Oct
26
2011

Danse Macabre: Artwork Inspired by the Black Plague.
Danse Macabre: Artwork Inspired by the Black Plague.Courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons
Halloween is coming up soon and what better way to scare the tar out of everybody than with another Black Plague story.

Researchers from Germany and Canada have now determined that the pathogen existing today that infects the human population with bubonic plague is the same one that caused the horrific pandemic known as the Black Plague (aka Black Death) during the Middle Ages,

In the 14th century (1347-1351) the the plague devastated much of Europe. It was brought on by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and thought to have originated in China. Rats, infested with fleas carrying the bacteria, spread the fatal pathogen via the trade routes and across Europe, wiping out one-third of the human population. This is a conservative estimate; some claim as much as 60 percent of the population was eradicated!

Whatever the case, imagine even a third of all your acquaintances, friends, and relatives suddenly dying from what one 14th century chronicler described as “so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade death.”

And it was an extremely horrible death, to say the least, as Michael Platiensis makes clear in his writings from 1357:

“Those infected felt themselves penetrated by a pain throughout their whole bodies and, so to say, undermined. Then there developed on the thighs or upper arms a boil about the size of a lentil which the people called "burn boil". This infected the whole body, and penetrated it so that the patient violently vomited blood. This vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days, there being no means of healing it, and then the patient expired.“

[Above quoted in Johannes Nohl, The Black Death, trans. C.H. Clarke (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1926), pp. 18-20]

The Black Plague was the second of three great waves of plague that raged across Europe during historical times. The first, known historically as the Plague of Justinian, took place in the 6th century and affected the Byzantine Empire and much of Europe. The last major wave, known as the Great Plague of London, killed about 100,000 of the city’s population in 1664-65. In the two centuries that followed, waves after wave of the plague continued to devastate the European population although on a lesser scale. These outbreaks although sometimes as virulent, were often more isolated regionally or within a city and kept Europe’s population from rebounding for a good century and a half.

The plague presents itself in three ways: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. All three infections are caused by Y. pestis. With bubonic plague, the lymph nodes become painfully swollen into what are termed buboes – hence the name bubonic. Scepticemic plague, the rarest of the three forms, infects the blood. Both bubonic and scepticemic, if left untreated, result in death between 3-7 days after infection. Pneumonic is the most contagious since it infects the lungs and is easily spread through the air in a spray of water droplets. It’s also the most lethal and usually kills its victims in one to three days. Each form can present itself on its own or can progress into all three. It’s thought the Black Plague was mainly a combination of the bubonic and pneumonic forms. (The practice still used today of saying, “Bless you” after someone sneezes is a holdover from the 14th century plague) The only defense against the pandemic was avoidance of fleas and the fatally sick. Not easy to pull off when rats and the afflicted were widespread. Infected families were generally quarantined, their houses marked with a red cross, and left to fend for themselves.

The plague had a tremendous effect on European life in the Middle Ages. The Hundred Years’ War actually paused briefly in 1348 for lack of soldiers. The plague had wiped out too many of them. Economically, wages rose sharply because the workforce was also greatly reduced. Shop owners suffered because no one dared step outside the confines of their own homes, so supplies rose and prices dropped. The removal of the rotting corpses required relatives either doing it themselves and further risking infection, or paying premium prices for some other poor schlub to do it. The dead were buried as quickly as possible, often in mass graves.

In the recent research which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Johannes Krause and his colleagues extracted DNA from the tooth enamel of five corpses from one of these 14th century mass burial sites in London (under the Royal Mint!). Using the latest technology to sequence the DNA fragments, the researchers from the University of Tubingen in Germany, and McMaster University in Canada, decoded a circular genome called pPCP1 plasmid that comprises about 10,000 positions in the Y. pestis DNA. When they compared it with the genome of the pathogen’s current strain, the genetic information appeared to have changed very little over the past six centuries. (It should be noted that the researchers suspect the pathogen that occurred in the 6th century may have been a now-extinct strain of Y. pestis or one completely unrelated to bubonic plague.)

So, that means the very same nasty contagion – the one that terrorized and devastated so much of Europe for so many centuries in the Middle Ages - is still with us today. Luckily, the bubonic plague can be held at bay with antibodies if treated in time. But what happens if Yersinia pestis mutates into a strain against which current antibodies are useless? If that doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, I don’t know what will.

Happy Halloween!

SOURCES and LINKS
Scientific Computing story
The Black Plague by Dr. Skip Knox, Boise State
Plague symptons and signs – in case you get it
Nifty Black Death quiz – thanks Liza!

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Thanks for the interesting article! I was curious when I read it though; aren't vaccines weakened viruses? If the bubonic plague is caused by a bacteria, then a vaccine wouldn't work. Do we have antibiotics, then, to fight the plague? And what about our increased use of antibiotics? Will our antibiotics still be effective against the plague when the next outbreak rolls around?

posted on Sat, 11/05/2011 - 1:41pm
mdr's picture
mdr says:

Yes, thank you for pointing that out. I made an error using the term vaccine when I meant antibodies. I have corrected that now.

posted on Mon, 11/07/2011 - 5:24pm

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