Reading Update: Intro, Chapters 1 & 2 - The Antonine Plague and The Bubonic Plague

Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them - Jennifer   Wright

I'm a little bit behind with writing updates for this book. I must say that I have been enjoying what I have read so far, tho "enjoying" is not the right word when talking about the epidemics that caused millions and millions of deaths.


It is kind of a fun thought experiment to ponder what would have been if the fall of the Roman Empire had not been brought about by a smallpox (probably) epidemic, or if the superstitions of the Dark Ages had engrained themselves into societies as much as they did. If people would have found other reasons to persecute minorities such as the Jews and others to blame for ... something, anything really.

At the same time, would feudalism have seen the (few) changes it did because of the shift in powers from landowners to peasants, that rare source power that worked the land?


I've really been enjoying Wright's writing from the start of the book. She had me in the introduction with her witty asides that seemed to encapsulate so much more than a smirk-inducing quip:

"Whether a civilization fares well during a crisis has a great deal to do with how the ordinary, nonscientist citizen responds. A lot of the measures taken against the plagues discussed in this book will seem stunningly obvious. You should not, for instance, decide diseased people are sinners and burn them at a literal or metaphorical stake, because it is both morally monstrous and entirely ineffective.

Everyone would probably theoretically agree with this statement. But then a new plague crops up, and we make precisely the same mistakes we should have learned from three hundred years ago."


In Chapter 1, Wright tells us about life in Ancient Rome and about its the lack of sanitation. As much as I like the idea of travelling in time and meeting some of the characters of the time, the pong of the streets - with their occasional rivers of excrement - must have been horrendous. It's not new information for me. I remember pondering about that when visiting Pompeii as a teen, but the reaction is still the same: 


Why did the Romans come up with such excellent ideas as led piping, central heating, raised sidewalks and the accompanying stepping stones, but didn't bother with the removing the basic roots of the filth they were trying to either wash off or avoid?


  What I did miss in this chapter - imagery of naked Germanic tribesman going to war with the Romans notwithstanding - 

was a bit more of investigation of which kind of epidemic the Antonine Plague was. Wright writes that this is still subject to discussion among historians, but I would have liked to see more sources of references and descriptions (I know, I'm weird) here. From the descriptions she does give, it does sound like the symptoms of smallpox, if this is so clear, then why is there still a debate about it?



In Chapter 2, Wright discusses the Bubonic Plague. Mostly made made famous by the lads from Monty Python:


 What comes across as fun in the movies, must have been absolutely horrific in real life.

There are stories about how common it was for people to leave bread and water at a sick relative’s bedside, tell them they were going out to fetch supplies, and then abandoning them. The dying could be seen through the city plaintively rapping at their windows, hoping someone would come to ease their suffering.

The fourteenth-century historian Gabriel de Mussis remarks upon how, as people died, they still begged for their families to come to them: “Come here, I’m thirsty, bring me a drink of water. I’m still alive. Don’t be frightened. Perhaps I won’t die. Please hold me tight, hug my wasted body. You ought to be holding me in your arms.” De Mussis describes the streets ringing with the cries of dying children who had been locked out of their homes, and who wondered: “Father, why have you abandoned me? Do you forget I am your child? O, Mother, where have you gone? Why are you now so cruel to me when yesterday you were so kind? You fed me at your breast and carried me within your womb for nine months.”

This section knocked me sideways. It is easy to read about the plague in statistics and in terms of a series of events, but Wright's quotations of sources recording their own impressions of the time provide that extra insight into the fears and thoughts of the the people at the time. 


One of the fun elements of Wright's writing is her balancing the serious parts with more trivial bit of other information. I liked her diversion into the National Onion Associations FAQs:


"Even today the National Onion Association has to explain in its Frequently Asked Questions that placing chopped onions around your house will not prevent diseases. It is so strange and, I guess, quite selfless of the organization to do that."


Who knew onion broth was not a cure-all?


(Thinking about it, I feel like I'm missing out on a topical Sunday Soup post here...) 


One thing about her story about Nostradamus' reason for success in curing or preventing different outbreaks of the plague, made me question the accuracy of her writing, tho: 


If Nostradamus' success with the rose pills came down to including vitamin c into a poor diet, where in the recipe does the vitamin C come from?


Take some sawdust or shavings of cypress-wood, as green as you can find, one ounce; iris of Florence, six ounces; cloves, three ounces; sweet calamus [cane palm], three drams; aloes-wood six drams. Grind everything to powder and take care to keep it all airtight. Next, take some furled red roses, three or four hundred, clean, fresh, and culled before dewfall. Crush them to powder in a marble mortar, using a wooden pestle. Then add some half-unfurled roses to the above powder and pound. And shape into pills.


I already look forward to the next section about the Dancing Plague.