Episode 2: Plague

“Death and famine stalk the land like two great stalking things.” — Blackadder


It’s the Black Death, the original plague! Em and Jesse discuss the outbreaks of plague that bookended the Middle Ages–the Plague of Justinian (around 540 CE) and the better-known outbreak that spread across Asia into Western Europe and eventually hit the British Isles in the 1300s. We discuss Medieval responses to plague, such as quarantine, scientific inquiry, and pograms, as well as the ways the plague is reflected in literature of the time.

Notes, Citations, and Corrections

1/ Sorry about the sound quality this episode. We both had some various technical difficulties.

2/ No letters! We know Latin, and we know that technically the word bacteria is plural, and the word bacterium is singular.

3/ Notice the beginning and end of my “pretend I don’t know anything” interviewing technique. For the entire rest of the episode it’s totally clear I know at least a bit about the plague, so I don’t know why I decided to start off like I was totally clueless. Oh well. (Related suggestion: if you’re interested in the biological nitty gritty of the plague, check out the relevant episodes of This Podcast Will Kill You. They talk a lot about the actual physical effects of the disease and the bacteria behind it, Y. pestis. Fair warning, it’s a bit gory.)

4/ Concerning plagues that are not THE plague, if you ever want to really freak yourself out, check out this story on Smallpox  (full article here if you don’t have access to the New Yorker archives). There is a really good reason, in my opinion, why it was not only one of the first diseases humans started experimenting with vaccinating against, but why it was the first eradicated.

5/ Just to add–the San Francisco plague outbreak of 1900–1904–we didn’t discuss it because we already had enough plague to discuss, but it was shockingly like the current COVID-19 outbreak in several ways, including the quarantining of boats in San Francisco Bay and a lot of blame falling (unfairly) on Chinese Americans.

6/ Around 6:50 Jesse mentions an outbreak in the late 1900s, but she means late 1800s (late 19th century). [Again, I get excited and misspeak! I’m working on this.–JN]

7/ The death rate of plague with antibiotics is about 11% (with the CDC noting it’s hard to study because of a paucity of cases). That’s…not great.

8/ Monica H. Green, “When Numbers Don’t Count: Changing Perspectives on the Justinianic Plague,” EIDOLON (Nov. 18, 2019), https://eidolon.pub/when-numbers-dont-count-56a2b3c3d07. Monica Green, ed., Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death, The Medieval Globe, vol. 1, no. 1 (Arc Medieval Press, 2014), https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/medieval_globe/1/. Google her work!

9/ “Three to four thousand years ago” was around the year 2000 BCE. The first Egyptian pyramid was already 600 years old at that point. [I also mention early Aegean and Greek civilization as reference points. Cycladic civilization is roughly 3200–1050 BCE, Minoan civilization is roughly 2700–1100 BCE, and Mycenean civilization is roughly 1600–1100 BCE. 1100 BCE was a system collapse, possibly the one remembered in The Iliad as the Trojan War.–JN]

10/ Rats! A reminder (in case we weren’t clear enough) that fleas are primarily responsible for transmitting the plague. Rats can carry the flea, but so can other rodents (some squirrels, for example). Also, not all rats are equally likely to carry the flea. Be nice to rats!

11/ “If you saw a rabbit while you were pregnant, it could make you give birth to a rabbit or something.” Or more likely a baby with a harelip (the term dates from the mid-16th century). There were weird case reports of women giving birth to things like rabbits and cats (e.g., Mary Toft in the 1720s). Unclear to me how much of this is hysteria/some other mental illness vs outright fraud. [Ooooo, I can’t explain it all here, but hysteria and the medicalization of gynecology would make a great episode, if anyone is interested. In a relevant context, Horrox quotes Jean de Venette, who suggested that imagination as well as contagion could make someone sick (i.e., someone imagined they were going to become sick, so they did): “death and sickness came by imagination, or by contact with others and consequent contagion” (p. 55). Horrox explains more on page 107. For this and many other sources from our episode, see Rosemary Horrox, ed. and trans., The Black Death, Manchester Medieval Sources, book 1 (Manchester University Press: 1994), pp. 41–45 (link)–JN]

12/ (26:37) Jesse: The basilisk…who we all know because of J.K. Rowling.
Me: Right… (you can actually hear my brain panicking as I try to remember whether it’s a lizard or a snake. Now, looking at some pictures, I can see that it is described as a “serpent” but occasionally drawn with legs.) [The basilisk is the king of snakes–basil from Greek basileus, or king. The basilisk is hatched from the egg of a serpent or toad that’s been incubated by a rooster. The basilisk can kill with one glance, and its venom is instantaneously poisonous, probably even by touch.–JN]

