Salon: While the COVID-19 pandemic has been an inflection point of modern history, it is nowhere close to being the deadliest pandemic in human history. That dubious distinction belongs to the infamous “Black Death,” a bubonic plague that swept through Europe and the Near East in the mid-14th century.
Like COVID-19, the bubonic plague was a terrible way to die, but with very different symptoms. The most notorious were the dreaded buboes (hence ‘bubonic plague’), severe inflammations of the lymph nodes that oozed pus and broke out over the groin, armpits and neck.
A victim’s skin and flesh would eventually turn black and rot, although long before this happened they would experience intense nausea, vomiting, fever, headaches and aching joints. Within days — or, at most, a couple weeks — the infected person would die.
One might imagine that a disease this terrible would have been burned into humanity’s collective consciousness. Indeed, the Black Death did have a profound impact on our day-to-day lives, influencing everything from the professionalization of medicine and the decline of feudalism to works of art like Giovanni Boccaccio’s book “The Decameron” and Ingmar Bergman’s movie “The Seventh Seal.”
Yet the Black Death is not often mentioned in reference or in contrast to the COVID-19 pandemic — even though there are important parallels. Perhaps most tellingly, both diseases fueled scapegoating and mass hysteria because of widespread ignorance.
While the scientific illiteracy in the COVID-19 era is fueled by a mixture of motivated reasoning, political bias and historically-based concerns about institutional trustworthiness, inhabitants of the Middle Ages lacked modern humanity’s sophisticated knowledge about biology. Read more…