Pandemics Then & Now

Pandemics Then

“16 October 1665: But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that. And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physitian, and but one apothecary left, all being dead…” --Diary of Samuel Pepys

    I. The “Pest”

Most famous for the 1347 European outbreak known as the Black Death, the plague is an ancient disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that has not been fully eradicated. From 1347 through 1665, the plague was responsible for no less than a billion deaths in Europe. Though Shakespeare never wrote a play explicitly concerned with the plague, he lived through no less than three plague outbreaks during his lifetime, some severe enough to prompt the closure of theaters and his own flight to the countryside. The bubonic plague, the most common variant of the disease, was marked by fever, aching joints, nausea and vomiting, gangrenous extremities, and the presence of buboes--the infamous “plague-sores”--swollen and painful lymph nodes which oozed pus and blood when opened. Most patients perished 2-7 days after infection. Septicemic and pneumonic variants of the disease, carried by blood and airborne phlegm, were even deadlier.

    II. Plague Medicine

Little was medically known about the plague in Shakespeare’s time, and contemporary accounts of the plague were imprecise and varied. Doctors and the public had no concept of infectious organisms, but it was thought that the plague was transmitted by inhaling a “poisonous miasma,” or vapor, in the air. Massive bonfires were burned in an effort to cleanse the air with smoke and heat. Treatments included bloodletting, sweating, purging, and prevention by use of aromatic herbs, simples, and quarantining. The highest mortality rate occurred among poor townspeople and young adults.

    III. Social Control

The bubonic plague is and was not directly infectious from person to person, passing instead from rodent to person or person to person by infected fleas. Nevertheless, early modern attitudes toward the plague were inextricably tied to notions of poverty, urban pollution, and crime. In 1604, a member of the “unruly infected” found wandering London with a plague-sore could be whipped, and if found in the presence of others, hanged. Members of the lower classes were rounded up and sent outside of the city walls, only to be shunned by neighboring villages; many perished from thirst and starvation. Government operations were temporarily moved to Oxford, while members of the monied classes fled to the countryside. Houses with confirmed cases were forcibly shut up and policed by watchmen to prevent traffic in and out. As the plague outbreak peaked in 1665, emergency mass burials for those left behind, later known as the infamous “plague pits,” took place in London, cementing the chaos, terror, and stigma of the disease in the early modern imagination.

Disease control and social control were inextricably linked not only with the plague, but with infection in general. Malaria spread from poor, boggy areas near the Thames, louse-borne typhus ravaged prisoners (who often died before they received their sentences), and outbreaks of syphilis were frequent enough to comprise an “infinite multitude” of patients in London hospitals. The hegemonic impact of disease, and its assistance in reinforcing social stratification, extended far beyond home; smallpox, the disease which famously left Queen Elizabeth I bald, was carried across the Atlantic to the New World, killing approximately 90-95% of the native population in the Americas and paving the way for centuries of colonization, oppression, violence, and genocide.

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Pandemics Now

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