13/ A Winter’s Tale: A later Shakespearian play sometimes felt to be a “problem play” because it begins very seriously and tragically and eventually has a happy ending. Contains one of the most famous stage directions of all time, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” [It’s a gorgeous, brilliant dramedy about a jealous man and the women (and children) who deal with him. It’s also an extraordinary commentary on the mother/daughter relationship, and one of Shakespeare’s many great discussions on female friendship. It also has some very medieval moments–we might talk about it again!–JN]

Additional Jesse note: Shakespeare! We’ll probably talk about him in every episode. Shakespeare was obviously familiar with the plague and experienced quarantines and closed theatres. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo would have received the letter explaining Juliet’s “death” if Friar Lawrence’s fellow friar hadn’t been quarantined because he wanted to travel with a friend, and the friend had been visiting plague victims! (No good deed goes unpunished.) Friar John couldn’t even get someone to take the letter in his place or simply to return it to Friar Lawrence because everyone was worried about infection. (They didn’t have Purell to wipe down letters.) This is a plot point that used to seem silly, but now it presumably makes sense again. Friars were among the high risk health care workers of their day (and ours, presumably).

14/ A case where the goods were unloaded…but then no one would buy them. See Rosemary Horrox, ed. and trans., The Black Death, Manchester Medieval Sources, book 1 (Manchester University Press: 1994), pp. 41–45 (link). Louis Heyligen was a musician in the service of a cardinal at the Holy See (aka the Roman Curia or the home of the papacy) in Avignon. (For the Avignon Papacy, which I’m sure we’ll discuss in a future episode, see Wikipedia. The pope wasn’t in Rome, he was in Avignon.) Louis wrote a long letter home to Bruges warning them of the coming plague and describing the plague in Avignon, including the various forms the disease takes, the danger of contagion, and the fact that the disease is known to travel and that ships have been chased from the harbor due to suspicion of contagion. He adds that “no kinds of spices are eaten or handled, unless they have been in stock for a year, because men are afraid that they might have come from the galleys [ships–JN] of which I spoke” (p. 45). He also recommends self quarantining. Sadly his employer, Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, died of the plague.

15/ The ultimate Italian pasty is Sfogliatella. Don’t @ me.

16/ Medical and scientific manuals for how to treat plague: the “most authoritative” (Horrox, p. 158) is the Paris medical faculty’s two-part treatise on causes (part 1) and preventions/cures (part 2). For an excerpt in English, see Horrox, p. 158–163.

17/ “A friend who works on relations between Jews and Christians…has discussed the ways in which there would be questions…” Dr. Katelyn Mesler is the friend! We’ll discuss this and cite more in a future episode.

18/ Copernicus (1473–1543) was known for reorganizing the model of the solar system (“everything goes around the Sun, which is the center of the universe”, c.f. the previous model which had Earth at the center of everything). Galileo (1564–1642) noticed moons orbiting Jupiter and suggested that the Sun was only one thing around which things were orbiting among many and probably wasn’t that special.

It is interesting to note that all the planets up to and including Jupiter were known about since ancient times. Saturn was discovered in 1610 (by Galileo, natch–right around the same time he discovered the four moons of Jupiter now known as the Galilean moons). Uranus was discovered in 1781 by William Herschel, and Neptune was discovered in 1846 by a bunch of mathematicians. That’s a lot of science done with visible light telescopes using hand-ground lenses.

19/ Interesting but not really relevant–in the scifi novel The Three-Body Problem, the appearance of three stars in conjunction is also a bad omen (albeit for different reasons).

20/ I have read some of Petrarch’s sonnets, but I don’t think I realized Laura was a real person. [Dante’s Beatrice was also a real person, but…the distance between real and literary trope is fairly wide in both cases. –JN]

21/ The Decameron: If you’re making a list of “books from the Middle Ages that come up again and again in literature from the Medieval period to the present day,” The Decameron should definitely be on that list. Also, Aubrey Plaza was recently in a film based on some of the stories in it called The Little Hours. (I haven’t seen it.)

