Before the Black Death began to ravage Europe, most European cultures had elaborate funeral rites that often involved something comparable to modern pallbearing, where a group of the deceased’s peers bore them to the gravesite. Boccaccio wrote that a dead body, in a proper rite, should be “borne on the shoulders of his peers… to the church selected by him before his death.” However, these rites obviously couldn’t be maintained when hundreds were dying in a matter of days.
As a solution to this issue, many individuals from the lowest peasant groups saw an opportunity to earn money in a manner that would have been far beneath the dignity of the upper and noble classes. Thus the body collectors were created. Non-disabled men of the lower levels began using their carts to collect bodies instead of agricultural products, earning money out of tragedy. Boccaccio noted the emergence of this profession, writing “a sort of corpse-carriers drawn from the baser ranks, [who] performed such offices for hire.”
The work of the body collectors would be mirrored in the 19th century in connection with another pandemic: cholera. The 19th century saw the expansion of night soil men, particularly in London. Human waste had high value in the creation of both fertilizer and industrial chemicals like saltpeter. Night soil men would travel around cities in the early morning hours collecting trash, and many charged extremely high rates – especially during the cholera epidemic.
15. The Black Death Did Not Spare Royalty and Nobility
While many historical outbreaks, like London’s cholera epidemic, are linked with poverty and squalor, no social strata were left untouched by the Black Death. While only one reigning monarch died during the Black Death’s own reign of terror, many members of noble families and noted scholars died as well. Daughters, mothers, brothers and other relations of kings were not spared, nor were the wealthiest and most powerful families.
Alfonso XI of Castile, the king of Castile, León, and Galicia, also known as el Justiciero or the Avenger, died from the Black Death in 1350. He was the only actively reigning monarch of Europe to fall to the plague. However, many members of royal families died. Anne of Bohemia, the first wife of England’s King Richard II and daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV died in 1394. Blanche of Lancaster, daughter of wealthy Plantagenet Duke, Henry of Grosmont, wife of John of Gaunt and mother of King Henry IV died in 1368.
Giovanni Boccaccio, author of The Decameron and noted chronicler of the plague, died fell to the disease himself in 1375. Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, perished from the Black Death in 1374. One can only imagine the amount of potential art and literature lost with the death of so much of Europe’s population. So many lives cut short cannot happen without a corresponding loss of culture and creation.
16. The Black Death Changed Music, Literature, Art and Religion
Unsurprisingly, art and culture were both massively changed by the social upheaval that attended the loss of more than a third of Europe’s population. There was a strong sense of fatalism and merely waiting for the end of times during the 14th Century pandemic. This notion is reflected in the somber, morose tone of music, art, and literature created during the period. The Catholic Church also saw a loss of power during the chaos of the era, and the seeds were planted for the Protestant Reformation.
Art is, naturally, the easiest way to observe the cultural effects of the Black Death on the culture of the era. Death is frequently seen in pieces of the period, as in the famous illustration of dancing skeletons. Death stalked Europeans every day during the period, so it is unsurprising to see representations of that constant presence in their art. The music shifted during the period as well, becoming more somber and focused on death and the hope for salvation.
Literature of the period also reflects the themes of death and fatalism. Many authors also served as chroniclers of the chaos and destruction of the pandemic. Writers like Boccaccio provided a window for future readers into daily life under the shadow of the Black Death. The intense religious thought of the period saw a weakening of the Catholic Church’s power, as it was unable to keep its faithful safe during the crisis. The perceived failures of the church during the period helped sow some of the unrest that would later erupt as the Protestant Reformation.
17. The Plague Still Exists in the United States Today
The last major pandemic of the plague occurred in England in 1665, with smaller yet still devastating outbreaks ending in France with Marseilles in 1740. Despite its seeming disappearance, Yersinia pestis is actually still alive and well. Yersinia pestis is a zoonotic bacteria, meaning that it uses animals as its host and vector for transmission. It is endemic, meaning naturally occurring, all over the world from China to the United States.
The plague still infects humans, with cases occurring every single year. Thanks to the advent of penicillin and other antibiotics in the 20th century, the epidemic is now mostly treatable although the septicemic course of the disease remains dangerous and difficult to successfully treat. However, over 80% of the cases identified in the United States follow the bubonic path of the disease.
In the United States, the bubonic plague chiefly occurs in two regions: the Southwest states and a pocket in northern Nevada, southern Oregon and eastern California. On average, seven cases of the plague are identified every year. Outdoor activity in these areas is the main risk factor, as it brings people into contact with the habitat of rodents bearing fleas infected with the bacteria. Cases regularly occur around the world as well, wherever people can come into contact with rodents carrying infected fleas.
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