Word by Word: A Trip on the Wayback Machine
Are you trying to forget the tumult in the world or are you checking the news every hour to see where the coronavirus (COVID-19) is now?? It’s not an exaggeration to say that many people are on edge. I went to the grocery store yesterday afternoon and I swear it looked like a horde of human-sized locusts had sucked up most of the store. No soap, no toilet paper, bread, milk, or peanut butter, and oddly no bananas. Shoppers looked tense. Cashiers looked exhausted. Meanwhile, cases are multiplying across the U.S.
So far, my county has escaped the virus. However, counties to the east and west of us have reported confirmed patients. Today, the governor closed all the public schools in the state. Our new entertainment venue downtown, which was to have its grand opening this weekend, has cancelled all concerts. The five major universities in this area have decided to hold online classes. Here at home, we’re stocking up on work books, crafts, art supplies – anything to keep the kids busy – and food. Toilet paper? Check. Sanitizer? Check. Heavy duty sanitizing spray for doorknobs, etc.? Check. Thing One and Thing Two and I will be sheltering in place while Daughter works to bring home the bacon. And we’ll be watching the news which seems to be changing every five minutes at this point.
In a sense we’re lucky. Think about it – we knew it was coming, didn’t we, because we’ve got television and newspapers, and even trusty medical sites on the Internet. But what if we didn’t have those methods of communication? What then? Our news would come by word of mouth, not a very trustworthy source.
Well, let’s take a ride on the Wayback Machine to look at a similar situation in history. We won’t get out of the machine though – no sense subjecting ourselves to the Great Mortality, a.k.a. the Great Pestilence, a.k.a. the Black Death, a.k.a., yep, you guessed it -- ominous music, please -- The Bubonic Plague.
I’m a nerd and proud of it. I’ve been studying the Bubonic Plague for as long as I can remember. When I started The Margaret Chronicles, I knew one thing: Plague would take over the last chapters. The main character Meg is going to be seriously affected by the catastrophe. She gets word from colleagues that a great mortality has come from the East and is sweeping through Italy and France. She knows it’s only a matter of time before it arrives in England. She tries to warn the king, Edward III, but he assures her it will never cross the English Sea.
The medieval outbreak of plague must have been an incredibly terrifying moment for anyone living at that time. Enabled by trade between Italians merchants and Mongols from the steppes of Asia, it spread across Europe from 1346 to 1353. When it was all over, the Black Death had killed between 50 to 70 percent of the human population, an estimated 50 million people. Yep, you read that right: 50 million people.
Black Death skeletons unearthed by the Crossrail excavation, London.
In England, plague arrived with trading ships landing at present-day Weymouth in Dorset in June 1348. Slowly the disease spread its way inland until by late autumn it was firmly entrenched in London. Archaeological evidence from London’s Crossrail project suggests that at first the dead were buried in coffins. As the disease got worse the bodies were placed without coffins in mass pits. In other areas of England, plague pits contain bodies thrown on top of each other, suggesting these were burials at the height of the pandemic.
The Black Death did not discriminate as to its victims. Men, women, children, old and young were caught in its wide swath. For instance, many wealthy convents, friaries, and monasteries across Europe lost more than half of their members. Some closed down permanently.
Now, no one is saying that the current coronavirus pandemic is like the Black Death. But there are some similarities. Both come from animal-to-human transmission. In the case of the Black Death, the disease is present in certain animal populations and their fleas. Fleas that harbor the bacteria are suspected of spreading the plague through human populations. Both plague and Covid-19 traveled quickly through the mechanism of transportation, first through the Mongol empire and Italian merchants trading on the Silk Road in the 14th century, and today through modern air travel and cruise ships.
There are important differences between the two diseases. The plague was caused by Yersinia pestis bacterium, not a virus. There are three kinds of plague: septicemic or systemic infection, bubonic or infection of the lymph nodes, and pneumonic or respiratory. While coronavirus spreads from person to person, only the pneumonic form of plague is spread this way. The mortality rate is also quite different: around 3.3% of those infected for coronavirus versus around 50% for untreated bubonic plague and 100% for untreated pneumonic or septicemic plague.
Plague reoccurred in varying degrees of fierceness from the 14th to the 18th century, and occurs sporadically today, more recently in Colorado and Madagascar. Thankfully, we have antibiotics for it.
Left, plague clothing being burned.
So, let’s hop in the Wayback Machine and return to the present day. (I know you’d rather stay on the machine and go a little way into the future when all this is over, right?). Sorry, no can do. I’m a history geek not a futurist.
Let’s face it. We’re all in anxiety mode right now. It’s an everchanging landscape of concerns. So, you know what? Let’s do this. Let’s focus on each other and do what we can to take care of one another. Check in with elderly or immune-suppressed people or the sick-bound in your apartment or neighborhood. Do they need food? Medicine? Do they have pets? Do they need dog or cat food? In my town, neighbors on the Internet site “Nextdoor” have already started a page for those needing help.
Also, let’s not forget local independent bookstores which are especially vulnerable to the economic impact of a pandemic crisis. Please think of them if you are ordering books to read. Some small bookstores are already closing. Others are offering to bring books to the curb or deliver them to customers' homes. Order on the bookstore web page or call them directly. They’ll be happy to work with you.
The point is, we’re all in this together, and we’re all tense and concerned. We need to focus on each other and do what we can to take care of one another. This too will pass, but we’ve got some rough days ahead.
In the meantime, spring is coming. Here in the South, daffodils are blooming. So are tulips, redbuds, peach and apple trees, and those amazing hyacinths with their astonishing mindboggling smell that makes you go "ahhhhh”! The Canada geese that live here year-round now are showing signs of nesting. It’s a wonderful joyful season. Whenever you can, focus on the beauty.
Until next time take care, stay healthy, and wash your hands. Oh, and hug the people you love (without using your hands or getting too close or . . .?) Or, oh, hell, just blow them a kiss.
P.S. If you want to read fiction about the Bubonic Plague, try these books:
Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich
All Fall Down by Sally Nicholls (YA novel)
The Last Hours by Minette Walters
The Plague Tales, The Burning Road, The Physician's Tale (The Plague Trilogy) by Ann Benson.
Plague by C.C. Humphreys
Plague Land: A Novel(Somershill Manor Mysteries) by S. D. Sykes
And, of course, the original collection of Plague Tales: The Decameron by Boccaccio
The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly
The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History by Ole J. Benedictow
An excellent place for information:
For unique footage showing the excavation of a mass burial pit: