The Bacterium that Changed History

By Michael Fumento

The Claremont Review of Books, Winter 2002
Copyright 2002 The Claremont Review of Books

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To a nation that writhes in mass hysteria upon the premeditated death of a handful of people from anthrax, of what avail to attempt to describe an epidemic that appeared from nowhere and within just two years (1348-49) wiped out about a third of Britons, and within four years killed a third of all Europeans? But consider this: 650 years after that tidal wave of mortality that became known in English-speaking countries as "the Black Death," the word "plague" remains one of the most powerful in our language. Though rarely used in its original sense, the term has carved for itself a special place in deepest, darkest chasm of humanity’s collective memory.

But aside from our lexicon, can something plow through Europe’s population not just once but repeatedly in lesser epidemics without leaving a lasting impression? Assuredly not, which is where medieval historian Norman Cantor’s In the Wake of the Plague enters.

We begin with young Princess Joan of England, daughter of Edward III and sister of Edward the Black Prince, on her way to Spain to marry the heir to the Castilian throne. Had the marriage taken place, the probable outcome would have been the uniting of the kingdoms of England, Wales, most of Spain and much of France under the Plantagenet banner.

Alack, poor Joan had the misfortune to stop off at the royal château in Bordeaux in 1548, a shipping dock crawling with weak and dying rats. As their fleas forsook the dead for the succor of the living, the 15-year-old princess watched in horror as one by one her entourage sickened and died from a bacterium identified centuries later as Yersinia pestis. Finally, it was young Joan’s turn. With the port area fired in an attempt to contain the plague, her body was never recovered. The same could be said of her father’s aspirations.

Spain remained outside the Plantagenet camp, while repeated efforts to take the country by force sapped England’s strength to battle the French. Moreover, the plague-caused death of Henry of Grosmont would eventually lead to the rise of the House of Lancaster and the War of the Roses. Given the pattern of interlocking royal marriages, had Princess Joan and Henry of Grosmont lived, the map of Europe (as well as that of North and South America) would clearly be vastly different today.

But the Great Mortality affected not just kings and kingdoms. "Slowly it was realized that institutions and the populace would be deeply affected by the great biomedical devastation and sudden severe shrinkage of the population," writes Cantor. "The pestilence deeply affected individual and family behavior and consciousness. It severely strained social, political, and economic systems. It threatened the stability and viability of civilizations . . . . Nothing like this has happened before or since in the recorded history of mankind."

Some changes were both immediate and massive. With so many jobs left unfilled in a labor-intensive society, serfs could demand greater freedoms from their lords or become free men. Wage-earners could extract more money for their skills despite widespread laws to the contrary. Capitalism was boosted by the bite of a flea.

Landholders gained from inheritances of money, land, and titles of nobility in a ghastly sort of reverse lottery.

Less lasting was the psychological impact, where there was clearly more pain than gain among survivors. This was all the more so after the plague returned in 1361, bringing with it the realization that henceforth it would be a recurring visitor. Society then became as obsessed with confronting mortality as we have now with avoiding it. We hide not only the dead but the dying from sight, change "dead end" signs to read "no exit," and try to fight wars with no fatalities on our side and no civilian deaths on the enemy’s.

Post-plague society, conversely, obsessed over death in art and literature. Images of dancing skeletons and decomposing corpses became the pop art of their day.

Then there are the "What if?" aspects. Consider the case of Thomas Bradwardine, a clergyman and former Oxford University academic struck down just after his consecration by the pope (at that time in residence in Avignon) as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Bradwardine was the culmination of the great Oxford intellectual movement that had begun in the 1240s. He would have been a rare beast as England’s top clergyman with his intellectual power and apparent desire to resist Church dogma (and hence the dogma) on scientific and health issues. He had Copernican ideas of the universe 150 years before Copernicus and 250 years before Galileo. When he died of plague, along with the great English philosopher William of Occam (whence "Occam’s razor"), that movement came to an end.

Thus "the Oxford approach of the early 14th century led ultimately to the modern scientific world, which after about 1940 with the development of antibiotics, could actually counter an outbreak of infectious disease," writes Cantor. "But nothing tangible came of their remarkable scientific work . . . "

This is a bubo. You don’t get these with anthrax.

Criticisms? If you’re looking for something comprehensive, you’ll have to keep looking. Barbara Tuchman’s classic history of the 14th century, A Distant Mirror, and William H. McNeill’s wonderful Plagues and Peoples would be good places to start.

It’s also a waste that such a short book would devote pages the distracting and unconvincing argument that much of what passed for plague was actually the horror de jure, anthrax. While anthrax was certainly endemic at the time because of widespread animal husbandry, we are all now familiar with the symptoms of anthrax and huge, swollen oozing black buboes (lymph nodes) are not among them. Since Cantor also falls for such urban legendry as that the "Ring Around the Rosies" circle dance comes down to us from the Black Death (it appears nowhere in literature before 1881), one wonders what else he too readily accepted.

Finally, the book finishes as abruptly as Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds, which is inexcusable even if a sequel is planned.

Yet Cantor is to be congratulated for encouraging the exploration of a much-neglected area of history, the biomedical and historical implications of one of history’s most cataclysmic events. Coming out as it did just before we began wrestling with our own ghosts of a biomedical (albeit primarily psychological) assault, the timing perhaps couldn’t have been better.