How Does the Bubonic Plague Epidemic Fit Within the Story of Increasing Globalization?
The church’s hold on society was damaged, and Western Europe’s feudal system was on its way out — an inflection point that opened the way to the Reformation and the even greater worker gains of the Industrial Revolution and beyond.
Despite growing understanding of the Black Death’s effects, definitive assessment of its role as historical watershed remains a work in progress. In spite of enduring fascination with the Black Death, even the identity of the disease behind the epidemic remains a point of controversy. Aware that fourteenth—century eyewitnesses described a disease more contagious and deadlier than bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis), the bacillus traditionally associated with the Black Death, dissident scholars in the 1970s and 1980s proposed typhus or anthrax or mixes of typhus, anthrax, or bubonic plague as the culprit. The new millennium brought other challenges to the Black Death—bubonic plague link, such as an unknown and probably unidentifiable bacillus, an Ebola—like haemorrhagic fever or, at the pseudoscientific fringes of academia, a disease of interstellar origin. Proponents of Black Death as bubonic plague have minimized differences between modern bubonic and the fourteenth—century plague through painstaking analysis of the Black Death’s movement and behavior and by hypothesizing that the fourteenth—century plague was a hypervirulent strain of bubonic plague, yet bubonic plague nonetheless. DNA analysis of human remains from known Black Death cemeteries was intended to eliminate doubt but inability to replicate initially positive results has left uncertainty. New analytical tools used and new evidence marshaled in this lively controversy have enriched understanding of the Black Death while underscoring the elusiveness of certitude regarding phenomena many centuries past.
It returned in full force as the Black Death in the fourteenth century, when a new route for overland trade with China provided rapid transit for flea-infested furs from plague-ridden Central Asia.Even before the development of world trade routes, however, human pathogens had experienced two major bonanzas. First, when people lived as hunter-gatherers, they were constantly on the move, making it difficult for microbes to keep up with their human hosts. Once people started living as farmers, they began residing in larger numbers in the same place—and were in daily contact with their accumulating feces—for extended periods of time. Second, the advent of cities brought even larger numbers of people together under even worse sanitary conditions. In the Middle Ages, when people threw human waste out their windows in England, they were said to be “blessing the passerby.” Now, two millennia later, human pathogens are experiencing yet another bonanza from a new era of globalization characterized by faster travel over greater distances and worldwide trade. Although some experts mark the fall of the Berlin Wall as the beginning of this new era, others argue that it is not so new. Even a hundred years ago, at the turn of the nineteenth century, the tremendous impact of increased trade and travel on infectious disease was evident in the emergence of plague epidemics in numerous port cities around the world. As Echenberg (2002) notes, plague epidemics in colonial African cities were closely tied to the increased communication, travel, and trade that accompanied the advent of the steamship. The economic and social impacts of these epidemics were profound. In Johannesburg, in what is now South Africa, the occurrence of plague led to the relocation of black residents in an effort to remove what the white colonists believed was the source of the disease. At about the same time, the influenza pandemic killed many millions of people worldwide.
In addition to population losses, the world also suffered monumental setbacks in terms of labour, art, culture and the economy.
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