22/ Quarantine! Jesse’s Note: The Middle Ages tried to quarantine during the first outbreak of the 1347 plague, but (as we have found today with Covid-19), it was already too late. However, an early instance of quarantine that appears to have worked took place in 1377 in Ragusa (Dubrovnik). See Jane Stevens Crawshaw, “The Renaissance Invention of Quarantine” in The Fifteenth Century XII: Society in an Age of Plague, edited by Linda Clark and Carole Rawcliffe (Boydell & Brewer, 2013), especially page 163 note 10 (link). (I am using quarantine to mean purposeful isolation, not the technical 40-day period–some early quarantines were 30 days, etc. We’re going to talk about isolation as a medieval concept, religious trend, and more in a future episode. The basic point is that quarantine may have seemed a more obvious solution to the Middle Ages than it seems to be for us–even though it absolutely works! We just have a society that discourages isolation.)

23/ Apparently, Pope Francis recently granted a plenary indulgence to anyone who watched/listened to his blessing urbi et orbi. So this is definitely still a thing that happens!

24/ The specific question of “is electricity fire” is discussed briefly in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (you can read the specific section here). Rereading this I’m struck by how much I disagree with a lot of what he’s saying now, and the definite anti-Colonialist bent some of the other speakers seem to have…a long time before Fanon and Said! But “the early fifties” was a pretty different world from now, so it’s not that surprising that I might disagree. I did really enjoy his books and they were very influential on me when I was younger.

25/ Pope Gregory I: The guy Gregorian chant was named for. The guy/name was so popular that it was used for fifteen more popes and two antipopes.

26/ The Golden Legend.

27/ H.P. Lovecraft, “The Haunter of the Dark,” Weird Tales of December 1936, vol. 28, no. 5, pp. 538–553 (link) is a pretty prime example of this. And–look, I know that a lot of people have strong feelings on Lovecraft, both pro and con. My feelings are most easily summarized as “Racism bad, creepy architecture good.” [Yes, and so many extraordinary works have been strongly influenced by HPL–Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Alan Moore’s Providence, and Megan James’s Innsmouth, to name a few.–JN]

28/ The flagellants–see Richard Kieckhefer, ”Radical tendencies in the flagellant movement of the mid-fourteenth century,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol 4 (1974), pp. 157–176 (link).

29/ Em: What actually does happen if you are a priest leading prayers for the end of the plague and they don’t work? Do you just say, you know, G-d is not happy yet, we haven’t repented enough? Jesse: Yup, basically.

30/ Henry Knighton’s wonderful opinions can be found in Horrox, p. 130.

31/ The Westminster Chronicle is in Horrox, p. 131.

32/ Pogroms related to Jews possibly spreading the plague–see Horrox (throughout). There are so many sources about this–I (Jesse) definitely underplayed it for this episode, because I assume we’ll talk about these horrors in the future.

33/ Henry Suso. This story is in Horrox, p. 223–226.

34/ The Pardoner’s Tale.

35/ The Three Living and the Three Dead: The British Library has a great article on this, with some really neat pictures from illuminated manuscripts.

36/ St. Sebastian is the patron saint of plague. I think he’s also the patron saint of gay men (er, not literally, but “Sebastian Melmoth” was a name used by Oscar Wilde during his exile, and something about those arrows is suggestive?).

37/ Stephen Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets,” originally published in 1988 link. To quote from the notes, “Greenblatt’s title refers to the way the English colonists duped the natives of North America into believing that the English god had shot those natives who were dying of diseases imported from Europe by the colonists with invisible bullets” (first endnote at link). Rereading his essay, I feel that he is a little too credulous of what the Europeans reported their experiences with the Native Americans to be, rather than questioning the extent to which the things they are reporting (viz. a lack of sophistication among the natives, their belief that perhaps the gods favored the Europeans or the European god was “true” and theirs wasn’t) might be a product of mistranslation, wishful thinking, spin doctoring, and so forth. Greenblatt was (is, I guess) part of a movement called New Historicism that tried to use literature to understand history. My problems with his essay aside, New Historicism apparently made Harold Bloom cranky, so I can only support it.

38/ Not necessarily related to the episode, but more reading if you are interested in this topic: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe is an interesting chronicle of an outbreak of plague a bit later (1665). One striking moment being, persuant to Jesse’s comment that even if the plague was kind of a curse from an angry deity, it was good to go to a doctor, the narrator suggests that instead of leaving town (because he has no one to watch his shop), he will stay where he is and trust in God, and his brother replies that it is stupid to stay and trust God with your life rather than leave town to save your life and trust God with your things.