Monday, July 1, 2013

Visits to Plague Towns in Germany - Some Unsettling Sights

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Top: Engraved ironwork photographed by me near town center in Oberammergau, beseeching deliverance from the Black Death. Bottom: St. Sebastian's Chapel in Partenkirchen, Germany,  photographed by me while visiting in May, 2013.  (All rights reserved) Its cemetery held the bodies of an estimated 1, 100 plague victims in unmarked graves.

In the mid 1600s, the plague (Black Death) ravaged large areas of Germany obliterating perhaps a quarter million lives. All snuffed out, and most under horrific conditions of suffering as well as social alienation, exclusion. How could it be otherwise when it was seen what the disease did to the human body, so no one in his or her right mind wanted to tempt fate and contract it.

According to Sean Martin, the author of 'The Black Death' (2007) what we now refer to as 'the Black Death' was actually the second pandemic of the plague - the first occurring over 527- 565, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian, and hence called 'the Plague of Justinian'. Unlike the Black Death, Justinian's plague is believed to have come from East Africa.

Meanwhile, the Black Death in Europe is generally traced to the Mongol hordes who poured across the Steppes westward and raced toward the Black Sea eager to seize ever more territory and booty as they plundered their way along well known trade routes. Ultimately meeting resistance from the Europeans (near the city of Kaffa), the Mongols were at the time more beset by the Plague (Bubonic) in their midst. With their corpses mounting and collective will crumbling they made a last resort effort to use catapults to hurl the plague -ravaged corpses of their comrades into the middle of the city. (This scenario is also confirmed by Martin, op. cit., p. 25). This is perhaps the first known instance of human biological warfare, albeit crude!

According to Martin (ibid.):

"In the confined environment of a walled city, the plague quickly did its work. No matter how fast the Genoese merchants disposed of the bodies of the Khan's troops (by dumping them in the Black Sea), they couldn't out run the pace of the disease. They took to their boats and fled.  Within a few days they would have realized they had unwittingly brought the plague back with them."

According to Martin, the Black Death is "traditionally thought to be a mixture of bubonic, septicaemic, and pneumonic plague" and he speculates on some unnamed 'third factor' that may have made it even more virulent. In the bubonic plague, the lymphatic system is attacked generating boil-like black eruptions ('buboes') the size of oranges. The growths are hideous and painful to the touch and can appear anywhere from the neck, to the armpits and groin....but often most where the victim was first bitten.

As time goes on, the person vomits repeatedly, has a high fever and the buboes themselves make 'gurgling' sounds and the potential to erupt. In 60% of the time when they are untreated the person perishes, often with his or her body peppered by black buboes - hence the term, 'Black Death'. Vomiting itself, accompanied by high fever, is often the sign that the disease has become septicaemic ....non-stop watery diarrhea follows with black, bruise-like discolorations appearing on the skin, just before the hapless victim expires.

Pneumonic or pulmonary plague occurs when the plague bacillus misses the lymphatics and settles in the lungs instead. The most frequent symptom is the violent expectoration of blood. The problem? WIth each cough-released stream of bloody sputum, the plague bacilli are released as well - resulting in airborne transmission.

The target flea for the Yersinias pestis bacterium is Xenopsylla cheopsis. Once it infects this flea, Yersinias' tendency is to keep on multiplying until it eventually totally blocks the flea's oesophagus making the critter chronically thirsty. The flea must then seek blood sources. Since rats are the most prolific, and especially at the times of the plague bred relentlessly because of sewage and garbage strewn all about, the fleas seek out these beasties first. When one dies, they jump to another, and have no qualms about choosing humans as the next best source to quench their thirst.

Of course, none of this was known at the time the Plague ravaged Germany from 1633- 1670. Also, given the advance of scientific knowledge had not yet accounted for bacterial existence, blame was most often based on "supernatural" or "spiritual" attributes. I.e. blaming people who were likely not pious enough, or committed foul deeds, or were miscreants in some other fashion, e.g. "witches", atheists, heretics or ....Jews. In many regions, alas, Jewish populations were blamed for the plague's spread, part and parcel of the misbegotten German Völkisch tradition (which also gave rise to the Passion Play at Oberammergau).

When we visited Germany (Oberammergau, Partenkirchen) in May we observed multifold echoes resonant from the horrific plague past, most often engraved for posterity - or paintings-  as on church or chapel walls. For example, at St. Sebastian's chapel (see image) just two blocks down from our hotel in Partenkirchen, one whole wall is decorated with the image of the Reaper slaying the people of the town. The Black Death did take a huge toll and no one there seemed to know how many but some guessed "in the thousands".

We ventured into the small cloistered chapel and sat in its rear most row, taking in the fetid odor of rank age, and trying to imagine conditions ca. 1634-35 when it may have been packed with the faithful desperately seeking to make some kind of bargain with the Almighty to be spared. (We were most careful not to dally too long in our ruminations, lest we found ourselves caught in a time slip, e.g. )

After ten minutes or so we exited the rear of the chapel and walked outside to find a green expanse of about an acre with a small notice that this ground (extending behind the chapel)  formed a "cemetery". Oddly, there were no grave markers. Evidently, at least 1, 100 plague victims were simply buried in unmarked graves. Likely these victims made up the faifthful of the small congregation, while others ....e.g. unbelievers, witches, or Jews who perished, simply had their bodies consigned to huge funeral pyres - which actually manifested throughout Europe during the Black Death. (Europe lost an estimated one-third of its then population.)

In Oberammagau, engraved iron works displayed other unsettling images of the Plague Reaper, and often accompanied by prayers or other pleas to spare the town.

It's difficult for most of us today to contemplate such grisly conditions as I described above ever arising again,. but who knows? We are rightly outraged at the hidden mass surveillance of our government spy agencies, but nobody is worried (yet) about the hidden labs which retain some of the most vile beasties ever known "on ice" - for possible biological warfare: Smallpox, monkey pox, anthrax, Ebola virus, H1N1 Spanish flu, Avian influenza, and oh yes, the plague in both bubonic and pneumonic forms.

Let's hope none of them, especially in weaponized form, ever escape, or we may well find out just what the pitiful people of Germany did during their own pestilence nearly 500 years ago.

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