leather breeches. Similar to waders worn by fishermen, leather breeches were worn beneath the cloak to protect the legs and groin from infection. Since the plague often tended to manifest itself first in the lymph nodes, particular attention was paid to protecting the armpits, neck, and groin.
The plague doctor's clothing also had a secondary use: to intentionally frighten and warn onlookers. The bedside manner common to doctors of today did not exist at the time; part of the appearance of the plague doctor's clothing was meant to frighten onlookers, and to communicate that something very, very wrong was nearby, and that they too might become infected. It's not known how often or widespread plague doctors were, or how effective they were in treatment of the disease. It's likely that while offering some protection to the wearer, they may have actually contributed more to the spreading of the disease than its treatment, in that the plague doctor unknowingly served as a vector for infected fleas to move from host to host.
Although the Black Death highlighted the shortcomings of medical science in the medieval era, it also led to positive changes in the field of medicine. As described by David Herlihy in The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, more emphasis was placed on “anatomical investigations” following the Black Death.
How individuals studied the human body notably changed, becoming a process that dealt more directly with the human body in varied states of sickness and health. Further, at this time, the importance of surgeons became more evident.
The Black Death also inspired European architecture to move in two different directions; there was a revival of Greco-Roman styles that, in stone and paint, expressed Petrarch's love of antiquity and a further elaboration of the Gothic style.
Late medieval churches had impressive structures centered on verticality, where one's eye is drawn up towards the high ceiling for a religious experience bordering on the mystical. The basic Gothic style was revamped with elaborate decoration in the late medieval period. Sculptors in Italian city-states emulated the work of their Roman forefathers while sculptors in northern Europe, no doubt inspired by the devastation they had witnessed, gave way to a heightened expression of emotion and an emphasis on individual differences.
A tough realism came forth in architecture as in literature. Images of intense sorrow, decaying corpses, and individuals with faults as well as virtues emerged. North of the Alps, paintings reached a pinnacle in precise realism with the Flemish school of Jan Van Eyck (c. 1385-1440). The natural world was reproduced in these works with meticulous detail bordering on photography.
The Black Death dominated art and literature throughout the generation that experienced it. Much of the most useful manifestations of the Black Death in literature, to historians, comes from the accounts of its chroniclers; contemporary accounts are often the only real way to get a sense of the horror of living through a disaster on such a scale. A few of these chroniclers were famous writers, philosophers and rulers (like Boccaccio and Petrarch). Their writings, however, did not reach the majority of the European population. For example, Petrarch's work was read mainly by wealthy nobles and merchants of Italian city-states. He wrote hundreds of letters and vernacular poetry of great distinction and passed on to later generations a revised interpretation of courtly love.
There was, however, one troubadour, writing in the lyric style long out of fashion, who was active in 1348. Peire Lunel de Montech composed the sorrowful sirventes "Meravilhar no·s devo pas las gens" during the height of the plague in Toulouse.
Although romances continued to be popular throughout the period, the courtly tradition began to face increasing competition from ordinary writers who became involved in producing gritty realist literature, inspired by their Black Death experiences. This was a new phenomenon, made possible because vernacular education and literature, as well as the study of Latin and classical antiquity, flourished widely, making the written word steadily more accessible during the fourteenth century.
For example, Agnolo di Tura, of Siena, records his experience:
Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and sight. And so they died. And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices ... great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds both day and night... And as soon as those ditches were filled more were dug ... And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world. This situation continued [from May] until September.
The scene Di Tura describes is repeated over and over again all across Europe. In Sicily, Gabriele de'Mussi, a notary, tells of the early spread from Crimea:
Alas! our ships enter the port, but of a thousand sailors hardly ten are spared. We reach our homes; our kindred…come from all parts to visit us. Woe to us for we cast at them the darts of death! …Going back to their homes, they in turn soon infected their whole families, who in three days succumbed, and were buried in one common grave. Priests and doctors visiting…from their duties ill, and soon were…dead. O death! cruel, bitter, impious death! …Lamenting our misery, we feared to fly, yet we dared not remain.
Henry Knighton tells of the plague’s coming to England:
Then the grievous plague came to the sea coasts from Southampton, and came to Bristol, and it was as if all the strength of the town had died, as if they had been hit with sudden death, for there were few who stayed in their beds more than three days, or two days, or even one half a day.
Friar John Clyn witnessed its effects in Leinster, after its spread to Ireland in August 1348:
That disease entirely stripped vills, cities, castles and towns of inhabitaints of men, so that scarcely anyone would be able to live in them. The plague was so contagious that thous touching the dead or even the sick were immediately infected and died, and the one confessing and the confessor were together led to the grave ... many died from carbuncles and from ulcers and pustles that could be seen on shins and under the armpits; some died, as if in a frenzy, from pain of the head, others from spitting blood ... In the convent of Minors of Drogheda, twenty five, and in Dublin in the same order, twenty three died ... These cities of Dublin and Drogheda were almost destroyed and wasted of inhabitants and men so that in Dublin alone, from the beginning of August right up to Christmas, fourteen thousand men died ... The pestilence gathered strength in Kilkenny during Lent, for between Christmas day and 6 March, eight Friars Preachers died. There was scarcely a house in which only one died but commonly man and wife with their children and family going one way, namely, crossing to death.
In addition to these personal accounts, many presentations of the Black Death have entered the general consciousness as great literature. For example, the major works of Boccaccio (The Decameron), Petrarch, Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales), and William Langland (Piers Plowman), which all discuss the Black Death, are generally recognized as some of the best works of their era.
La Danse Macabre, or The Dance of Death, was a contemporary allegory, expressed as art, drama, and printed work. Its theme was the universality of death, expressing the common wisdom of the time: that no matter one's station in life, the dance of death united all. It consists of the personified Death leading a row of dancing figures from all walks of life to the grave – typically with an emperor, king, pope, monk, youngster, beautiful girl, all in skeleton-state. They were produced under the impact of the Black Death, reminding people of how fragile their lives were and how vain the glories of earthly life. The earliest artistic example is from the frescoed cemetery of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris (1424). There are also works by Konrad Witz in Basel (1440), Bernt Notke in Lübeck (1463) and woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger (1538).
The Black Plague has been used as a subject or as a setting in modern literature and also media. This may be due to the era's resounding impact on ancient and modern history, and its symbolism and connotations.
Albert Camus's novel La Peste (The Plague) deals with the coming of a plague to Algeria.
Hermann Hesse's novel Narcissus and Goldmund depicts two monks living during the Black Death, one of whom leaves the monastery to wander around the country, seeing the epidemic's effects firsthand.
Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Masque of the Red Death (1842) is set in an unnamed country during a fictional plague that bears strong resemblance to the Black Death. This possibility is furthered by the climax of the story taking place in a black room.
It has been alleged (since 1961) that the Black Death inspired one of the most enduring nursery rhymes in the English language, Ring a Ring o' Roses, a pocket full of posies, / Ashes, ashes (or ah-tishoo ah-tishoo), we all fall down. However, there are no written records of the rhyme before the late 19th century and not all of its many variants refer to ashes, sneezing, falling down or anything else that could be connected to the Black Death.
The "Bring out your dead!" scene in the Monty Python movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail famously deals with the ubiquity of plague-related deaths in medieval villages, although the film is explicitly set in 932, and King Arthur would suggest an even earlier date than that.
In Garth Nix's book Mister Monday the main characters end up in the Black-Death-ridden streets. It depicts the roads as covered with piles of the dead.
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