Plagues and Humanity

Throughout history, plagues have contributed to the collapse of empires and economic systems, forced mankind to end wars, and probably contributed to the spread of Christianity in Europe.

Representations of the Danse Macabre — the Dance of Death — began appearing after Europe was ravaged by the Black Death in the 14th century.

(CN) — The Covid-19 virus is new to humanity, but pandemics are not. Nor is the probable evolutionary path of Covid-19 new, as a disease that jumped from animals to man. Evidence of such zoonotic plagues has been found in prehistory: more than 5,000 years ago in sites in China and Sweden.

Plagues have radically altered history far more severely than the 2020 coronavirus pandemic has altered our daily lives. They have contributed to the collapse of empires and economic systems, restructured geopolitics, forced mankind to invent new technologies, to end wars, and probably contributed to the spread of Christianity in Europe.

This series by Courthouse News will take a long view of plagues in history, drawing parallels to the havoc wrought by the novel coronavirus pandemic — social, economic, governmental, technological, legal and religious — to see what we have learned, or failed to learn, from more than 50 centuries of human suffering inflicted by microorganisms and their animal hosts.

Prehistoric plagues

Evidence of widespread adoption of agriculture and domestication of animals has been found as far back as 15,000 years ago. Barley, for example, a hardy grain, was being sown and harvested by 11,000 B.C. in Eurasia. The phenomenon of a food surplus allowed mankind to create cities and settle in them, where they lived more densely packed together, in close proximity to other mammals and the parasites they host.

That spurred an early “technology:” sleeping in closed quarters with domesticated animals in the winter, to benefit from their body heat, while defending them from animal predators and theft from human neighbors.

Indications of Yersenia pestis — the rat- and flea-borne bacillus that causes bubonic plague — have been found as far back as 3000 B.C. in a mass grave in Sweden. Mass graves at the Hamin Mangha archaeological site in Northeast China, dating from roughly the same time, appear to contain similar indications. The site contains 97 bodies in a small house that was burned down. Pottery and grinding instruments found with the bones indicate agriculture and settlement. A similar mass burial in Miaozigou, also in Northeast China, indicates an epidemic.

The Neolithic decline of around 3400 B.C., during which densely populated cities in Western Eurasia were permanently abandoned, may have been precipitated by plague, brought by humans living with animals and their parasites. An Oct. 22, 2015 paper in the scientific journal Cell reported that an international team of researchers extracted DNA from 5,000-year-old human remains in Sweden that is the closest ever to be identified as the genetic origin of Y. Pestis. It is believed to have diverged from other strains of plague about 5,700 years ago.

“The strain had the same genes that make the pneumonic plague deadly today and traces of it were also found in another individual at the same grave site — suggesting that the young woman did likely die of the disease,” according to a summary of the report published in Science News. The authors suggested that plague may have been spread by Neolithic traders, contributing to the decline of settlements as the Stone Age evolved into the Bronze Age.

Settlements of 10,000 and more people were becoming common in Europe, but were devastated around 5,000 years ago by massive human migrations from the Eurasian steppe. Previous researchers suggested that the invaders brought the plague with them, but the timing of the genetic origin indicates the European settlements were already starting to collapse, due to increased density of people, animals and food stored together and poor sanitation. “That’s the textbook example of what you need to evolve new pathogens,” the lead author Simon Rasmussen told Science News.

“Our results show that plague infection was endemic in the human populations of Eurasia at least 3,000 years before any historical recordings of pandemics,” Rasmussen et al. wrote in their own summary.

Zoonotic Origins

Yersenia Pestis, the bacteria that caused bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, infected humans after passing through at least two animal hosts: the rat flea and the rats they fed on. Covid-19 — which is a virus, not a bacterium — also is believed to have passed through two animal hosts before infecting humans: bats and other mammals in the Wuhan meat market — possibly pangolins, or scaly anteaters.

