Calling out sick: some random thoughts on disease in history.

black death

I have been acutely sick for the last three days, and off-and-on ill for most of the month of October, which is why this blog hasn’t been updated since Sunday and why there’s no new chapter of The Armored Satchel for month’s end. After being down for three days I’m only again becoming able to focus on anything or do any sort of work. The next week will naturally be a scramble to put my life back together.

While laying in bed moaning early this morning I thought a little bit about the role of disease in history. Disease is the common misery of mankind, and always has been. Despite our technological prowess and scientific understanding, we have fewer defenses against disease than we probably think we do. The disease I caught last weekend–a variant of upper respiratory infections that is apparently ravaging many parts of the United States right now–is a strain of the most ubiquitous disease to affect mankind, the common cold. This disease is utterly impervious to medical science. Think about that. We’ve put a man on the moon, but we can’t make so much as a dent in the most common disease ever to infect humans. Even the origins of this disease are pretty mysterious–the virus that causes the cold was not even identified until 1956, something I find almost unbelievable.

Other diseases, much more serious, have had an outsized impact on history. Probably the most prominent example is the decimation of the native population of the Americas in the years after the Columbian contact of 1492. This is really a staggering event if you think about it. Environmentally speaking, the populations of North and South America had been largely isolated from the biota of Eurasia and Africa since the end of the last Ice Age. Christopher Columbus, who I argued sailed westward from Byzantium, broke the biological wall. Within a few decades after Spanish contact with North and Central America, tens of millions of Native Americans were dead, many of smallpox, syphilis, influenza, or other diseases to which most Europeans were either immune or had developed resistance to. By some estimates, 90% of the population of the Americas that had existed in 1492 was dead by 1600. That’s a virtual slate-wipe. Ninety percent.

tenochtitlan

Tenochtitlan, the grand capital of the Aztecs and a military stronghold, was capable of being captured in 1521 by a small band of Spanish conquistadors because most of its people were sick with smallpox at the time.

This is an even bigger disaster, I argue, than the other most famous appearance of disease in history, the Black Death. Between 1347 and 1351, tens of millions of Asians and Europeans perished of an illness whose exact identification still confounds historians and medical researchers. Most say it was the bubonic plague, but other variants have been offered as a possibility; without live tissue samples we can’t be sure. Again, Byzantium–Constantinople–was the epicenter of this world epidemic, since it was the trading and cultural center of the world, despite going through a terrible civil war at the time. The Black Death cleaned out villages all over Europe, reorganized the social order and arguably caused a spiritual and religious crisis that didn’t truly resolve until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. And, just to make sure it wasn’t forgotten, the Black Death continued to stage nasty little encores of itself in various local epidemics. One of the last of these mini-plagues took place in England in 1665, the year before the Great Fire of London “cauterized” Britain–the plague has not been seen there since.

Then there have been more recent epidemics. Something unique and terrible, which remains poorly understood, made the great influenza epidemic of 1918 a particular killer; it carried off more people across the globe than did the World War it occurred near the end of. More recent flu epidemics barely make the news anymore. They’re either ignored, or denounced as “hype” or even conspiracies, like the “swine flu” epidemic of 2009. Yet these plagues are real. Did you know that a major influenza epidemic killed tens of millions of people in the winter of 1999? Do you remember hearing about it on the news? I didn’t. I got sick during that epidemic, and a lot of other people I knew did too. But it never even made the papers.

flu 1918

This was what hospital wards looked like in the fall of 1918, as the influenza pandemic was sweeping the world. Other major flu epidemics circled the globe in 1975 and 1999, to much lesser publicity.

As miserable as I’ve been in the past three days, it doesn’t hold a candle to the agony and destructiveness of these great diseases in history. Shivering on my couch in a comfortable suburban apartment isn’t comparable to an Aztec family dying of smallpox in a darkened village in the 1520s, or peasants writhing in agony in filthy straw-thatched huts in medieval France in the 14th century.

Disease will always be with us. One form of disease or another will eventually end almost all of our lives. It’s part of the human experience, and part of history. It’s surprising it doesn’t get bigger billing than it does in history books.

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7 Comments

  1. Have you read “The Great Mortality” about the Black Death? I highly recommend –it’s awesome. I have also read the same author’s book about the Irish potato famine.

    1. Yes, I have read it. Excellent book. I liked it much better than Cantor’s “In The Wake of the Plague” which was more sensationalist and less lucid as history.

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