Legacy of the Black Death

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Diseases of epidemic proportion are becoming less common nowadays, but those of the past may have served an evolutionary purpose—weeding out the weak and making humanity stronger.

One of the most fabulously devastating epidemics in history was the “Black Death,” which peaked in Europe between 1348 and 1350.

Also known as the Black Plague or simply The Plague, it was so named for the delightfully disgusting (and painful) black buboes that appeared in the armpits, groin and other warm, moist areas of the body.

While there are many theories as to what exactly was the cause of the Black Death, the most widely accepted and probable cause was the bubonic plague.

This deduction is based on the scant amount of written evidence that we have to go on from various sources, which all points to a fast-spreading, incredibly lethal illness that had the potential to kill those infected, sometimes in as little as twelve hours.

From the author Giovanni Boccaccio we learn that those infected became symptomatic very quickly and presented with a cough and swollen, black, hardened lymph nodes.

The Italian author gives an idea of just how lethal the illness was by adding to his description that those infected might have breakfast with their family but were taking their dinner with their ancestors.

While this may seem like a writer playing fast and loose with the severity of one of the greatest epidemics in history, this is one of those cases of the truth being stranger than fiction.

While it may seem like the plague is behind us, what with modern medicine and modern human hygiene being of great importance, this is far from the truth.

In developing areas of the world, various members of the plague family still play a large part in people’s daily lives, though fortunately not to the scale that it did in 14th century Europe.

In the United States, cases of pneumonic and bubonic plague are occasionally reported in humans with only about 14% of them proving to be fatal when caught early. Outbreaks are most often found the Southwest states, where the majority of all reports of plague are related to infected animals, particularly prairie dogs.

Many pathologists believe that one reason massive plagues are less common today is that our ancestors who survived the worst of them, like the Black Death, passed on a hereditary resistance. It could be a case of “survival of the fittest” in the past providing a great benefit to society today.

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