So I took this interwar literature course and very rapidly realized the ways in which our historicization of World War II has almost completely eclipsed the psychological devastation wrought by World War I; said eclipse beginning with the retroactive naming of the conflict "World War I". To those who lived through it, and who desperately hoped there would be no second conflict of anything approaching its size and horror, it was simply and staggeringly "the Great War".
A French photograph taken at Verdun, one of the grisliest battles of the Great War. Today we rarely see the brutality of this war depicted, but many many photographs were taken at the time. For more contemporary photos, some in alarming color, prepare yourself and then go here.
Prior to the Great War, Germany was primarily thought of as a highly sophisticated country which produced some of the West's greatest philosophers and artists. From Germany had issued Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, Lessing, Kant and dozens more. That this nation could also spawn such an abominable conflict caused deep psychological turmoil. It robbed many Europeans and Americans of their heretofore unquestioned faith in the eternal march toward progress of technology and Western civilization. This disillusionment fomented pacifist civil disobedience as well as aesthetic shifts in the visual arts and literature.***
"Dada siegt!" (1920) by Raoul Hausmann, prominent artist of the Dadaists. Dadaism was an art movement founded in Switzerland during World War I, which was largely a response to the war. It abandoned traditional aesthetics (think the post-Impressionists, late Cezanne, et al.) and sought new modes of expression.
The Great War marks the boundary of what we, in 2012, might call modernity. In itself, the war did not produce modernity, but it offers a convenient, meaningful and discrete event from which to date the transition which was already well underway. The war was at first waged in a Victorian manner, but along the way tactics changed to accommodate the distinctly modern technology at hand. By contrast, World War II occurred as a modern war in an already modern setting. I am certainly not arguing against the profound damage it did to human life and psychology, but I believe it is yet valid to propose that the Great War signaled an even greater overall paradigm shift in the West than did World War II. This fact has merely been obscured for us by our chronological vantage point.
During the course of my interwar literature class, this realization dawned on me with some intellectual violence. And here I will clumsily try to explain exactly what history started to mean to me then: The complete and gut-felt (as opposed to merely intellectually-comprehended) understanding that times previous to mine have never been golden or quaint or charming; that to study history as though I lived it looking forward, instead of looking back at it in the smug knowledge of hindsight, reveals the full humanity of the people who came before me and renders it near impossible to feel in any way superior to them - in fact it convinces me that we are prisoners of our period's episteme (context, available knowledge, cultural assumptions) in ways we can never comprehend and that we, too, will look foolish and primitive (how I despise that word) to some future know-it-all; that no matter the differences in technology and gadgetry, no matter what scientific understandings past humans did not posses, their mental acuity, ability to reason, to observe their world, to love and to suffer were exactly like our own.
I have allowed myself this lengthy meditation on what it meant for me to contextualize World War I within Western civilization, because I now want to consider another cataclysmic event of Western history: the 14th-century Yersinia pestis epidemic now known as the Black Death. Like World War I, the Black Death did affect Europe, Asia and North Africa, but tends to be studied by American and European scholars only in a Western context. And like World War I, the Black Death was known by a different name to the generation who lived through it. They called it the Great Mortality.
A medieval depiction of countless plague deaths in Tournai (modern day Belgium).
Kelly, too, focuses on the epidemic's effects on medieval Europe, but to get there he begins on the steppes of central Asia and with the differences between Mongolian marmot fleas and human fleas and moves on to the hows and the whys of Y. pestis' effects on fleas, rodents and humans. He painstakingly charts the disease's movements from Asia, into and then across Europe. He spends a lot of time considering the competing hypotheses regarding why historical descriptions of the Black Death do not always concur with modern observations of the plague. He consults such diverse sources as Boccaccio's Decameron, letters of Petrarch, articles from Current Topics in Microbiology and the World War II research of General Shiro Ishii, Japan's army commander to their biological warfare unit.
According to the Foster Scale (the Richter Scale of death and human suffering) the Great Mortality is the second largest catastrophe in recorded history. That places it behind World War II, which arrives in first place, and ahead of World War I, which falls third. The Foster Scale accounts for more than just numbers of dead; it seeks to quantify human stress resulting from the event it measures.
So again, returning to how the horrors of World War I have somewhat faded from our collective psyche and to how moderns are wont to consider past times, even their tragedies, as softer and gentler versions of whatever occurs now, the Foster Scale's ranking of the Black Death ought to make a feeling person think. The Great Mortality killed tens of millions, carried away anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of medieval Europe's population (not to mention Asia's and North Africa's) and so altered the social landscape that some cities did not recover their pre-plague populations until well into the 19th century. That's a 500-year fallout.
