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Black Days
Even plagued with death, the human spirit can soar.


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“Then the angry sea threw up a tidal wave so enormous it seemed to scrape the sun as it rushed toward the island. Mothers snatched up their children, farmers ran from the fields [while] fishermen, caught between the coast and the wave, whispered a quick last prayer.”

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No, that’s got nothing to do with Katrina ravaging the Gulf Coast of the United States. That’s John Kelly writing about the Black Death in his book, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. National Review Online Editor Kathryn Lopez recently talked to Kelly about death, destruction, plague, and Katrina.

National Review Online: What would possess you to write a book on bubonic plague?

John Kelly: Couldn’t help it. I fell in love.

In 2000, when I first began thinking about doing a book on epidemic disease, I was thinking about doing a book on future epidemics. But before I moved ahead I felt I should go back and look at the paradigm for all epidemic diseases, the Black Death.

Thus, in the autumn of 2000, I began shuttling between the main room of the N.Y. Public Library and Butler Library at Columbia University. I read a number of excellent academic histories, but it was the original source material, the literature of the Great Mortality–the chronicles, letters, and reminiscences written by contemporaries–that turned my gaze from the future to the past. The plague generation wrote about their experiences with a directness and urgency that, 700 years after the fact, retains the power to astonish, and haunt. After watching packs of wild dogs paw at the newly dug graves of the plague dead, a part-time tax collector in Siena wrote, “This is the end of the world.”

NRO: Besides the obvious, what does “The Great Mortality” mean exactly? What’s so great about it?

Kelly: “The Great Mortality” is the name contemporaries gave to the plague. The term “Black Death” did not come into widespread use in Europe until the 18th century. The term “Great Mortality” appears in a number of different languages–French, German, Polish, Spanish, and Italian. More colloquially, contemporaries called the plague “the Big Death.”

NRO: How many people died?

Kelly: No one knows for sure.

The best estimate for Europe is a death rate of a third, with some regions–for example, eastern England and Tuscany–suffering death rates in the 50-percent range. Also the estimate for the Middle East–Iraq, Iran, Syria, etc.–is one third. There are no estimates for China, which the plague struck a few years after it hit Europe, but the census of 1200 A.D. counted roughly 125 million Chinese; by the census of 1390–a few decades after the plague had struck–the population of China had fallen to 63 million.

NRO: That’s gotta be the most depressing kind of book to work on, no?

Kelly: Oddly, I didn’t find the book depressing to write. I think that may be because I tried to focus on the plague as a human experience in individual lives, and the result was, I was always coming across examples of courage and resiliency that were truly inspiring.

NRO: How did the Black Death spread exactly?

Kelly: The disease vector in plague is the rat flea, X. Cheopis. In bubonic plague, the most common form of the disease, after the host rat dies, the flea jumps to humans, infecting them through a bite in the skin. In pneumonic plague, a second form of the disease, the infection spreads directly from person to person. However, like other forms of the disease, it is borne in the rodent/insect connection. In some cases of bubonic plague, bacilli escape the lymph system and infect the lungs, causing the pneumonic plague.

One unusual feature of the plague of the Black Death is that there was a very high incidence of pneumonic plague, which is relatively uncommon in modern outbreaks of the disease. Another is that the plague, in both forms, moved much quicker than it does today.

NRO: Was it the greatest tragedy in Western history? One of your back-cover blurbers said as much. What about the Holocaust for instance?

Kelly: Yes, the plague was. According to one recent estimate, extrapolated to today’s world population, the death rate for a disaster on the scale of the Black Death would be 1.9 billion lives.

An estimated 50 million people died in WW II, ten million in WW I, and perhaps somewhere between 50 to 100 million in the flu outbreak of 1918-20.

NRO: Speaking of: There was a bit of a mini-Holocaust during these days–what was that about? The abhorrent anti-Semitism that seems to always be in the air? Or something more in this case? What was the trigger?

Kelly: The pogroms of the Black Death were one of the worst outbreaks of anti-Semitism until the Holocaust. There were several reasons for this anti-Semitism. One was Christian theology [--the idea of] Jews as “Christ killers.” Another more immediate factor was that, in the decades before the Black Death struck, Jews entered the money-lending profession in larger and larger numbers and since moneylenders often charged high rates of interest, for many Europeans this made anti-Semitism a very personal thing. The deadly violence also had an additional “benefit”: If the Jewish community was destroyed in a pogrom, the Christian community’s debts were erased.

I think, however, there was also a third and more subtle factor at work in the pogroms. The plague made people experience a loss of control. They didn’t know what was causing this mass death or how to protect themselves. Appointing a villain–the Jews–created an illusory sense of control; i.e., if we kill all the people who are spreading the plague, maybe we can stop it.

NRO: What caused hysteria during Black Death days? The sickness itself? Fear of the unknown?

Kelly: Both.

People who got the plague died hard. There were days of vomiting, coughing up blood, chills, and uncontrollable diarrhea. However, fear of the unknown was certainly a big factor. Without pressing the analogy too far, the cities of Italy, which were the first to be struck, were in the position of a Hiroshima or Nagasaki: No one had ever seen anything like it. Not only did the plague more or less strike out of the blue, it produced death on an unimaginable scale–death not in the hundreds or thousands, which people were used to, but in the millions.

NRO: How fast was societal recovery from the pestilence?

