Pandemics have accompanied mankind constantly, reports of them appeared in ancient descriptions.
Until the 18th century, people suffered from epidemics much more often than we might imagine. Infant mortality was very high, common diseases, from which pharmaceuticals are saved today, were fatal until recently. In addition, modern man understands the causes of disease, in contrast to people of the past, who built many erroneous assumptions on this score. The very nature of the epidemics of the past was different from that of today. Even in the days of Antiquity in the 5th century BC. e. there have been outbreaks of tetanus, mumps and malaria. Since vaccination did not exist, these diseases were all fatal.
During the Peloponnesian War in Athens in 430 BC. e. a disease broke out, which was called the plague. In three years, a third of the population perished, among them was the famous Pericles, a politician and military leader. Today it has been established that it was typhoid fever. People in past eras took epidemics for granted. Plague, dysentery and other epidemics broke out periodically, but if it was not a pandemic such as the Black Death, society had a cultural immunity to such phenomena.
In 541, the first real pandemic broke out – the Justinian plague, in which 100 million people died
The causative agent was the same as that of the Black Death – the bacillus Yersinia pestis, which was carried by fleas and rats.
Something similar happened before, but then epidemics did not turn into pandemics before they could spread – the infected people died quickly, not having time to spread the infection further, and the disease disappeared by itself. But they managed to transport Justinian’s plague from Egyptian Alexandria to other harbors, before the whole team died from it.
The plague reached Constantinople, killing 40 percent of the population. According to some reports, about half of the then population of the world died from this pandemic. From time to time, it still flared up in separate places for two centuries, and then seemed to freeze to wake up in the 1340s as the Black Death.
Even Justinian’s plague faded before the Black Death
By that time, the population had grown greatly, transport had become developed and fast, which contributed to its spreading almost all over the world. If the plague affects one village, killing all of its inhabitants, then if none of the infected has managed to leave for another inhabited place, it freezes. But the increased number of people and the ease of their movement created a favorable environment for the disease.
It all started with ships that came from the East to the western harbors. Their teams were either dead or dying from an unknown infection. The survivors, if they were able, unloaded the ships, communicating with people on the dock and in the city, and thus the plague marched on. When the Black Death unfolded in all its might in Europe, the dead per day numbered in the hundreds, especially in the big cities. Some fled from the cities to the countryside, hoping in this way to hide from a danger for which they did not understand. People were buried in mass graves, huge ditches, somehow covered with earth. And there were no tools or knowledge to understand that plague is an infectious disease. It was attributed to the punishment of God or the machinations of the devil. Soon, no one was worried about the dead – there were too many deaths. People, in spite of their inclination to unite in the face of danger, were forced to move away from each other so as not to get sick, and died alone.
The belief in God, on which the picture of the world of medieval man rested, was also shaken. The fear of death caused anger directed at the clergy, who by their actions – prayers and processions of the cross – only contributed to the further spread of the infection. However, it was the representatives of the clergy who were both doctors and lawyers in the Middle Ages, they had to be contacted for weddings and funerals, which was especially important during a pandemic.
The priests and monks suffered losses no less than other estates, and as a result, the Pope gave mass absolution and allowed citizens to perform the rituals themselves, due to the lack of clerics. He also lowered the age at which it was possible to rise to the next level of the church hierarchy, which led to a large number of young careerists, unprincipled and poorly educated. As a result, the authority of the church in the time that followed the plague greatly weakened, which ultimately led to the reforms of Martin Luther.
The fallout from the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of 75 million people worldwide, has affected an entire generation. Some fell into mysticism and watched visions, others lost faith in everything and embarked on all serious things – debauchery, murder and robbery. They also looked for scapegoats, the ideal target was the Jews, who were blamed for all mortal sins, in addition to the spread of the disease.
After the first, most violent outbreak of the Black Death, she returned several more times, about once every two years.
When the infection subsided, life changed dramatically. The fields became forests again, there was no longer a need to feed as many people as before the plague. The survivors settled in the homes of the dead. The peasants, who were afraid to protest against the clergy and their feudal lords, found courage and voice. Ideas of equality and account of merit arose, and not only of noble origin.
Another known pandemic, the Spanish flu, broke out in 1918-1920
By 1920, the death toll was about 100 million, according to epidemiologists. But the society was much more advanced scientifically and medically, which did not prevent the pandemic from breaking out. Its spread in the last months of the First World War was facilitated by unsanitary conditions, refugee and resettlement camps, and high speed of movement of vehicles.
Dan Carlin, author of the bestselling book The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments from the Collapse of the Bronze Age to Nuclear Strikes, is confident that our civilization is not immune to a second pandemic. It is not unshakable and unsinkable, and an ordinary virus or microbe can become the culprit of its decline.
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