Plague — History Hijinks

History can help us in a lot of ways: when
we learn about the past we use the lessons to help us in the present yadda yadda blah
blah blah. But sometimes for uh, no reason in particular,
we just need a little escapism — jumping back to a simpler time to just enjoy the fun
stories and cool civilizations without all the stress. So today, we’re gonna get 700 years away
from all the worries of our modern world, and instead talk about plague…[laughing] oh god what am I doing? Aaaah—Okay! To take a quick peruse through this foreign
and exotic chapter in the story of our world, and dispel a myth or two, Let’s do some
History! Humans have seen a lot of plaguery throughout
the ages, from the plague of Athens to the Great Plague of Justinian to the Spanish Flu
to whatever the hell 2020 is doing, but right now we’re going to zero in on the big one:
The Black Death of 1347-1351. And, in an attempt to not scratch too fiercely
at the bottom of Ye Olde Plague Content barrel, I’m going to take what is hopefully a novel
angle on the subject. So I, uncharacteristically, won’t be dallying
too much on the effects in and around Italy. I know, such restraint. Venice, Genoa, and the other maritime republics
practically feature as the Protagonists of the early plague story because they carted
it westward, but we’re going back a little further, because our journey actually begins
with the Mongols. In the 12 and 1300s, they stretched out from
their East Asian homeland into roughly everywhere, and by the 1340s, they were on the doorstep
of the last big city in the Black Sea, the Crimean port of Caffa. The merchants in Caffa worked for the Republic
of Genoa and traded with the Mongols, so they were doing big business as a through-port
between Asia and Europe. This was a wildly lucrative operation, but
it wasn’t always smooth sailing. You’ve got lots of people handling large
amounts of money and cargo, so sometimes disagreements happen, sometimes street-fights happen, sometimes
a Mongol gets killed in a brawl and the offending party runs behind the city walls for cover,
and sometimes in this fully hypothetical scenario the Mongol leader is so enraged that they
decide to besiege the city about it. So in the rare event that this happens, Caffa
was a lot better off than most cities on the receiving end of Mongol wrath. Where they could typically obliterate any
city that didn’t roll out the red carpet for their new overlords, that strategy worked
best against inland cities with no long-term defenses beyond thoughts and prayers. Caffa, by contrast, was on the sea, and could
import supplies from Genoa all decade long to simply wait-out the Mongols. The good news for Caffa is that this worked,
but the bad news is that this worked slightly too well. By 1345, the Mongols had been camped outside
the walls for two whole years, and a batch of reinforcements had inadvertently imported
dun dun dun… the plague! Since its devastating first appearance in
the 500s AD, Yersinia Pestis had been a problem off and on in various parts of the world. Normally these were fairly localized since
long distance travel is complicated, but after the Mongols reconstructed the Silk Road, an
outbreak in China several years earlier had a much higher chance of crossing over to Western
Asia and beyond. So when the besieging army started dying en
masse, the Mongols cut their losses and gave up the siege. But before they left, they wanted Caffa to
share in their misery, so they used their trebuchets —not for their intended purpose
of launching a 90kg stone projectile over 300 meters— but to Yeet the hell out of
their plague-infested corpses. Now, Germ Theory was still several centuries
out, so the Mongols’ intent was likely just to make the city smell kinda bad, but what
they accomplished instead was, uh, bioterrorism. So this nightmarish scene of dead bodies literally
raining from the sky and piling into mountains of corpses had the added effect of plague
stuff. And for the people of Caffa who remained totally
chill through the past three years of siege, this is what finally made them bounce. Unfortunately for everyone in a 2,000 mile
radius, these trips made some stops. Constantinople, Alexandria, Sicily, Marseille,
northern Italy, aaaand then everywhere else. But ultimately, when the medieval world was
so interconnected both overland and by sea, it was only a matter of time before the already
active plague made its way west, Caffa or otherwise. So, with the disease making its way through
the world — and again, I know it’s hard to insert yourself into this 14th century
perspective, but just try and suspend your disbelief for the sake of the History — Let’s
take a look at how it got around. The problem for containment was that nobody
knew how it spread, so nobody knew quite how to stop it. Later epidemiologists in the 1890s figured
out that the disease was carried by fleas hitchhiking on rats, but our 1300s pals figured
the cause was somewhere between an imbalance of the Four Humors and the good-old-fashioned
Wrath of God. And at first, treatment wasn’t much more
refined, with responses ranging from “Oh no, it seems you’ve come down with Big Dead,
you should pray about it” to going full-Amontillado and bricking up sick houses. But in 1348, Ragusa and several other Italian