Kelly: The Black Death was followed by the Renaissance and the age of European global expansion, so it can be argued that, societally, Europe recovered fairly quickly. But it took much longer to recover demographically. Nations like Britain, France, Germany, and Italy did not recover their pre-plague populations until the 18th and early 19th century. In part this is because the Black Death was followed by what are called the Renaissance plagues. These were local outbreaks of the disease, which would affect a particular city, town, or region. In addition, following the Black Death, Europe was hit by a wave of other epidemic diseases, including smallpox, influenza, dysentery, and typhus. The 14th and 15th centuries are often called the Golden Age of Bacteria.

NRO: If you were blame-gaming–if Shep Smith and Anderson Cooper were on location and we were all critics–who would look the worst in the case of the Black Death?

Kelly: There were lots of bad guys. Probably the most egregious offenders were the municipal sanitation departments throughout Europe. In most of the continent, sanitation legislation consisted of an ordinance requiring residents to shout out “Look out below!” three times before dumping a full chamber pot onto the medieval street. The accumulated filth was an ideal breeding place for rats, and without rats you can’t have the X. Cheopis flea, and without the flea you have no plague. The medieval medical profession also misread the plague badly. The only physicians at the time could agree on was that the best defense against plague was to remain healthy, and, above all, this meant avoiding infected air, since it was believed that putrid air spread the plague. This led to all sorts of crazy remedies: Doctors in Paris advised the population to avoid marshes, swamps, and other bodies of stagnant water, where the air is dense and turgid. A Muslim physician, Ibn Khataimah, thought the best safeguard against the plague was to avoid living in cities with a southern coast. The reason? The rays of the sun and other stars bounced off the sea, blanketing such cities in warm, damp air. Another medieval physician, John Colle, argued that the best antidote to plague-bearing bad air was more bad air. He advised people to gather at the edge of municipal latrines and inhale the noxious fumes. A third bad guy was: Massive ecological change. In the decades before the plague, all of Eurasia, from Portugal to China, was swept by a massive wave of earthquakes and floods, which disrupted local road populations and drove them toward cities.

NRO: Not to be alarmist here or make to big a jump, but New Orleans has been evacuating and there is a lot of talk of the “toxic bomb” that is the water flowing throughout. Have you been plagued with concern watching?

Kelly: What I’ve been struck by, watching New Orleans, is how unvaryingly human nature reacts to sudden major disasters. The behaviors we’re seeing today on our TV screens are the ones that Black Death chroniclers wrote about. As in New Orleans, there was mass flight from many medieval cities as the plague approached, and there were always a hard-core remnant who refused to leave their homes and often died as a result. Each city also had its own little version of FEMA. There were a cadre of municipal officials, merchants, notaries who stayed at their posts and did their duty, insuring that bodies got buried promptly–no small thing when half the population of a locality can be wiped out in two months–and that wills were made out so that there would be an orderly transfer of wealth from the dead to the living.

NRO: Could there ever–even given the extent of what’s happened on the Gulf Coast–be another black death? And here? I mean this is 2005 U.S.A.

Kelly: Yes, I think there could be, but by an agent other than plague. It could be either a thermonuclear or biological weapon, or, alternately, a strain of flu–such as Avian flu–which we don’t really understand and don’t know how effective our medications will be against.

NRO: There’s been a lot of concern about Katrina-area animals–people not wanting to leave them, etc. You’ve got stories about mad dogs and things. Could we such things happen in bacteria-ridden New Orleans, etc.?

Kelly: Again, there’s a parallel with the plague. One of the things that struck me about New Orleans is the reports of dogs feeding on the dead. This was very widespread during the plague.

NRO: One theme in your book that we are watching play out on the Gulf Coast: the contrast of the baseness of humanity when times are dreadful vs. the triumph of generosity simultaneously. What’s the worst story along these lines you write about?

Kelly: The anonymous author who fabricated the confessions of Jews accused of poisoning Christians’ wells to spread the plague. Whoever this perverse, evil genius was, he had an eye for convincing details. In the transcripts of the “confessions” he circulated to towns all across Central Europe, he describes the “Jewish plot” in great detail: Its supposed mastermind is a sinister Rabbi Jacob, formerly of Toledo, Spain, now living in eastern France, and a network of agents who purportedly delivered packets of plague poison to Jews throughout Europe. The anonymous author even created names and personalities for the agents. There was the bullying Provenzal, the kind-hearted merchant Agimetus, and the maternal Belieta.

He also described the poison used to supposedly contaminate the Christian wells in great detail. It was, “about the size of an egg” except when it was “the size of a nut,” and it came packaged in “a leather pouch” except when it was packaged “in a linen cloth.”

NRO: And the best?

Kelly: Agnolo di Tura may not have been the most courageous figure in the Black Death, but he was the most human. He is also the author of what is in my opinion the most moving sentence in all the literature of the plague. He wrote it on a summer afternoon after returning from a plague pit where half the population of his native Siena was buried. It reads: “And I, Agnolo di Tura, buried my wife and five children with my own hands.”

NRO: Again, such a different point in history, so many different circumstances, but are there any lessons from Black Death days that the people working in Katrina-ravaged America can take from them?

Kelly: Yes, there are. It’s about human resilience. One of the most striking things about the plague is that, everywhere–and in some places 60 percent of the population was wiped out–a small cadre of people always stepped forward to carry on the basic business of life. As one reviewer put it: “The human race is a kind of hardy bacterium–at once tiny and fragile but also determined to thrive and very, very hard to erase.”



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