“One of the comforts of studying history is that, no matter how bad things get, you can always find a moment in the past when things were much, much worse. Some commentators on our current crisis [of COVID-19] have been throwing around comparisons to earlier pandemics, and the Black Death of 1347–50 inevitably gets mentioned. Please. The Black Death wiped out half the population of Europe in the space of four years. In some places the mortality was far swifter and deadlier than that. The novelist Giovanni Boccaccio, who gave us the most vivid picture of the Black Death in literature, estimated that 100,000 people died in Florence in the four months between March and July 1348. The population of the city in 1338, according to one contemporary chronicler, stood at 120,000.”
“Like COVID-19, the disease spread with bewildering rapidity, but unlike in the modern pandemic, it infected everyone, young and old, rich and poor, not mainly the old and infirm. And again unlike the current virus, the effects of bubonic plague were particularly humiliating. Tumor-like growths as big as apples, called ‘bubos,’ would appear in the groin or armpit. Gangrenous blotches would appear on hands and feet causing the skin to turn black and die. The victims would start coughing up blood, all their bodily fluids stank and their breath became putrid. ‘The stench of dead bodies, sickness and medicines seemed to fill and pollute the whole atmosphere.’ There was no dying with dignity during the Black Death.”
James Hankins, Social Distancing During the Black Death, Quillette, March 28, 2020.
What could be a more appropriate character to be this Halloween than a plague doctor? Make your own plague doctor costume while you have the time during the COVID-19 quarantine by following the step-by-step instructions on Instructables: Plague Doctor Costume.
“Based on historical accounts and medieval art, people during this period were prone to many superstitions. The Catholic Church was the most powerful entity in Europe at the time, and the masses were consumed with the presence of evil and eradicating it in any form it might be believed to take. Because of their secretive nature and their ability to survive extraordinary circumstances, the general population came to fear cats as consorts of Satan. The innocent cats began to be killed by the thousands.
“The cats ultimately got their revenge, of course. Since there were few felines left, the rat populations increased unchecked, and the plague grew even more widespread. You’d think that the humans would make the connection by this point, but instead, they made things even worse. They began to associate the plague’s new vigor with the cats and even with dogs. They believed that since both of these animals typically harbored fleas, they must be the cause of the plague. Subsequently, cats were outlawed in many parts of Europe, and huge numbers of cats and dogs were killed. In fact, at one point in the middle ages, there were barely any cats left in England at all.
“Even though cat ownership was illegal in some regions, a few people kept their felines. Other people finally noticed that these cat owners often seemed to be immune to the black plague. Word spread quickly, and more observations of this phenomenon were noticed. This resulted in research, crude as it was during the time.
“Eventually, it was decided that the rats, not the cats, were responsible for spreading the black plague. Then, of course, everyone wanted to own a cat or two.”
Learn more about the Black Plague, including its various forms and their symptoms, at “Cats and the Black Plague” on Owlcation.
Images from Ugly Medieval Paintings of Cats