Red arrows mark the movement of Y. pestis across Asia and into Europe and North Africa. The narrow red lines represent trade routes, along which the bacterium moved, by land and by sea.
"[T]he plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis, swallowed Eurasia the way a snake swallows a rabbit - whole, virtually in one sitting." (11)After it's initial and unexpected appearance in Genoa, Sicily and then southern France, news spread to the rest of Europe of this mysterious, fast-moving and appalling disease that was killing people off by the thousands. Rather horrendously, every other region after Italy and France knew this thing was coming for them. Kelly, again personifying the bacterium, writes:
"In July Y. pestis slipped through the cordon of watchers and entered the little port of Melcombe; a month later the town was still, except for the pounding of rain on village rooftops and the crash of surf against the chalky Dorset cliffs to the south." (25)Melcombe, formerly a bustling, strategic and historically-relevant port town in south England, remained centuries later so depopulated that it no longer held its former commercial and military importance for the south English shore and was subsequently incorporated into Weymouth.
When Kelly searches for similar events against which to examine the plague of the 14th century, the only analogous ones he finds are modern, war-related devastations. He mentions Hiroshima, for instance, and cites the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's study on thermonuclear war (which, not incidentally, uses the Black Death in order to study the potential ramifications of nuclear war). The only pre-modern event that appears comparable to the Great Mortality is another, earlier outbreak of the bubonic plague, known as the Plague of Justinian, which decimated the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century A.D.
A mass grave, unearthed outside of Hiroshima, of victims who died from radiation effects subsequent to America's atomic bombing of the city. Medieval Europeans during the Black Death, too, died so rapidly and in such numbers that they had to be buried in mass graves. One contemporary Italian witness observed bodies stacked in a pit, layer upon layer, "like lasagna".
The Great Mortality was in fact so swift, far-reaching and devastating that the only framework available to most medieval Europeans (being as they couldn't yet kill themselves on such a massive scale using their own technologies), the only thing approximating the situation witnessed all around them was the Catholic vision of apocalypse and judgment day. Meditating on God's judgment and the end of days, while daily confronting a poorly understood and indiscriminate killer, produced some phenomena we today wrestle to make sense of: for example, the self-abusing, penitential Flagellant Movement or the many vicious attacks against those go-to medieval European "Others", Jews and lepers. Could they truly have believed Jews were poisoning wells? Even as they died like everyone else? Did they actually think beating themselves bloody would placate a wrathful and judgmental deity?
Well, yes and no. Many did seek scapegoats and willingly believed the paranoid lie that Jews (or lepers, alternately) had poisoned their wells. In another unsettling correspondence between a modern war and the Black Death, cities across Europe massacred their Jewish inhabitants. However, King Casimir of Poland did grant asylum to Jewish people fleeing these pogroms. The communities established under his protection in 1349 remained intact for almost 600 years...until the Nazi invasion. Several other civic and religious leaders, including Pope Clement VI, condemned the pogroms and also sought to protect Jewish populations over which they exercised any jurisdictional power (though these men's voices were never strong enough, their condemnations never strident enough). These same leaders denounced the Flagellants as it became clear their movement incited violence towards more than just one's self. The medieval period contained no more monolithic thought and action than does our period, is my point. Contrary to a popular modern misconception, medieval people were not, in every case, insensible superstitious brutes. Nor were they morons.
Certainly medieval doctors did not understand the mechanisms of contagious disease as we do, nor did they possess a tradition of observation-based sciences through which to examine the plague. Kelly makes it abundantly clear, however, that medieval people accurately understood how, for instance, staying well fed or lighting fires in one's vicinity could stave off the disease. They misunderstood why these things worked. Eating well boosts one's immune system and fires drive away fleas, whereas medieval physicians were convinced the answer lay in Galenic theory of the four humors, a cogent and coherent - if inaccurate - model of human physiology in which they were very well-trained.
Diagram illustrating properties of the four humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Note the signs of the Zodiac encircling the diagram. This theory was all about maintaining the balance of bodily fluids (the humors) thought to be influenced by behavior, diet, the cosmos, the weather, et al. Within this theory, incidentally, bloodletting makes perfect sense.
Regardless of one's cultural framework for understanding calamity, then as now in times of disaster individuals at all levels of society met it in predominantly two ways: with admirable compassion and integrity, caring for the sick, endangering their own lives, helping where they could, sticking to their posts and maintaining city infrastructures; or with callousness and self-interest, forsaking ill family members, stealing from the sick, abandoning professional duties and using the near anarchy as an excuse to terrorize their fellow humans.
