The Lived Experience of the Black Death
Megan Webb (The College at Brockport)
The Spectrum: A Scholars Day Journal: Vol. 1: Iss. 1, Article 8 (2011)
The historiography of the Black Death includes a debate as to the exact epidemiology of the pathogen that struck Europe in 1348. Various historians have chimed in as to what, exactly, may have been the root cause of the pestilence – with theories ranging from bubonic plague to anthrax or influenza. There is also a question as to whether this debate is even relevant to the study of the Black Death – whether a confirmed medical diagnosis can illuminate a new understanding of the pestilence, or if the epidemiological debate only serves to obfuscate the Black Death’s greater historical consequences. This paper argues that the lived experience of the body is an important and insufficiently explored, sector of historical inquiry. The presentation, treatment, and attitudes associated with a specific disease are effected by its biology. Understanding the epidemiology of that disease is therefore integral to understanding a culture’s reactions to its incidence.
To appreciate the importance of the biological effects of disease on a society’s lived experience, it can be useful to look at modern examples. Polio provides an excellent example. Children who survive an infection of polio – and escape the neurological incapacitation that can result in disability up to paraplegia – have a fifty percent chance of suffering the similar effects of post-polio syndrome later in life. Similarly, children and adults who survived chicken pox unscathed can later be at risk for developing shingles. Syphilis, when left untreated, can cause its victims to go insane. The epidemiology of a specific disease can have far-reaching consequences both for the patients that suffer from it and the society as a whole