A research biochemist told Courthouse News that “it’s not really open to debate” that the fact that viruses and bacteria adapt as they propagate through different species make the pathogens harder to eradicate, having armed themselves, in a sense, against at least two previous animal hosts.

Plagues in history

The Athenian plague of 430 B.C. weakened Athens and contributed to Sparta’s victory in the Peloponnesian War. Outnumbered and penned behind city walls, the plague killed as many as 100,000 Athenians and contributed to the end of the Western world’s first democracy. Thucydides (ca. 460-400 B.C.) lived through it and reported it: “The doctors were unable to cope, since they were treating the disease for the first time and in ignorance: indeed, the more they came into contact with sufferers, the more liable they were to lose their own lives.” (P.J. Rhodes translation.) Historians are uncertain whether the Athenian plague was smallpox, typhus or Y. Pestis. What’s certain is that Athens capitulated in 404 B.C.

The Antonine Plague of 165-180 probably was brought to Rome by victorious soldiers returning from Parthia. Probably smallpox, it killed as many as 2,000 people a day in Rome, according to historian Cassius Dio (ca. 155-235), so severely weakening the empire that it brought to a close the Pax Romana, which began under the Emperor Augustus.

Cassius Dio wrote: “(A) terrible plague spread over nearly all Italy,” and after the performance of religious rituals, “the curse did not appear disposed to rest even then, especially since, when Vibius was conducting the opening sacrifices on the first day of the year, one of his lictors suddenly fell down and died.” (Loeb Classical Library translation.)

Death comes for the abbess, whose time in the hourglass has run out.

Some modern scholars believe this catastrophe, which killed as many as 5 million people in Europe, contributed to the spread of Christianity, which promised a life after death for believers, this time spared of earthly woes.

The Plague of Justinian ravaged the Eastern Roman Empire from 541 to 546, with repeated outbreaks until 750, contributing to the Empire’s decline and fall. This plague, probably Y. Pestis, devastated the Empire’s capital Byzantium, or Constantinople, the most densely populated city in what remained of the empire.

As would happen 800 years later in the Black Death, the plague probably arrived on merchant ships carrying grain — meal for rats — and spread inland after ravaging port cities throughout the Mediterranean. Like the Black Death, it is believed to have killed as much as one-third of the population of Europe, or more. The Emperor Justinian contracted the disease, but lived.

Constantinople imported tremendous quantities of grain from Egypt, particularly Alexandria, storehouse of crops from the Nile Valley. (Alexandria had suffered its own plague from 249-262, which spread to Carthage and Rome, where it killed as many as 5,000 people a day at its height.) Rats feeding on the enormous granaries of Alexandria, and the fleas they carried, almost certainly brought the plague to Byzantium under Justinian.

Procopius (ca. 500-565) reported that in 542 that the plague was killing thousands of people a day in Constantinople, after spreading from the port of Pelusium in Egypt, though his numbers, as often in the ancient world, are open to suspicion. He wrote that deaths were so common there was no room to bury them all, and corpses were left stacked in the streets. As many as one-third of the people of Byzantium/Constantinople died.

“During these times there was a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated,” Procopius wrote in his History of the Wars. “It started from the Egyptians who dwell in Pelusium.”

Pelusium then was on the eastern end of the fertile Nile Valley; Alexandria was on its western end. Procopius’ descriptions indicate that this plague too was Y. Pestis. With so many laborers dead, the price of grain rose precipitously, increasing hunger and leaving people more susceptible to diseases.

Modern historians believe that the Plague of Justinian weakened the Empire so severely that fleas and rats, not just the hardy Goths and Lombards, from colder climes, were responsible for the famous Decline of Rome.

Smaller epidemics of plague continued to break out until the Black Death of the 1340s, which was not called the Black Death until the 18th century. But regardless of the actual numbers, which are impossible to reconstruct — or rather, construct — the Plague of Justinian was the greatest European and Asian pandemic until the Black Death.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, ca. 1562, Prado Museum, Madrid.

