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How Does the Bubonic Plague Epidemic Fit Within the Story of Increasing Globalization?

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Even before the Black Death, aka the plague, Europe had fallen on tough times: The 14th century began with a mini ice age and torrential rain, ruining crops and spreading starvation among tens of millions of serfs working hereditary land for nobles in a centuries-old feudal system overseen by the pope. Then came the plague, killing half the people across the continent

By the time the plague wound down in the latter part of the century, the world had utterly changed: The wages of ordinary farmers and craftsmen had doubled and tripled, and nobles were knocked down a notch in social status. 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.

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The Black Death was the largest demographic disaster in European history. From its arrival in Italy in late 1347 through its clockwise movement across the continent to its petering out in the Russian hinterlands in 1353, the magna pestilencia (great pestilence) killed between seventeen and twenty—eight million people. Its gruesome symptoms and deadliness have fixed the Black Death in popular imagination; moreover, uncovering the disease’s cultural, social, and economic impact has engaged generations of scholars. 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.

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Globalization is by no means a new phenomenon; transcontinental trade and the movement of people date back at least 2,000 years, to the era of the ancient Silk Road trade route. The global spread of infectious disease has followed a parallel course. Indeed, the emergence and spread of infectious disease are, in a sense, the epitome of globalization. By Roman times, world trade routes had effectively joined Europe, Asia, and North America into one giant breeding ground for microbes. Millions of Roman citizens were killed between 165 and 180 AD when smallpox finally reached Rome during the Plague of Antoninus. Three centuries later, the bubonic plague hit Europe for the first time (542–543 AD) as the Plague of Justinian. 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.

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All things considered, a historical turning point, as well as a vast human tragedy, the Black Death of 1346-53 is unparalleled in human history,” says Ole J Benedictow at History Today

It would take 200 years before Europe alone was able to replenish its population to pre-plague numbers. In addition to population losses, the world also suffered monumental setbacks in terms of labour, art, culture and the economy.

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Echenberg M. Black Death, White Medicine: Bubonic Plague and the Politics of Public Health in Colonial Senegal, 1914–1945. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann; 2002.

Miller M. Invited Discussion: Considerations for Shaping the Agenda; Presentation at the Institute of Medicine Workshop on the Impact of Globalization on Infectious Disease Emergence and Control: Exploring the Consequences and the Opportunities; Washington, D.C.. Institute of Medicine Forum on Emerging Infections; Apr 17, 2002.

Mohle-Boetani JC, Werner SB, Waterman SH, Vugia DJ. The impact of health communication and enhanced laboratory-based surveillance on detection of cyclosporiasis outbreaks in California. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2000

Timpieri R. Invited Discussion: Considerations for Shaping the Agenda; Presentation at the Institute of Medicine Workshop on the Impact of Globalization on Infectious Disease Emergence and Control: Exploring the Consequences and Opportunities; Washington, D.C.. Institute of Medicine Forum on Emerging Infections; Apr 17, 2002.

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