Photo via The Athenaeum.
Preface The popular lines at the beginning of this booklet keenly illustrate several of the key concepts present in a discussion of death-culture in the late Middle Ages. At its essence, the culture of the macabre represented a kind of dialogue between those mortals who would all, someday, face death, and that inevitable, undefeatable force that took their life.
Medieval culture fixated on The macabre in the literary masterpieces physical aspects of death that strike modern people as viscerally disturbing: While our culture, in its increasing secularism, and in its sanitization and silencing of death, is radically different from that of the European Middle Ages, the survival of such images as those depicted in the Appalachian song demonstrates the continuity, albeit uncomfortable, between the macabre culture of the late Middle Ages and our own.
The Black Death Introduction The Black Death refers to the period in Europe from approximately towhen bubonic plague ravaged the European population and initiated a long-term period of cultural trauma from which, one could argue, we have not yet completely recovered.
Every nightmare of apocalyptic pandemics, from bird flu to AIDS to Ebola, registers, on some level, with the horrifying possibility of returning to a world where each and every member of one's family falls victim to a merciless, fast-acting, insidious, and physically horrifying sickness.
In crowded areas where black rats and their fleas were common, or in small rural hamlets where these hosts lived alongside the human population, the mortality was staggering, and archaeologists have in recent decades uncovered the remains of small villages that essentially disappeared during the period of the Black Death.
Understanding the macabre spirit of death-culture in late medieval Europe requires a familiarization with the terror and panic of epidemic disease, and, more generally, with the fear of catastrophe and sudden death. It is only recently, in the age of mass-media, where photographs, motion pictures, and, more recently, the internet have exposed us to the devastation wrought by such natural disasters as the south Asian tsunami of and Hurricane Katrina, and to such unnatural disasters as the Holocaust of World War II, that a large portion of the world population has become exposed to horrific images akin to those presented by the Black Death.
On a cultural or psychological level, then, we can experience second-hand, through images, what most of the population of the medieval world experienced first-hand: However, what remains irrecoverable for us in the comparatively safe modern world is the sense of sudden, wide-scale demographic change experienced by the medieval world.
The most recent estimate is by Ole J. Benedictow, who in his magisterial The Black Death Most average estimates state that about one-third of the population died from the disease in the years spanning the Black Death.
This sense of widespread epidemic catastrophe is terrifyingly evoked in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's famous painting The Triumph of Death. Bruegel figures death as a legion of skeletons, attacking the underbelly of society in an overwhelming wave.
From peasant to jester to executioner to king, no one is spared. The Disease Three seemingly harmless members of the natural world -- the black rat, the rat flea, and a common bacteria that lives in the flea's intestine -- are the host, vector, and agent of one of the most prolific killers of humankind -- bubonic plague.
The bacterium Yersinia pestis and the vector by which it spreads, xenopsylla cheopis, the oriental rat flea, were discovered respectively in andsolving the millennia-old question as to what caused the catastrophic disease.
Yersinia pestis can be discerned by its elongated safety-pin appearance when examined from blood cultures from plague patients. The rat flea commonly carries the bacteria in its gut and frequently infects rodent populations, which are its common hosts.
Plague can be transmitted to humans that live in close contact with rodents, as the fleas bite humans as well. The common black rat, rattus rattus, was the host to the oriental rat flea, and the primary means of plague transmission during the Black Death.
The plague's signature symptom was the bubo, a large, painful, red swelling usually located in the neck, armpit, or groin, the result of a swollen and infected lymph node.
Beginning about the size of an egg, the bubo could swell to the size of an apple before death. In addition to the bubo, victims of the plague suffered from high fever, chills, exhaustion, occasional pneumonic symptoms, and eventual septicemia, shock, and death.
In the Preface to his Decameron, Boccaccio describes the dark spots nowadays recognized as indicative of septicemia that would gradually spread over the person's skin as a sure sign of death. In a woodcut from Nuremberg reproduced in Platt, p. The suffering patient has additional buboes on his head and thigh.
Unfortunately, while lancing the painful swellings was believed to provide relief from pain, it more frequently led to excessive blood loss, shock, and death.
The student in the lower left hand corner holds a flask with the patient's urine. The Spread of the Pestilence Bubonic plague is generally believed to have arrived in Europe through trade routes that connected the Mongol empire with Europe through Genoese trading posts. The plague arose in central Asia, quite possibly from an overpopulation of ground rodents called marmots burrowing in the Mongolian Plateau.
Rodents, and their deadly fleas, could have easily stowed away on trading caravans headed west, to Europe, east, further into China, and south, into India.Nevermore Kindle Edition And along the way, his own macabre literary imagination is sparked as he unveils dark realities stranger than any fiction Kindle Feature Spotlight suggest that Poe's literary masterpieces were based on the macabre personal experiences recounted here.
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