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The Legacy of the Black Death: Understanding the Impact of the Plague on Western Culture through Biology

hmarcia's picture


The Legacy of the Black Death: Understanding the Impact of the Plague on Western Culture through Biology
            Western culture depicts the Black Death in poetry, art, and literature because of the disease’s immense impact in Western Europe. Our culture continues to have this creative inheritance in things such as children songs, “Ring around the Rosie” serves as an example. In addition, there exist newer artistic creations involving the Black Plague as a major component. For example, the 2009 film Carriers, directed by Alex Pastor, tells the story of four people during a modern-day Black Plague affecting the US. With a disease that has profoundly affected our culture for the last three hundred years, the biological aspect of the Black Death is important to analyze. Knowing the biology of the plague leads one to understand why the disease became such an important cultural product, there are numerous of the plagues and diseases in the world, yet the Black Plague has the most cultural impact.
            Before beginning with analyzing the biological effects of the Black Plague, it is important to provide some historical information about the Plague because it highlights the impact of the disease. The Plague began in Central Asia around the 1320’s and 1330’s (1). By 1346, reports of the Plague reaching the Crimean in Eastern Europe mark the introduction of the Plague on the European continent (1). Historians believe that the plague moved across the continents through the numerous traders and soldiers that traveled on the trade routes connecting Asia with Europe (1). During the 1340’s, the plague spread through out Europe killing between 25 or 50 million people on the continent (1). These deaths constitute 30% to 60% of the population dying from the plague during this period (1). Looking at the disease from a global point, over about 75 million people died from the plague, reducing the population of the world during this period from 450 million people to 375 million by the 1400’s (1). Looking back at the European death statistics, about 1/3 to 2/3 of the European population died from this disease. The amount of the deaths that the Black Plague produced ensured that it affected all Europeans living during this period. The biological aspects of the disease lead to clues of how the disease affected Western Culture.      
            The bacterium Yersina pestis caused the Black Plague (2). This bacterium infected fleas, and blocked the flea's stomach causing it to become hungry (2). This unsatisfied hunger led the flea to start voraciously biting a host. This host could be an animal, such as rats, or human. During the feeding process, infected blood carrying Yersina pestis, flowed into the wound infecting the host (2). The bacterium now had a new host, and the flea soon starved to death. Rats often served as the most common host for the bacterium and this helped the bacterium to spread quickly throughout Europe. Once Yersina pestis entered the body of its human host, its host quickly felt its effects. The ability for Yersina pestis to harm it human hosts come from several factors that include the ability of the bacterium to suppress and avoid normal immune system responses such as phagocytosis[1] and antibody production (2). Many of the bacteria's virulence factors are anti-phagocytic in nature (2). Along with this ability, the Yersina pestis also grows inside lymph nodes of the body, where it avoids destruction by cells of the immune system (2). 
            The bacterium produced three different types of plague once it entered the body of its host (4). The first plague, the bubonic plague, was the most commonly seen form of the Black Death. The mortality rate was between 30-75%, and the enlarged and inflamed lymph nodes, which formed around the neck and groin, become its most noticeable symptom (4). In fact, the term 'bubonic' refers to these inflamed lymph nodes. Headaches, nausea, aching joints, fever of 101-105 degrees, vomiting were other symptoms of the plague (4). The pneumonic plague was the second most commonly seen form of the Black Death (4). The mortality rate for the pneumonic plague was 90-95% (if treated today the mortality rate would be 5-10%) (4). The pneumonic plague infected the lungs. Symptoms included slimy sputum[2] tinted with blood (4). The septicemic plague was the rarest form of all (4). The mortality was close to 100% (4). Symptoms were a high fever and skin turning deep shades of purple (4).
            Along with the cultural legacy that the Black Plague left on Western Culture, growing evidence points that there also remained a biological legacy left behind, a legacy, which is important today in the fight against other diseases.  Researchers in the UK claim that the Black Plague helped boost immunity to HIV (5). The Black Death that spread throughout Europe led to the unexpected benefit of leaving 10% of Europeans resistant to HIV infection (6). The Black Death apparently increased the prevalence of a certain mutation that protects against the virus. This mutation affects the protein CCR5 on the surface of white blood cells by preventing them from appearing on the cells (6). The HIV needs this protein in order to connect to the white blood cells, and be able to enter it (6).  This mutation helps not only against HIV, but also with other diseases such as the Black Death. The gravity of the Black Death favored carriers of the mutations by ensuring their survival over those without the mutations, leading to the large number of carriers in Europe, the area most affected by the plague (5).
            Never before has a plague affected a continent as harshly as the Black Death did. With a bacterium that developed methods of avoiding destruction in the human body, it in turn destroyed its human host. Understanding the plague from a biological perspective, allows for an understanding of how this plague spread and why it had the gravity that it did. In my opinion, the arts and literature often fail to demonstrate the plague accurately since personal trauma to the events led to distortion. Knowing the biology in a sense, leads to a greater and fuller understanding of the literature and art produced from this period. Recently research, such as the research with the mutation of the protein CCR5, leads to further questions about the plague and bodies nowadays. A question that emerges for me is the whether it is possible for the body to record the gravity of past plagues. In other words, from a biological point of view, is it possible for the body to work as a text of literature or art would?  
Work Cited


[1] The ability for the cells associated with the immune system to destroy invading organisms through digestion (3). 
[2] Sputum is saliva mixed with mucus exerted from the respiratory system (6).






Paul Grobstein's picture

the past imaged in the present: art and biology

"is it possible for the body to work as a text of literature or art would?"

That's a seriously interesting way to think about biology, one consonant with biological evolution: the body is indeed an image reflecting past events.