Friday, May 24, 2013

Fun Friday Facts #74: Black Death Edition

Can you guys believe that I haven’t yet done a Fun Friday Facts on the Black Death? I can’t. I’ve always been kinda fascinated with it because, when I was a girl, my mother used to tell me that she’d had the bubonic plague as a child. She probably made that up, just like she made up the thing about sending our old, sick family dog to retirement in Jamaica, or the thing about how ferrets would chew my lips off if I didn’t wash my face before bed.

Unlike most of the lies my mother told me, I could actually look this one up if I wanted, because there were only 362 human cases of the bubonic plague in the United States between 1944 and 1993, and I bet you every damn one of them has been recorded in the medical literature. I’d like to be able to say I don’t know why my mother would lie to me like that, but I know exactly why she did it – to entertain herself.

What we think of as “the Black Death” was a centuries-long pandemic that peaked in Europe between 1348 and 1350. There have actually been three major plague outbreaks in human history. The first occurred in the 6th and 7th centuries AD and is known as the Plague of Justinian. It’s believed to have killed as many as 40% of the population of Constantinople and up to half of the population of Europe. Plague disappeared from Europe until the 1300s, when it traveled from China to Europe via overland trade routes and killed between one and two thirds of Europe’s population, and more than 22% of the world’s total population. I know nobody knows what twenty percent is – it’s one-fifth. There, mystery solved.

If you watched two out of every three people around you drop dead, you'd draw things like this too.

The third major plague outbreak started in China in 1855 and spread to every continent inhabited by people. It claimed ten million people in India and killed more than 1,000 in Australia. As a result, the Australians created a public health department dedicated to understanding the spread of the disease. It’s because of their efforts that we now know that bubonic plague is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis, and that it’s spread to humans by fleas who’ve fed on infected animals.

Throughout history, outbreaks of the Black Death have occurred every so often, such as the 1603 London outbreak that killed 38,000. The Italian Plague of 1629-1631 killed 280,000. The Great Plague of Seville from 1647 to 1652 killed 150,000, with another 100,000 perishing in the famines it caused.  The Great Plague of London in 1665 killed about 15% of the city’s population at the time, and was heralded as a sign of the apocalypse although, of course, it wasn’t.

You might think the Black Death is called the Black Death because it causes hemorrhaging and gangrene that turns the sufferer’s skin black. I’m not going to show a picture of that.

Here's a kitty instead.

Actually, medieval writers referred to the Black Death as the “Great Plague,” the “Great Pestilence” or the “Great Mortality.” Writers didn’t begin to describe the Death as Black until the early modern period, but they didn’t mean black the color; they meant black as in “depressing,” “gloomy,” “bleak,” and “my whole town just died.” Some believe that the modern custom of referring to the second pandemic as the Black Death came about due to a mistranslation of the Latin term for the plague, atra mors, or “terrible death,” by Scandinavian writers in the 16th century.  

As I mentioned before, people still get the plague. The most recent case was of a seven-year-old girl who contracted the disease in Colorado in 2012, during a camping trip. Her family thought she was suffering from the flu, but rushed her to the hospital after she had a seizure. Doctors confirm that the girl would have died within 48 hours without treatment. As if you needed more proof that the past sucked, we’re now able to cure that crap right up with some antibiotics, but you still should probably pony up for that expensive topical flea treatment for your furry family members.

This kitty is a death trap.