Front wall and entrance to chapel in Garmisch showing plague art, ca. 1640.
In this epoch of rampant plague (Covid-Delta variant) it is useful to ponder a much earlier plague which laid waste to one third the population of western Europe in the middle ages. When we visited Bavaria, Germany (Garmisch, Partenkirchen, Oberammergau,) in May, 2013, we observed multifold echoes resonant from this horrific bubonic plague, 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 the twin town of Garmisch-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. http://www.brane-space.blogspot.com/2013/04/time-slips1-flights-of-fancy-or.html )
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.)
A few days later, our German friends Reinhardt and Elli drove us to Oberammagau. There they pointed out engraved iron works displaying other unsettling images of the Plague "Reaper". These were often accompanied by prayers or other pleas to spare the town. Reinhardt related that the plague toll was fearsome with so many corpses piled up in the streets and few places to put them. Most had to be carted away to be incinerated in open pits.
Then, as now, people often didn't get it and shrugged off warnings to stay away from certain areas - like the markets where the rats congregated- and so brought the plague home to infect the household. "Schlimm!" Reinhardt would exclaim, "Diese leute sind dumpkofen!"
Recalling his words, "These folks are idiots!" brings to mind the tens of thousands of blithering morons now clamoring for "escape" and pursuit of their "freedom" in the Trump era U.S, even as Covid-19 deaths soar past 670,000. Also, projections now are that we'll double that by the end of August because of the total lack of leadership, and the idiocy of opening up the economy too soon. It is as if these daft dummies don't grasp the essential biology of the virus, or that it doesn't give a damn about their precious "freedom".
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).
It's difficult for most of us today to contemplate such grisly conditions as I described ever arising again,. but who knows? What we do know is the coronavirus has the potential to mutate - though evidently not as fast as flu viruses - and these mutations may bring more severe symptoms than we've documented to date. (And that is as we're still learning about the disease's current progression and attendant current symptoms, including: "silent hypoxia", "Covid toe" and severe acute respiratory distress syndrome in children.
The tragic irony now is that the U.S. doesn't appear to learn from past history - tracking back even just to the Spanish flu pandemic 100 years ago. Under the criminal administration of Trump, which has rushed economic reopening, many tens of thousands more Americans will die by the end of August. Despite that, Trump is prepared to abandon his coronavirus task force by the fall, in order to "focus on the states reopening". Thereby giving a measure of the Trump cabal's callous dimensions and total lack of any moral compass, placing Trump's re-election bid over the rising daily casualties.
In Italy, meanwhile, we have learned (WSJ yesterday, p A8) the government is steadfast in that "it doesn't wish to be rushed" and this despite "much of corporate Italy chafing at the slow pace of Italy's reopening.". Further, like in the U.S. (based on polls, 63% now concerned about too early reopening): "Most people agree that reopening too early is more dangerous than waiting too long." But they are blessed with a real leader who places their welfare foremost, as opposed to his own ego and one track narcissist mind to get re-elected. In the words of Economic Development Minister Stefano Patuanelli (Ibid.):
"The Italian economy can't afford a second lockdown. The gradual approach and the possibility in the coming days for regions to expand the reopening based on epidemiological data is the only possible approach."
Sadly, this core lesson is one that the Trump reprobates have not learned and likely never will. Instead they have turned the nation over to their own corruption in the wake of Covid-19's depredations. This is given the virus can incubate for more than 2 weeks amidst millions of "silent carriers". Projections now are for the equivalent of a 9/11 each day by June. Whereas Saudi terrorists were responsible for the original 9/11, Donald J. Trump will be responsible for the succession to follow, on account of doing nothing to halt the SARS- Cov-2 virus. From that point of view, Trump can be said to be an accomplice of the terrorist virus now running amuck among us.