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The Black Death: End of a Paradigm

The Black Death: End of a Paradigm

By Samuel K. Cohn Jr.

American Historical Review, vol.107: 3 (2002)

Procession of the Flagellants

Introduction: HIV/AIDS and the threat of biological warfare have refueled interest in the Black Death among professional historians, biologists, and the public, not only for assessing the toxic effects of the bacillus but for understanding the psychological and longer-term cultural consequences of mass death. This article makes two arguments. Against the assumptions of historians and scientists for over a century and what continues to be inscribed in medical and history texts alike, the Black Death was not the same disease as that rat-based bubonic plague whose agent (Yersinia pestis) was first cultured at Hong Kong in 1894. The two diseases were radically different in their signs, symptoms, and epidemiologies. The proof of these differences forms the major thrust of this article.

The second argument stems from the epidemiological differences between the two diseases. Humans have no natural immunity to modern bubonic plague, whereas populations of Western Europe adapted rapidly to the pathogen of the Black Death for at least the first hundred years. The success of their immune systems conditioned a cultural response that departs from the common wisdom about “plagues and peoples.” As far back as Thucydides, historians have seen the aftershocks of pestilence as raising the levels of violence, tearing asunder secular cultures, and spawning pessimism and transcendental religiosities. A fresh reading of the late medieval sources across intellectual strata from merchant chronicles to the plague tracts of university-trained doctors shows another trajectory, an about-face in the reactions to the plague after its initial onslaught. This change in spirit casts new light on the Renaissance, helping to explain why a new emphasis on “fame and glory” should have arisen in the wake of the West’s most monumental mortality.

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