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 vessels pulled into port at Messina, Sicily, looking like ghost ships. Most of the sailors on board were dead. The reason the Sicilians called it “black death” is likely because they were returning from the Crimean seaport of Caffa on the Black Sea or it could also have been the black sores which covered the body of the victims.
The contagion was first brought to Caffa by Mongolian warriors. The frightened citizenry hid behind high ramparts and the Mongols simply hurled infected bodies over the walls. By the time the Genoese sailors arrived, the infection turned into an epidemic. The sailors brought it back to Sicily where it spread to 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 Countries like England. It was an equal opportunity disruptor and spared no one, neither king nor queen and, especially not children.
The symptoms of the Bubonic Plague are swollen glands and small, open sores or “buboes,” the Medieval origin of a child’s cry of “booboo,” referring to swollen glands (technically called buboes) that ooze into body sores, and where we get the name bubonic plague. 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 she is recalling Renaissance history.
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 revealed 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. Even today, there are antibiotics but no vaccine.
The European Plague was sharply followed by the first global anti-immigrant and anti-business movement. Ignorance stepped in as it does today, and placed blame for the spread of disease primarily on foreigners, minority groups like Jews and gypsies, then pointed fingers at the wickedness of society, and of course, trade. 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 their villages seeking safety, and those who stayed buried the dead behind. That was the rhythm of life. People were convinced that the act of touching someone or handling their clothing would spread the disease so friends, family, and even children were kept distant, even shunned. Physical affection was forbidden. The most pernicious sense however wasn’t touch but smell. The odor of death was so suffocating, an urban dweller would sniff perfume as she walked the streets.
This was disruption on a cataclysmic, global scale.
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 Medieval caste system. Peasants felt liberated in a world desperate for labor and abandoned estates, and revolted against powerful feudal lords. The owners had to learn to be kinder and gentler, pay better wages.
Movement began as villages emptied and people moved to different villages seeking to start life over. Only they had to learn customs and languages in these new places to make themselves welcome. As fear of disease turned into fear of unfriendly strangers, embrace became a way of signifying you knew or liked someone, and handshakes were a way to prove you were a friend and not carrying a weapon.
Estates inherited by a handful of survivors created more widespread wealth. A surplus of empty land and farms made bargains available to those who had the cash to spend, for survivors inherited their entire family holdings in many cases. In our terms, the great Medieval estates became tear downs.
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.”
It made the Europeans living in the era much stronger. This should be weighed against the devastation if we are to have a complete picture of their society. One would not wish the Plague on anyone, but as it wreaked great suffering, it brought useful changes.
Even a comic side to the era developed. If you are a Saturday Night Live fan, you can thank the Plague. The impetus for 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, and not Latin, so everyone could enjoy it. Bawdy skits were acted out on the street, the kind of humor anyone could enjoy.
If you enter a hospital with pneumonia, the Plague started the medical practice of isolating people with specific symptoms long before we understood infectious disease. Before then, everyone was lumped together in the same room or even the same bed where they passed germs back and forth.
If you enjoy reading 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. It brought the world down to the level of the average person, who was now considered a vital part of restoring the world back to living.
Disruption will always be with us.
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 disruption. 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.
Coda: there are still a few hundred fatalities due to the plague in the world today. There is no known cure.
Two excellent sources for those wishing to learn more about this period in history.