Wednesday, April 15, 2020

John Kelly

John Kelly is the author of 2005's The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time.

From his Q&A with Caroline Leavitt:

Q: What lessons can we learn today from your much-touted 2005 book?

A: First of all, Caroline, thank you for complimenting the book. Secondly, as that wit Voltaire once said, "History always changes, but people never do.”

First I will write about the medical / scientific / geographic similarities, then about the human ones.

The plague that I wrote about -- La Moria Grandissima: The Black Death -- was a pandemic that killed a third of Europe's then-75 million people during the years 1347-49. This high figure is, thankfully, not going to be reached by our current pandemic, coronavirus, because enough countries, so far, have been practicing vigilant shelter-in-place in a world with the instant media that the 14th century would not have even guessed was imaginable. (Despite the egregious and cruel irresponsibility of our coward in the White House, most of our governors and heroic health care workers and other local leaders and citizens are taking it upon themselves to do this necessary work themselves.) But the fact that half of the world is in lockdown – half of the world! – shows us that the enormous reach of this pandemic is close to the more fatal reach of the 14th century one.

The Black Death was borne by a bacteria on a rodent, just as this pandemic – coronavirus -- was borne by a virus from a bat. The Black Death also travelled from nation to nation from north-central Asia to China to the west, when trade opened up. Today, in our instant-global-travel world, the spread has been much more rapid – what took years in the 14th century has taken short months today.

The appalling – grotesque, by our standards -- lack of hygiene in European cities spread the Black Death like wildfire. People bathed monthly at best. About six streets in Paris were named for merde, which was often tossed out windows in buckets. Here was daytime London in 1348: “Imagine a shopping mall where everyone shouts, no one washes, front teeth are uncommon, and the shopping music is provided by the slaughterhouse up the road.”

Today’s pandemic was made for our more sterile times; coronavirus doesn’t need filth because the 21st century world is that much different than the 14th. It is highly contagious in even the cleanest and most elite circles (Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson and Prince Philip and Boris Johnson all got it).

But, in both the long-ago and today, mere talking proved dangerous. In 1348, delirious seamen reached ports in Italy so infested that, merely by having a brief conversation with one of them, an uninfected person could catch it. Today...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue