The Great Mortality
By John Kelly (2005)
“Upon arrival… [the empress] found [our] youngest… dead,” wrote Ioannes, in his only known statement about the death of his thirteen-year-old son, Andronikos. After the boy’s death the emperor lost his taste for the world. Abdicating the throne, Ioannes retired to the solitude of a monk’s cell, to pray and mourn and grieve for the remainder of his life.
After following Y. pestis from its origins to the present moment, the chronicler wrote, “And the plague lasted until…”—then put down his pen, apparently expecting to pick it up again after the disease had burned itself out.
Second greatest catastrophe in the human record, after WWII.
… ecological upheaval in the form of droughts, floods, and earthquakes can play a role in igniting plague, usually because such events dislodge remote wild rodent communities, the natural home of Y. pestis, from their habitats and drive them toward human settlements in search of food and shelter.
Fourteenth century Europe: overcrowded, tight on resources, malnourished population, at war.
- Bubonic plague: transmitted by flea bites, mortality of 60% (untreated)
- Pneumonic plague: person to person, 95-100% mortality (untreated)
- Septicemic plague: 100% mortality (untreated)
In some localities, the killings were preceded by show trials; in other cases, there were no legal proceedings—sometimes not even an accusation. Jews were killed simply as a prophylactic measure.
In plague, fear acts as a solvent on human relationships; it makes everyone an enemy and everyone an isolate.
And everywhere survivors luxuriated in the sudden abundance of a commodity that only a few months earlier had seemed so fragile, so perishable—time: wonderful, glorious, infinite time.