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Catastrophic contributions to modernity

"Catastrophic contributions to modernity" Continued...

Although the weather returned to normal that summer, the misery continued, because people had been so weakened, so much of the seed stock had been eaten, and even the horses and oxen used for plowing had been consumed. By the time the famine ended in 1325, perhaps 10 percent of the population had died of starvation and starvation-related diseases. Even then, although the famine was over, agricultural production continued to decline because of bad weather. Grain yields can be measured in terms of the ratio of seeds of grain harvested to seeds planted. In about 1200 the ratio for wheat was 5 to 1; by 1330 it had fallen to about 1.5 to 1. Barley fell from 10 to 1 to about 3 to 1 during the same period. Rye fell from about 4 to 1 to less than 2 to 1. It barely paid to farm until new, more productive varieties, better suited to shorter growing seasons, were developed. (By the sixteenth century the ratio for these three grains had risen to 7 to 1.)

With colder weather came more severe storms. The worst were enormous gales that drove tidal waves onto the western Atlantic shores, drowning tens of thousands. In 1282 storm-driven waves broke through the barrier coastal dunes of Holland, creating an inland sea extending about sixty miles from the coast and about thirty miles wide. Known as the Zuiderzee, it continued to expand during new storms. In 1287 a new immersion drowned an estimated fifty to eighty thousand Dutch; a flood in 1421 destroyed seventy-two villages and drowned another ten thousand.

Meanwhile, far fewer boats were reaching Iceland from Norway and Denmark, and no boats were going to or from Greenland—the last Viking boat visited Greenland in 1406, and then only because it had been blown off course. Since Greenland had no forests, the Greenland Vikings could not build boats or even repair them. Unable to leave, and unable to grow grain in the deteriorating climate, the Greenland Viking population was wiped out by the end of the fifteenth century.

Still another catastrophe arrived in October 1347, when a galley from Cairo docked in the Sicilian port of Messina. On board were a number of rats, all of them with fleas. The Black Death had come to Europe.

The Black Death

The Black Death was the bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis). (Although this identification was long disputed, recent analysis of human skeletons settled the debate.) Bubonic plague is carried by fleas that are borne by rats; humans become infected when they are bitten by a flea with the disease. There has been a long controversy over whether the plague can be directly transmitted from one human to another or whether the disease always requires a flea bite. The consensus is that direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected person possibly can transmit the disease to another person, but almost always a flea bite is involved. Symptoms appear within several days of becoming infected, and most victims die after two or three days of intense pain and vomiting.

Of course, humanity had suffered many devastating plagues before. From 165 to 180 a plague had raged across the Roman Empire, with the famous emperor Marcus Aurelius among the victims. In 541–42 the plague of Justinian began somewhere near Constantinople and spread worldwide.

But the Black Death was far more deadly than these. It seems to have originated in China, perhaps in 1346. From there it traveled west, reaching the Middle East and North Africa in 1347. Europeans could do nothing to prevent the Black Death from reaching them. Merchant ships brought cargoes of infected rats and dying crews not only to Messina but to most, if not all, of the other Mediterranean ports. And Europe had an enormous rat population ready to become hosts for infected fleas.

The plague raged across Europe for four years, 1348–51, beginning in the south and moving north. Although the mortality rate may have varied from one region to another, everywhere huge numbers died. In 1351 Pope Clement VI asked his staff to calculate the number killed by the plague in Europe. They arrived at a figure of 23,840,000, or about 30 percent of the total population. Apparently, this total was based on actual reports and was not influenced by the fact that Revelation 9:18 predicts that “a third of mankind” will be killed by plague. Many modern scholars accept the 30 percent estimate, although some have supported estimates as high as 60 percent. The latter is quite credible if one adds in the next outbursts of plague that took place in 1361 and 1369. The same range of rates is proposed for the world as a whole, yielding estimates that at least 100 million and perhaps as many as 200 million perished. Since even the lowest estimates are staggeringly high, there seems little point in quibbling as to which figure is best.


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