Why archaeology matters (again). Or should I say why the past matters?
I was in recent correspondence with a theater director looking for a new project. I suggested she develop a production derived from the 14th-century collection of stories, “The Decameron,” by Giovanni Boccaccio (boh-CAH-chee-oh). I suggested it because she wanted something timely, and this book fills the bill.
The word “decameron” means 10 days and it’s the story of 10 young people (seven women, three men) who meet in Florence (Italy) during the 1348 outbreak of the Black Death.
In search of social distancing, they withdraw to country estates and, for each of 10 days, each one of them tells a story to the others.
Thus 100 stories in all, tales of all kinds, from comic to tragic to fantasy, and many of the women’s stories outline the sexual and political liberation of women. Racy!
But that is another story — another 100 stories. Backing up, if we read Boccaccio’s introduction, written within five years after the plague, we find a harrowing journalistic description of its effects upon the people of Florence.
We now believe this highly infectious disease, which came from Asia, probably across the Silk Road to the eastern Mediterranean and thence by trading ships to western Europe, killed somewhere between one-third and one-half of the population from India to Iceland.
In relative terms, that would be around 100 million Americans today. In places, 80% died — think 24,000 Walla Wallans.
That is the price of herd immunity.
were those with physiologies able to resist; but after 20-year intervals it would return when a virgin population had grown large enough to host — the equivalent of opening up the economy.
Faced with an epidemic of unimaginable proportions and mystifying transmission, people reacted differently, from isolation, to spending all their wealth in one last shot at riotous living, smelling herbs, to religious devotion, to selfless concern for those who suffered. Nothing helped.
There was only faith-based epidemiology—prayer and fasting and flagellation, and the slaughter of Jews and witches.
The pestilence was carried by fleas that lived in the coats of black rats.
Three hundred years later the black rat was largely driven out by the invasive brown rat, a less suitable host for the flea that carried the bacillus, and recurrences of the black death died away — but it’s not entirely extinct today.
Several years ago while hiking in New Mexico we had to have our legs and ankles sprayed, because the bacillus lives there, too, and might jump from a dead rodent as far as 15 feet to us.
A handful of cases are reported each year in the United States, and are treated routinely with antibiotics.
One interesting aspect of the Black Death is that the aftermath brought benefits.
Because the population was over 90% agricultural, the food-producing labor force was devastated, and those who remained could, and did, demand better treatment, better wages, and freedom — land slavery having been a standard part of the economic status quo.
Besides this, workers in the cities also demanded better conditions and pay, and much as these unseemly assertions appalled the commentators on the political right, for the most part they worked.
Populations didn’t recover for upwards of 100 years, more in some places, and once they did conditions among laborers returned to their old levels, but the memory of better conditions remained, and the medieval order was firmly shifted into the exit lane.
The rise of the modern democracies is complex and multi-faceted, but the ravages of the Black Death played their part.
I wish the coronavirus had never come. I lament the deaths of so many innocent people and the devastation of economies.
Looking ahead, though, I see glimmers of hope. Bad government in many places has made the situation worse.
Will we raise our standards for the performance of those in power, the way they did in 1348?
Also, calamity has many times served to level out the distribution of income, today out of proportion nearly everywhere, and nearly everywhere destructive of social stability.
Will this calamity also serve as an equalizer?
Let us hope so; let us set ourselves to learn from it going forward.