The Plague

Overshadowed by doom, humans have the unique ability to blossom into wonderfully creative beings.

The plague is a bacterial infection, still existent but exceedingly rare, that has pockmarked the Earth since the 6th century A.D. The plague comes in three forms: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. The word bubonic comes from the Greek and Latin word boubon and bubo meaning the swelling of lymph nodes in the groin, which describes its symptoms. Septicemic plague infects the blood and causes blackening of the flesh. And pneumonic plague spreads through the air and infects the lungs. The ultimate end is the gangrenous death of a body bubbled up with boils all over as its lungs burn, ceasing to breathe its last tormented breath.

There have been three plague pandemics (pan meaning all, all regions of the planet + epidemic meaning infectious disease surging for a particular period of time) originating from the yersinia pestis bacterium purportedly in the Tian Shan Mountains of Central Asia, spreading by fleas on rodents. The first was the Plague of Justinian in 541 A.D. that stayed around until about 750 A.D. and killed an estimated 50% of the known world’s population by some accounts. Next was the famous Black Death and its associated pandemic, killing an estimated 50% of Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East from 1346 A.D. to until about 1671 A.D. by some accounts. The third and latest pandemic lasted from 1855 A.D. to 1960 A.D., killing 2 million in China and particularly devastating India with 10 million deaths. The spread is so pervasive and undiscriminating that in 1450 it struck in Rome causing even the Pope to flee the city.

Venice was the one of the first major cities to implement strict quarantine measures during the second pandemic. Yet despite their 40-day quarantine imposed on all inbound ships, the city suffered seventy outbreaks of the bubonic plague over 300 years from the 14th to 17th centuries, killing nearly every third person. In Florence, social distancing was taken to extremes. Society broke down as total isolation with the strict sterilization and minimal repetition of only necessary functions could keep a person safe.

Ibn Battuta, the famous medieval traveler and Marco Polo of the Arab world, was returning home to Morocco after a twenty-five-year journey in 1348 A.D. while the Black Death was decimating cities in the Middle East. Fortunately, his tip-toeing through major cities and resorting to the Kingdom of Mali, West Africa until the plague subsided allowed him to survive and record his legendary travels in writing. His accounts give a perspective of the doom and gloom that loomed over cities at that time. Death tolls rose up to 2,400 people a day in major cities like Damascus, Syria; a daily record of 1,100 people in Gaza, Palestine, and an inconceivably record high of 21,000 per day in Cairo, Egypt.

Yet, despite its pestilence, the plague could not stop humanity perform some of its greatest flourishes. Dreamers like Isaac Newton, Petrarch & Boccaccio, and Leonardo da Vinci were able to hone their mental energy toward their creative pursuits and lead humanity toward new planes of enlightenment.

Leonardo da Vinci (b. 1452 – d. 1519)

A century after the world’s most famous outbreak of the plague, the 14th century’s Black Death, the plague was still lingering in Europe. Prompted by concerns of cleanliness and the Renaissance spirit of rebirth, Leonardo da Vinci attempted to renovate and modernize the Italian peninsula. He had busily drawn up urban plans for modern, hygienic cities with multi-level mixed-use, industrial, and residential zones running on hydraulic power from local water sources, subterranean sewers, and wide boulevards rather than the small, twisting medieval alleyways that were so common. Unfortunately, it took some centuries for his visions to become realized, but the legendary thinker’s blueprints, drawn up during an era plagued by the plague have had a lasting and special impact on humanity ever since.

Giovanni Boccaccio (b. 1313 – d. 1375)

Giovanni Boccaccio was an Italian writer who experienced and survived the Black Death in Italy. If Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) is considered the “Father of the Renaissance” then Boccaccio is the “Uncle of the Renaissance.” The two were close correspondents, sharing writings and ideas during those times. Although breakouts of the plague prevented them from meeting some years, both survived and continued their scholastic endeavors. Boccaccio’s most famous writing, The Decameron, is essentially a collection of short stories as told by seven fictional, aristocratic Florentine youths who have fled the ravages of the Black Death and retreated to a countryside villa. They pass the time in isolation by telling each other stories and enjoying the simple pleasures of human company and the subtle splendor of nature. Such were the foundational principals of the Renaissance: a focus on individual humanity and the perfect beauty of raw nature.

Together, Petrarch and Boccaccio resurrected the classical cultures of Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, which rejuvenated Italy and Europe for the next several centuries.  The Italian Renaissance, which they sparked, was one of humanity’s brightest golden ages—its impacts arguably greater in effect than the plague. “Renaissance,” literally meaning re-birth, was a fitting name for the re-birth of a grand new era of culture born after the world’s “black death.”

Isaac Newton (b. 1642 – d. 1727)

Isaac Newton lived during England’s Great Plague outbreak in the 17th century. In 1665, he had been engaged in studies at Cambridge’s Trinity College at the age of 23 when the university temporarily shut down and sent students home as a measure of social distancing to help curb spread of the plague. The next two years were spent at his family home in relative seclusion where he was able to focus into the deepest depths of his studies. Ignoring the plague and free from all social distractions, he began developing his theories on physics, mathematics, gravity, and optics. His contributions to man’s knowledge of the physical world and modern technology cannot be expressed succinctly. But in that short span of less than two years in retreat from the plague, this young, yet-unknown thinker invented calculus, the branch of mathematics that launched humanity into outer space.

So, much like war, famine, and death, pestilence inevitably rides against us as one of the four horsemen. Such is the reality of human existence here on Earth. Bemoaning it is only a natural reflex. But in the shadow of death, humans dare live. Some of our greatest achievements have been borne out of an era ridden by the plague by humans who refused to surrender to fear but rather accepted the seclusion required to survive and used the resulting quiet to achieve great works of the mind–the God given tool most precious and unique to human kind.

Source: Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron: A New Translation, Contexts, Criticism, ed. and trans. Wayne Rebhorn. (Norton Critical Editions.) New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. Print.

Source: Grove Wilson, Great Men of Science: Their Lives and Discoveries, Ch. XVIII, Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc. 1937. Print.

Source: Ibn Batuta, and Tim Mackintosh-Smith. The Travels of Ibn Battutah. London: Picador, 2002. Print.

Source: Renaissance: Maker of Modern Man, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1970. Print.

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