The Black Death

The best-known plague today, which peaked from 1347 to 1351, killed about one-third of the population of Europe. It took 200 years for the European population to recover to its pre-plague level. Caused by Yersenia pestis, it was carried by fleas living on black rats. When the rats died, the fleas jumped to humans. It probably originated in Central or East Asia, and traveled west along the Silk Road, reaching Crimea by 1347. Genoese merchant ships are believed to have carried the vectors to Europe. Y. Pestis can cause pneumonic, septicemic and bubonic plague, which was the most common, marked by buboes: painful swelling at lymph nodes, such as armpits and groin.

Venice initiated the first quarantine against plague. It began as a trecentino, or 30-day confinement of sailors on ships arriving from plague areas. It was extended to 40 days of isolation, a quarantino, from which our word derives.

Bubonic plague still occurs infrequently in the U.S. West, often carried by prairie dogs.

The English Peasants’ Revolt

The English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, chronicled by Shakespeare, among others, began after the Black Death had depopulated England in the 1340s as severely as it did the European mainland. Faced with a critical labor shortage, the noble classes suddenly, and unexpectedly, found themselves having to bid for the services of serfs — without the police forces needed to keep them bound to the soil.

High taxes due to the 100 Years War with France from 1337 to 1453 contributed to popular unrest. A riot in Essex on May 30, 1381 set off the Peasants’ Revolt, when MP John Bampton demanded unpaid poll taxes. The revolt quickly spread throughout southeast England and even gained the support of some local officials. Court records were burned and jails were opened. The peasants demanded lower taxes, removal of some high officials and an end to serfdom: that is, free labor.

The priest John Ball (ca. 1338-July 15, 1381) was one leader. One of his sermons included the line: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” He was tried, hanged, drawn and quartered.

His fellow leader Walter “Wat” Tyler led protesters from Canterbury to London, where he was stabbed by courtiers of Richard II on June 15, 1381, then captured and decapitated.

Richard II, 14 years old, then revoked the concessions he had made and hunted down and executed the rebels. It was the beginning of the end of the feudal system.

One strange outcome of the plague in Europe resulted from the surplus of clothes left from the dead. This was turned into pulp, which was used to create a new, stronger type of paper, rag stock, which was strong enough the withstand the earliest printing presses using Johannes Gutenberg’s invention: movable type. This in turn led to an explosion of books which, along with the new power of the peasants, helped create a middle class.

Codex Azcatitlán, early 16th century, shows Hernán Cortéz and his native interpreter, known as La Malinche, far right.

Depopulation of the New World

Epidemics are a leading suspect for the Classic Maya Collapse of roughly 700-900. It can be persuasively argued that before the collapse, Mayan architecture, astronomy, mathematics, arts and history outpaced the state of those arts and sciences in the remnants of the Western Roman Empire. Yet for reasons still being deciphered, the great Mayan cities were abandoned and the Maya dispersed to scattered, smaller settlements. Mosquito- and parasite-borne diseases are endemic to the tropical lowlands and highlands where the Maya still live.

The Cocoliztli Epidemic of ca. 1545-1550 killed an estimated 15 million indigenous Americans in Mexico, Central and South America. It was the most devastating morbidity in history, killing off as much as 90% of the native population. “Cocoliztli” is the Nahuatl word for pestilence. It was probably a combination of pathogens for which the Native Americans were unprepared, including measles, smallpox and Salmonella enterica, subspecies Paratyphi C, also known as typhus, according to a March 2018 paper in the scientific journal Nature.

Smallpox was endemic in Western Europe when Columbus arrived in the New World. So too, probably, was measles. By the time Columbus arrived in the Americas, the mortality rate from both diseases had been reduced to about 30% in Europe.

In the New World, with the mortality rate approaching 100%, the plague, or plagues paved the way for the Anglicization of North America. The resulting societal, economic and political effects are still felt today on U.S. Indian reservations.

