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The Black Death was an epidemic episode that took place across almost all the northern hemisphere during the fourteenth century. As far as history tells us, it was the most perilous moment in the history of mankind because never before or afterwards, any kind of danger put the survival of our species at peril like this particularly virulent case of bubonic plague did. Al in all, conservative estimates speak of the extermination of about 50% of the population in these areas, which means a mass extinction of humankind in all force.
It seems that it all started around 1333 with massive drought, earthquakes and floods in central Asia, followed by famine and an incipient global climate change – at this time, for example, Greenland became colder than it was before -; the microbes responsible for the plague, called "Pasteurella pestis" are normally carried by a flea species identified with the obscure name of "Xenopsylla cheopsis", which is an external parasite of furry animals such as rabbits and rodents, and to a lesser degree, by "Pulex irritans", another species that attacks humans as well.
The environmental changes that took place in central Asia caused massive migrations of animals, including rodents. Changes in their habitats, a probable increase in their reproductive rate and a closer contact with humans began causing the incipient plague. From there, it invaded China and India; later on, it reached the Middle East, and by 1346, people in Europe were well aware of what was happening to their not-always-loved Muslim neighbors. It took the plague only some time more to reach Europe, beginning with Italy, France and Spain, according to chronicles, the wholesale killing that ensued reached averages of about 1.000 deaths per day in any town or city big enough.
Bocaccio left us with the Decameron as a result of the plague, and Petrarch even wrote that the future generations – that is, us – would be very fortunate not to see what they saw, and believe that what their wrote for generations are just tales instead of real history, and while indeed some texts may be exaggerated, evidence indicates that it produced mass destruction to an almost unimaginable scale.
The impact on society was such that things changed for ever, starting with the social order and the until then unquestionable faith in God and the Church. Even Muslims questioned their beliefs: many Moorish soldiers fighting in the Spanish peninsula, suffering the effects of the plague before it actually reached northern Spain, where their Christian adversaries stood their ground, deserted their own faith because they believed that Allah had utterly abandoned them.
Not for long: it took just a couple of months until the plague began killing Muslims, Jews and Christians without any discrimination there and almost elsewhere. Jews, especially, were made scapegoats of the whole business by lack of any other explanation; so the first pogroms started even as the Pope himself kept telling people that they were innocent. This persecution was particularly violent in France and Germany; in England it was not, but just because they had exterminated their own Jews some years before.
This epidemic force many common individuals to question the status quo in which they lived: God seemed to have abandoned everyone, and royals, nobles and cleircs appeared as vulnerable as anybody else. Some began to wonder; questioning the position of the Church and the Feudal system soon followed, and while it was not an immediate effect, this did impact on the end of the middle ages, the fall of the feudal system and many of the changes that Western culture saw since the XV century. Ideas such as equality, freedom, respect for private property and so on would have been impossible in a different context. From then on, the social system that had existed in Europe for a thousand years entered a kind of ergosphere.
Only the king of Poland, a country that miraculously was almost completely spared from the Black Death, offered asylum to the Jews of Europe. Unfortunately, their descendants were those still living there when Hitler’s armies took the country by assault, in 1939, finishing what the plague and the credulous French and Germans couldn’t.
The Black Death scenario should be studied carefully as an extreme survival situation among extremes; it has to bee seen as an apocalyptic event in which even parents deserted their infected children. It can tell us a lot about human nature and the limits that social barriers, the law and dignity may have. In this world of renewed mass destruction hazards and lunatic leaders, of environmental changes and global warming capable of triggering similar events, understanding even the darkest corners of human nature could turn to be our only life saver.
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