Nothing Goes Viral Like A Virus

The plague killed millions in the 14th Century. But if you survived, life was never better.

The port of Messina, Sicily receiving ships from the Black Sea
What can disruption teach us? Does it destroy or does it transform? Can it revive us? The 14th Century shares its secrets.

In October 1347, twelve Genoese merchant ships pulled into port at Messina, Sicily, bearing a ghostly appearance. You see, most of the sailors on board were dead. The Sicilians called it “black death,” so named because they were returning from the Crimean seaport of Caffa on the Black Sea.

Mongols from Central Asia on their usual rampage through Europe laid siege to the city and brought the infection with them. Caffa’s frightened citizenry hid behind ramparts so high the Mongols couldn’t scale them.

So they weaponized the virus by hurling infected bodies over the walls. When the ships departed, the sailors brought the contagion with them like it was cargo, and it infected Sicily and all of Europe.

Before it would run its course, the Plague would kill 35 percent of the known world and nearly half the population of England. It was an equal opportunity disruptor sparing no one, neither king nor queen and especially, not children.

The symptoms of the Bubonic Plague are the Medieval origin of a child’s cry of “booboo,” referring to swollen glands (technically called buboes) that ooze into body sores. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, notes “Patients develop sudden onset of fever, headache, chills, and weakness and one or more swollen, tender and painful lymph nodes.” When a mother asks her child if a ‘booboo’ hurts, she has no idea how much history is being recalled.

The Plague gave birth to one of the world’s greatest disruptions.

Unfortunately, it took science hundreds of years to figure it out. Antony van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch lens grinder, built a simple microscope in 1671. The combination of the instrument and his superb vision enabled him to see bacteria and single cell organisms. His microscope showed the world Oriental Rat fleas from Central Asia preyed on the local rat population which lived on merchant ships. When the rats died, fleas moved to human hosts. Voila, the plague.

A person contracting the disease has a useful life of less than a week. There are antibiotics but no vaccine, even today.

The European Plague was sharply followed by the first anti-business movement. Ignorance stepped in as it still does, and blame was placed primarily on foreigners, minority groups like Jews and gypsies, the wickedness of society, and of course, commerce.

The trauma suffered by innocents blamed for the spread of the disease was no less tragic than the disease itself. Except it could have been avoided.

The world caved in.

Those who lived fled, and those who stayed buried the dead behind, and that was the rhythm of life. People were convinced touching someone or their clothing would spread the disease, so friends, family, and even children were shunned. Any physical affection was forbidden.

If you were an urban dweller, you sniffed perfume as you walked the streets, hiding the smell of death decay.

This was disruption on a cataclysmic, global scale.

Or was it?

The Black Death was a time of unimaginable anguish. But like most cataclysmic events, there would be a sequel. As society turned on its head, life changed in countless ways, which if you survived, turned out to be a better thing.

Why? It has something to do with our power to transform in the face of total disruption.

The good news about disruption.

The plague disrupted a cherished tradition of the wealthy elite, the Medieval caste system. Peasants felt somehow liberated and revolted against powerful feudal lords. They, in turn, had to be kinder and gentler, pay better wages, as the employee population dwindled and farms were abandoned.

Villages emptied, people moved to new places where they weren’t welcome or didn’t understand the language or customs. This led to wariness by locals who had historically never met anyone outside of their clan. So people learned new languages and customs to assimilate. As fear of disease turned into fear of unfriendly strangers, it became safe to embrace again. Handshakes were desirable as a way to prove you weren’t carrying a weapon.

Fewer people meant higher living standards. Estates inherited by a handful of survivors created a more wide spread landed gentry. A surplus of empty land and farms made bargains available to those who now had the cash to spend. In our terms, the great Medieval estates became tear downs, were consolidated or went condo.

The newest status symbol wasn’t the coachman and a fancy carriage, but life itself. Hierarchical society flattened out, Not only was life mobile due to moving around, but people’s status became mobile, too. You were no longer what you were born but who you might become.

Disruption can make us stronger.

As the great German philosopher Nietzsche pointed out, “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” and it also has the power to transform.

It did both to the Europeans living in the era. We need to weigh this, of course, against the devastation if we are to have a complete picture of their society. The plague wasn’t anything one would wish on civilization at any time, but with great suffering it brought great and useful changes.

If you like Saturday Night Live, you can thank the Plague. The impetus for literary comedy was Boccaccio, who wrote the Decameron to distract people from troubles during the time of the disease.

His message wasn’t aimed at courtiers but at commoners, as they were the ones suffering. Which is why he broke with tradition and wrote in the language of the street, Florentine not Latin, so everyone could enjoy it.

If you enter a hospital with pneumonia, the Plague began the medical practice of isolating people with specific symptoms long before we understood infectious disease. Before then, everyone was lumped together to pass on germs back and forth.

If you enjoy reading things in English (vs. Latin) or being middle class, even democracy itself, and humanism, which teaches us to rearrange mankind’s here and now so we lead better lives, then you owe a debt of gratitude to the Plague — or more accurately, the transformation it led the survivors to make.

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, the first work of comedy, written in Florentine vernacular (not Latin) bringing literature to the masses

Disruption will always be with us.

We don’t worry about the Bubonic Plague any longer (there are still a few hundred reported cases a year).

Society eventually recovered and came to grips with the pestilence, but until sanity resumed, it caused so much destruction to innocents that it could be referred to as a second plague.

We will continue to experience global disruptions, especially in the form of immigration or disease or terror. As the Medievals taught us, take time to understand, analyze, and persevere against ignorance, arrogance, and resistance to truth. How we react to disruption can have dire consequences greater than disruption itself.

By learning the troubling lessons of the past, perhaps we can skip a few.