Thursday, November 4, 2010

Life in the time of plague

There are several periods in history whose events led to radical changes in society and whose influence would continue to be felt for generations, for even hundreds of years.  Narrowing our focus down to Europe, we might choose: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire; the spread of Christianity and then of Islam, and the Reformation; the Renaissance and the Enlightenment; the French Revolution and the two World Wars.  These were all human events, the result of people’s actions, but there was one natural event whose influence was at least as great: the arrival of the Black Death.

Image from the Toggenburg Bible, via Wikipedia

The plague was incredibly devastating to the population of Europe.  During the great outbreak of 1348-51, as much as 60% of Europe’s population died.  If you contracted the disease, there was a better than 90% chance that it would kill you, and the disease was terribly contagious.  The spread of the plague wasn’t even, though, with some places suffering far more than others:

The trend of recent research is pointing to a figure more like 45% to 50% of the European population dying during a four-year period. There is a fair amount of geographic variation. In Mediterranean Europe, areas such as Italy, the south of France and Spain, where plague ran for about four years consecutively, it was probably closer to 75% to 80% of the population. In Germany and England ... it was probably closer to 20%

[historian Phil Daileader, quoted on Wikipedia]

Those numbers are bafflingly large.  Look around where you live and try to imagine what would happen if half or three-quarters of the people there were to die in the space of four years.

One thing that’s not commonly understood about the plague is that it wasn’t a single event.  The 1350 plague was only the most spectacular of a long series of plague outbreaks over then next 400 years.  These later outbreaks were more localised – to a particular city or region – but each saw the same horrific mortality rate.

The identity of the plague is still a matter of debate; it’s widely believed to have been the bubonic plague, but there are no solid medical records or samples that can be used to diagnose it.  Even the name “the Black Death” was only attached in the 16th century, back in the 14th century they called it “the Great Pestilence”, “the Great Plague”, or “the Great Mortality”.

Although they don’t tend to make much of an appearance in fantasy literature (compared to, say, war), plague and famine were part of the back-drop of life in the Middle Ages.  It’s only really in the 20th century that this started to change.  Over the next few days we’ll look at some specific things that the plagues caused or changed in Europe.  In the meantime, just ponder what life must have felt like in the shadow of the plague – it’s something that I don’t think many people consider as a possible backdrop for a game.

[I suppose that I should actually read Love in the Time of Cholera before I go punning its name.  I do like the ‘magical realism’ of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, his One Hundred Years of Solitude was a breathtaking book.]

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