The Cocoliztli Epidemic also contributed to the corruption that still plagues much of Latin America, as anthropologist Eric Wolf demonstrated in his influential 1959 book, “Sons of the Shaking Earth.”

For the first generations after the Conquest, only European-born Spaniards were allowed to wield power in the New World. Their sons, the criollos, born in Mexico, were excluded from it. And the sons that the Spanish-born officials and their creole offspring had with Native American women officially did not exist.

These new generations, known as Mexicans, became the intermediaries between the natives who survived in the mountains and the officials in the provincial capitals. Because this trade, like the very existence of the Mexicans, had no official existence, the phantom economy, which benefited all classes, became entrenched. Even today, more than half of Mexico’s real economy is believed to be “informal,” i.e. untaxed.

Two Faces of Technology

What distinguishes the Covid-19 pandemic from previous plagues is not its lethality or its effects upon society — many of which, such as social distancing, are merely inconveniences, compared with the plagues of the past — but the speed at which it has spread around the world.

The poorly named Spanish Flu of 1918-19 did not originate in Spain, but acquired the name from reporting by Spain’s pre-Fascist free press — more accurate in those days than reporting in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control estimates the flu of 1918-19 infected one-third of the world’s people, killing 50 million — 675,000 in the United States.

It was the first pandemic to spread so rapidly — though not as rapidly as Covid-19 — thanks, or no thanks, to transatlantic steamboat travel, railroads and U.S. soldiers returning from World War I.

Air travel and ignorance at high levels of government are the primary factors that made Covid-19 the most rapidly spreading worldwide pandemic in history.

It took the Black Death more than a year to travel from its first appearance on the fringes of Europe, in Crimea in 1347,to London — 852 miles on a beeline. It took Covid-19 less than a day to travel from Beijing to Seattle — 5,407 air miles — or from Rome to New York — 4,277 air miles — assuming those are the among the routes it took. Almost surely they were. And surely there were others.

Quarantines: Leprosy and Polio

Viewed through today’s lenses, leprosy is important in that it was among the first, if not the very first disease to which humanity reacted by forcing its sufferers into isolation.

Polio too has appeared throughout history. An Egyptian stone engraving from the 18th Dynasty (1402-1365 B.C.) shows a man with a withered leg, apparently a polio sufferer. By the early 20th century, polio pandemics had become common in the summer.

Polio killed more than 500,000 people a year throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. The Salk and Sabin vaccines, widely distributed from 1955 on, virtually ended the scourge around the world, though cases are still being reported in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. The WHO reported 22 cases in those countries in 2017.

When the Salk and Sabin vaccines were distributed widely in the 1950s, there were few protests. Americans knew at least one man who had been crippled by polio: Franklin D. Roosevelt. Why anti-vaccine protests are so prevalent in the United States today is a problem beyond the scope of this series.

A Final Lesson

Bubonic plague ravaged Russia from 1770 to 1792 under Catherine the Great. Centered in the capital, it prompted Catherine to order factories moved out of Moscow, where as many as 200,000 people died.

An enlightened ruler by the standards of her day, Catherine imposed quarantines, closed the public baths, factories and stores. This led to food riots.

On Sept. 15, 1771, riots began in Moscow when Archbishop Ambrosius tried to stop crowds from gathering to pray at the Icon of the Virgin Mary of Bogolyubovo. They destroyed his residence at the Chudov Monastery in the Kremlin and sacked its wine cellar.

Ambrosius fled to the Donskoy Monastery, which the rioters captured on Sept. 16, where they killed the archbishop — for forbidding them to gather en masse to pray. It was known as the Plague Riot. Around 200,000 people died during that Russian plague, which subsided in the winter of 1792.

And in the United States today, men toting assault weapons are gathering on state Capitol steps to protest quarantines and social-distancing guidelines that, hard as they may be on the economy, are surely saving lives from this modern plague.


The Courthouse News series on plagues, ancient and modern, will continue Tuesday, with a look at the future.
Part II: Pandemics Have Changed History, and This One Will Too

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