In short, medieval people behaved when disaster struck precisely as we do. They sometimes behaved cruelly, sometimes altruistically, and they struggled to understand rationally the catastrophe according to their own culturally-determined bodies of knowledge. Something they did not do is suffer quaintly.
Infection by Yersinia pestis can manifest itself in humans in three ways, depending on how it has entered the body. Take care as you imagine people experiencing the following symptoms, to also imagine them with no recourse to anaesthesia or pain remediation stronger than alcohol (opium does not seem to have been widely used in the West at this time).
1. Bubonic plague can kill in 2 to 6 days. It takes its name from the bacilli-filled buboes that appear at the groin, abdomen, neck or armpit (depending on where the plague-carrying flea bit you and which lymph node was closest). These buboes are "[e]xquisitely sensitive to pressure" (20), so much so that they often cause contortions in the victim as she seeks to accommodate the egg-shaped swellings on her body. Symptoms of bubonic plague known through modern instances of the disease begin and end with the bubo. Not so the medieval strain, which by all accounts was far more virulent. Frequently reported in conjunction with buboes were rash-like contusions, a foul stench of decay before the victim was even dead, and sometimes manic delirium, the last leading Kelly to suspect the bacilli also affected the nervous system. Of the three kinds of death Y. pestis delivered, bubonic plague took the longest to incubate and was the likeliest to be recovered from. Picture that. Bubonic plague is the form you hoped you'd get.
Medieval depiction of bubonic plague sufferers. It's hard to tell what the physician is doing in the background, no doubt something well-intended but in no way efficacious.
2. Pneumonic plague occurs when bacilli move from the lymph system and infect the lungs. Bubonic plague can turn into a secondary case of pneumonic plague in the same victim. Once in the lungs of one victim, it can also spread directly from person to person, no fleas necessary, via the bloody and painful cough it produces. Kelly quotes a medieval Sicilian witness describing a death from pneumonic plague: "Victims violently coughed up blood, and after three days of incessant vomiting for which there was no remedy, they died, and with them died not only everyone who talked with them but also anyone who had acquired or touched or laid hands on their belongings." (22) Left untreated today 95 to 100 percent of pneumonic plague victims die. We must consider 100 percent of medieval victims "untreated".
3. Septicemic plague occurs when, in whatever manner, plague bacilli directly infect the bloodstream and multiply in the blood. "No one," Kelly observes, "survives untreated septicemic plague...The shocklike movement of massive amounts of plague bacilli directly into the blood system creates such enormous toxicity that even insects normally incapable of transmitting Y. pestis, such as body lice, can become disease vectors. During one outbreak of septicemic plague in the early twentieth century, the average survival time from onset of symptoms to death was 14.5 hours." (22) And again, modern strains of plague seem less virulent than the one that ravaged Europe in 1348-9.
This disease could take on a number of forms then, all of them shocking, painful and deadly. The short amount of time the plague took to kill a person, coupled with extreme contagiousness in its pneumonic form and medieval people's utter ignorance of how it was spread in it bubonic form, also meant that hundreds could die within weeks of the plague's arrival in a city. And keep dying. Every day. For months.
What John Kelly does better than most historians is make it easy to imagine yourself there. He evokes the sights, smells and sounds of plague-beset Europe and its people; their fears, foibles, prejudices, affections and strengths. He represents them in their diversity, such as it was, and focuses on the small details to enlighten the big picture. The Great Mortality is a thoroughly engaging, highly educational read. More than that, it is definitely a cautionary tale. Kelly began his research believing he would write about the future potential of pandemic disease to devastate our modern world. He first looked to the past to understand the future and, through his research, soon became completely taken with and engaged by the voices and lives of medieval people, so much so that his work became a book about the Black Death. His is a successful history because through it he has conjured the past and made it speak to our present vividly, heartrendingly, relevantly. Good history does this, exercises our empathy, that transformational and mind-expanding emotion of which our world has never had enough.
*Relevant only because I was educated in America and developed my perception of both wars as an American.
**In an inane move that prefigured hawkish Republicans' "freedom fries" of the early 2000s, Dachshunds, for example, became "liberty hounds".
***Famously Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Dos Passos, Graves and countless more.
****I think, specifically and with much respect, of works by Norman Cantor, Philip Ziegler, Robert Gottfried and David Herlihy.
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