Humor Magazine

'Rats, Lice and Cataclysm'

By Davidduff

Wearing my full bio-chem protection gear I gingerly stepped back into Hans Zinsser's classic "Rats, Lice and History".  I began it some time ago but was diverted by other books - yes, "lacks concentration" was a frequent entry on my annual school reports! - but now I have returned.  Actually, there are so many implications to be taken from this extra-ordinary work that regular pauses are essential just to imagine the horrors.  Take this for example:

The Black Death, which was mainly bubonic plague, is one of the major calamities of history, not excluding wars, earth-quakes, barbarian invasions, the Crusades, and the last war [WWI to Zinsser].  It is estimated by [Justus] Hecker that about one quarter of the entire population of Europe [my emphasis] was destroyed by the disease - that is, at least 25,000,000.

It was, to paraphrase a modern saying, 'the disease that kept on giving' because it returned again and again, breaking out here, there and everywhere across Europe, beginnning in the middle of the 14th century and continuing, although in slightly less malignant form until well past the time of Samuel Pepys who describes his experience thus:

This day [June 7th 1665], much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors and "Lord have mercy upon us" writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw.  It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell and to chaw, which took away my apprehension.

Note to all those anti-smoking zealots - it ain't all bad!  But to be serious, the effects of these constant attacks in which great swathes of the population were wiped out in the most dire circumstances must have had considerable effects in the religious, political and social mores of the times.  Some idea of these complexities may be judged by this site which provides the first few pages (only) of the introduction to a book by David Herlihy entitled The Black Death: The Transformation of the WestIt is obvious that during his years of study, Herlihy, himself, changed his mind on several of the theories as to the exact causes and outomes of what he calls a 'transformation'.

For me, it simply beggars imagination to even try to conceive that over the course of 40-odd years in one century alone, this country was reduced to an approximation of Auschwitz, not once, not twice but three times.  Sometimes I detest this modern world but pondering on that piece of our history, well, suddenly it doesn't seem so bad after all.


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