Scientists recently discovered that the Justinian plague, which killed up to 5,000 a day in Constantinople alone, was potentially of the same stream as the Bubonic Plague, and that there’s no guarantee it won’t flare up again. The media love this story, and the headlines scream that the plague could be upon us again, but realistically this isn’t as much of a threat as it sounds.
History is full of deadly plagues that wiped out vast amounts of the population and changed the course of historical timelines. The Black Death swept through London, killing off thousands and causing a serious population dip with each incarnation. The Spanish flu is argued to have changed the fate of those involved in the First World War; burning through the ranks, it seriously weakened the armies involved. We have no idea what the sweating sickness was and can only go by the accounts of its symptoms and its quick and massive mortality rate. The Justinian plague arguably changed the face of Europe, as it changed the course of battles and set the stage for the growth of the Anglo-Saxons, who eventually invaded Britain. We’ve attempted in our lifetimes to create similar dramas, but have so far only managed to tackle pandemics that never reach the size the hysterical media predict and remain as mainly business opportunities for those who sell medical face masks.
If we did face something similar, who’s to say what effect it would have on us? While our medical skills and understanding are relatively advanced, we’re not magicians. A new strain of virus could knock us as flat as the medieval people we sing about in morbid nursery rhymes. Most likely we would be fed a placebo whilst scientists frantically sought a treatment and the Daily Mail would run countless articles on the next cause and cure of the new disease, as they now do for cancer.
The medieval people who were struck down by the bubonic plague are easily envisioned. We all know the protocol of the time – the bird headed doctor, the smoke pluming into the sky to get rid of the poisoness air, the barricaded houses and the calls to bring out your dead. The Justinian plague prompted similar scenes. Procopius wrote there were so many dead that there was nowhere to bury the bodies, and they were instead piled in the street. The plague also produced the buboes made famous by the black death and it returned again and again to kill more and more in the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries, killing off up to a quarter of the Mediterranean population in its first incarnation.
The media so far has failed to find an incident this year that would help their scare mongering. In July 2013 a park in Los Angeles was shut down after a squirrel was found infected with the plague. When I read this, I felt a brief stirring of panic. It was my assumption that the Plague had been cured, along with the other devastating diseases of its time. It hit those post-medieval people right where it hurt, got rid of about two thirds of the population, created endless mental images and historical facts to be reproduced in contemporary fiction and then left again. And then I learned that it was back, and it was attacking the poor defenseless squirrels.
On seeing the article, my heart jumped slightly, as it had done when I genuinely thought for a bit that the zombie apocalypse was upon us. Strangely, I felt reassured when I read further that this was the third squirrel found with the affliction, which seemed to imply that it was normal, and that the area was still open to hiking (but not camping, which isn’t as reassuring). Also comforting was that the only real advice offered to prevent the deadly disease from spreading was that people should invest in flea collars (I’m not sure if this was for us or for our pets).
Crisis averted, I was free to ponder aloud how they spotted that the squirrel had the Black Death. Was he staggering around, looking a bit queasy? Had he sprouted buboes on his neck? Had the squirrel population got together to board up his house, with one squirrel trundling around with a little cart outside in the street squeaking, ‘Bring out your dead!’? History acted out by small furry animals – it’s a modern historian’s dream.
The plague has the potential to strike again and kill us all off. What science demonstrates is the persistence of disease throughout human history, an argument that is supported by the news that the oldest cancer stream has also recently been found. Mortality and nature constantly impose their own cull on the human race, be it through disease, war or natural disaster. We feel safe in our world, tucked up in our secure houses and with our free healthcare, but for all we know the next disaster is just around the corner. This could be caused by the realistic threats of global warming, flu or an atomic bomb. We just don’t know. This I am confident of though: if the next epidemic to strike us is the zombie apocalypse, the rest of you can bugger off and find your own castles to hide in. I bagsy Balmoral.