A manner of various plagues has been decimating humanity from the earliest days of recorded history. In 430 BC the plague wiped a quarter of the Athenian army. During the first of the great plagues, one third of the population of Europe succumbed. Diseases brought to the New World by the conquistadors aided them in their conquest of Mexico and Peru, the colonization of Brazil by the Portuguese, the settling of North America by the French and British as well as the settlement of Australia. Even though most important killer diseases have been defeated by now, or are at the very least curable, we still read about “cholera in Rwanda”, “flesh-eating bacteria in the UK” and antibiotic resistant strains of tuberculosis. Despite all of the wonders of modern medicine humankind cannot eradicate these diseases and cannot stop fearing them. Not further than two centuries ago pandemics harvested human lives every 10 to 15 years.

In 1664 AD thanks to the information brought by merchant travellers the news of a plague in Holland reached London. The city remained calm. “Hence it was that this rumour died off again,” – writes Daniel Defoe – “and people began to forget it as a thing we were very little concerned in, and that we hoped was not true; till the latter end of November or the beginning of December 1664 when two men, said to be Frenchmen, died of the plague in Long Acre, or rather at the upper end of Drury Lane.” The plague was always a taboo until it struck nearby. In Paris the cholera epidemic of 1832 was a non-issue until the city dwellers witnessed piles of decaying corpses. The only known cure for the plague was escape. The Sorbonne suggested the following in 1348: “Leave in haste, go far away and do not deviate”. The exodus was generally led by the wealthy; they gave the signal to flee. An account from 18th century Marseille: “When it was seen that many reputable citizens left their dwellings, a mass of common citizenry and other inhabitants followed.” Most, however had nowhere to go, others still believed that nothing would happen until a city was placed under quarantine and surrounded by a sanitary cordon. Only then, the feverish search for a cure erupted.

During epidemics all manner of merchants suddenly appeared. All of them offered ‘infallible’ cures and protective talismans. Talismans with the spell “Abracadabra” sold particularly well in London. Previously unknown doctors advertised themselves with their immense knowledge in combating the plague. Signs read: “Famous doctor from Holland, just arrived from Amsterdam where countless souls owe their lives to his mastery in fighting the plague”. The diseases were also supposed to be dispelled by all manner of incantations, some linguists believe that the ever popular “Bless You” or “To your health” (in some languages) following someone sneezing are directly related to the epidemics of the past. Sneezing was one of the first symptoms of the plague. Some medical advice was extraordinarily original, not to say ridiculous. Some believed that the air can be cleared of the plague by horse breath and manure, that’s why the sick were often transported to the stables. Similar rationale induced keeping a smelly ram in the house. Medics suggested frequent sexual contacts so as to prevent the semen from rotting. Other doctors yet claimed that sexual abstinence was the key. Generally most of the remedies were contradictory. Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his “Love in the Time of Cholera” even describes cannon salvos used to disperse the plague, gunpowder supposedly cleaned the air. A similar cleansing effect was supposedly attained by group singing. Some other remedies were much farther reaching however. Animals were exterminated to prevent the spread, in London in 1665, 40 thousand dogs and 200 thousand cats were eliminated.

A, perhaps understandable, reaction to the prevailing disease was enjoying life and lightheartedness. According to the ancient Greek Thucydides: “Before people succumbed to earthly pleasures in secret, now they enjoy the moment for all to see, because they see how quickly the wealthy die and their possessions are confiscated by the poor.” (slightly loose translation from a Polish source) In another account from 16th century Geneva we learn of “dancing broads” in plain view of mortuary carts loaded with corpses. Occasionally the broads would be taken ill or die while feasting. The merry attitude was partly supported by conventional medicine of the time. The medics claimed that the fearful and worrisome would be the first to fall ill. West Prussian authorities suggested their citizens (during the 1831 AD cholera epidemic): “Live a healthy life, do not exert yourself physically, try to avoid sudden emotions – fear, sorrow, panic, try to feel happy and joyful and have a positive outlook to increase your resistance.” (another slightly loose translation from Polish)

The plague created an excellent working environment for all manner of ill-doers (no pun intended). The undertakers and gravediggers were often the foremost villains, stealing all valuables from the corpses. Occasionally they even ‘helped’ the sick by performing involuntary euthanasia on them. Robber gangs scoured the houses of the nobility and aristocracy in plague ridden areas counting on the owners’ absence. That’s why many people hired local peasants to protect their goods in their absence. Thankfully, as always where there are villains there are their antitheses, the good doers. Many charitable organisations sprouted around Europe. In 1613 the Cracow patrician Brabara Langówna took the ill in her house, she single-handedly fed them and provided them with shelter. Many religious organisations have also provided indispensable services to the sick. Most notable of those were the Jesuit priests many of whom died in the process.

Historians do not agree on the origins of the plagues and specifically on whether these were spread intentionally (that would be early bio-terrorism I guess). Thucydides when describing the Peloponnesian Wars mentioned rumours of the Peloponnesians poisoning the Greek water wells. In the middle ages, the Jews served as a common scapegoat. This lead to many pogroms and death of many thousands of people. Most modern historians do not believe in the ‘bio-terrorism’ theories. Throughout human history man has always looked for scapegoats pertaining to the uncontrollable. To calm the emotions, pope Clemens VI, in a rare statement condemned the people persecuting the Jews and stated that they die of the plague just like everyone else. Most likely the common cause of all manner of epidemics used to be poor harvests and famine leading to reduced resistance to viruses and bacteria. We are free of that form of danger, however, new ones such as SARS and AIDS have emerged. Just like our ancestors we are helpless, and like they we often look for scapegoats. This used to be particularly true in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Most likely we will always have a new invisble enemy to fight due to the wondrous ability of nature to come up with new surprise time and again.

Peloponnesian WarsThucydides
Love in the Time of CholeraGabriel Garcia Marquez
A Journal of the Plague YearDaniel Defoe
Norman Cantor - In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made