The Black Death

"Oh happy posterity who will not experience such abysmal woe and who will look upon our testimony as fable." -Petrarch, Florentine humanist

"Buried with my own hands five of my children in a single grave... No bells. No tears. This is the end of the world." -Agniola di Tura, Siena, 1347

Once upon a time, Death came to a faerie tale land. Europe in the 14th century was a place rich in its own magic, a land of purported enchanted forests and witches. It was in this world that the stories of my childhood were born: Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, the Pied Piper. And while these stories seemingly romanticize the world their characters inhabit, hidden within them are tales of danger and horror: wolves, cutthroats, diseases. These last, the great illnesses of the century, intrigue me the most.

The Middle Ages have always enchanted me, but my fascination did not take obvious form until I read another faerie tale, the Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. Kivrin, the main character, is sent back in time to Oxfordshire in the Christmas of 1348 by mistake, and finds herself caught in the Black Death. In this novel of loss and hope, the author skillfully demonstrates what it means to be human through the suffering of her characters. The book dragged me into its dark waters of narrative and suddenly I had found a moment in the 14th century that intrigued me more than any other. What was this obsession, just morbid captivation? Did I really want to look back through the mainly objective eyes of history and see the memory of such misery dissected by scholarly examination? Why examine any history, least of all a time so horrible? Remembrances of the past allow us to open a mirror into the past, and see a reflection of our own soul. Those things that we are drawn to in history are an accurate image of what we care about in life. I realized that the Black Death was my favorite moment in history because it is about the humanity within us all. The reactions of the people of that time link them to us, in the present, because of our similar responses to catastrophe. Events like the Black Death link us to our ancestors by providing a common thread of suffering and salvation. I see these themes all throughout history and even in our world today, and I enjoy finding commonality between all humans. There will be differences, of course, in beliefs and practices, but the emotions will be the same. Through the erasure of differences, we reach a point of enlightenment where we all share the human experience. Therefore, I decided to write a comprehensive report on the events surrounding the Black Death, this single moment in history that demonstrated all aspects of humanity, good and bad, and altered the course of history irrevocably.

The Black Death Part 2: A Little Background

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