ports began requiring all incoming sailors to stay outside the city for 30 days, to stop
asymptomatic carriers inadvertently causing a mess. And one Italian city who shall not be named
but you know who, bumped those rookie numbers up to 40 days, called a “Quarantino”. It didn’t entirely stop yon plague from
barging in, but even a basic awareness that “transmission is a thing” helped with
the containment. All told, this was a pretty bad time for the
densely urbanized and interconnected cities of Europe, but we can’t forget that this
outbreak started in China, and they didn’t just stop having the plague when everybody’s
focus shifted to Europe after 1347. In the decades following the first wave, the
Mongol Yuan dynasty suffered debilitating power-vacuums and loss of workforce that caused
massive famines and eventually led to full on rebellions. In 1368 the Dynasty collapsed and got replaced
with the Ming. The plague also sped up imperial turnover
in Anatolia, where the Byzantine Empire’s cities (which at this point were not especially
numerous but still) quickly became hotspots after the initial infection of Constantinople. And so a small group of horse-bois who were
previously just a minor annoyance capitalized on the opportunity to conquer far outside
their homeland, and in just a couple decades these Ottomans had yoinked huge chunks of
Greece and Anatolia with relative ease, and effectively put Constantinople under house-arrest. Despite the various domino-effects of imperial
collapse, there were a few cities, communities, and even countries managed to tuck and roll
through the first wave. At the far northern edges of the world (so
far north in fact I need to use a different map, whoops) were Iceland and Finland, who
were so isolated from Mediterranean and mainland European trade that they were able to avoid
the plague for half a century, and benefitted from decades-long recovery periods between
successive waves. For a more erroneous example, if you’ve
ever looked up the Black Death online, you might have stumbled onto this map that shows
a huge blob of Poland as being Completely Fine, so there’s this myth that Poland,
for justifications ranging from “low population density and little outside trade” to “they
liked cats”, just dodged the plague, or at least had it way easier than the rest of
Europe. This partly owes to the extreme slimness of
primary sources and some aggressively revisionist narratives from Communist-era Poland, but
20th century communism is a totally different type of plague so we’re gonna leave that
one be and focus back on the medieval world, where the reality is that Poland was bordered
by plague in every direction, so let’s not kid ourselves, it got hit. Oh no, oh no no no no Cleo’s on the next
page of my script, Ahh, oh no I can’t wake her up. I mean I don’t know how I haven’t been
waking her up by talking right now, but, ooooh… Sorry fam, that’s the end of the video— But even in countries where we know the pestilence
was popping, some people benefitted from just tidying up. Take the city of Nuremberg, which had some
of the best public health measures in Europe: They maintained over a dozen public bathhouses,
streets were paved and cleaned, and garbage had to be disposed outside the city walls
instead of outside your window, which meant corpses were likewise carted out quickly and
cleanly. And some Jewish communities had similar results,
with various ritual purifications helping to keep them and their houses squeaky clean
and unappealing to the caravans of city-hopping rat tourists making their way across Europe. So, there are some rare cases of rolling a
nat-20 on a Plague-Save on this first go-round, but most of society got pretty uniformly clobbered
by this whole thing — A Rat-20, if you will. Soon enough, the plague’s first wave burnt
itself out and Europe staggered back to normality, eeexcept, eheh here’s the fun part: It came
back. Often. About once every other decade, new waves of
plague came crashing back in, with new epicenters each time. Luckily, and in an encouraging twist of fate,
people started getting wise to how this worked and how to stop it: widespread use of quarantines,
dedicated plague hospitals, straight-up stay-at-home orders, and of course, The Plague Doctor. Now, contrary to what various media such as
Assassin’s Creed would have you believe, the archetypical plague doctor didn’t come
into being until as late as the 1600s. The original suit designed by Charles De Lorme
featured a full-body covering with a beaked leather mask filled with perfume to keep out
those dastardly “Bad Airs” which were thought to cause plague. But this mask is a little rudimentary and
not very advertiser-friendly and it wasn’t until a century later, when plague was largely
in the rear-view mirror, that De Lorme’s design was fancied-up and aesthetic-ed to
all hell by way of the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte and Venetian Carnivale masks, which is where
we get the Beak Chic that we all love. So, despite the fact that plague was Rick-Steves-ing
its way over Europe for three straight centuries, it was only after the rats returned to their
day jobs that The Plague Doctor as we know him was born. And that’s a quick rundown of the barrel-of-laughs
that is The Black Death. And while I could say more because there’s
always more plague to discuss amiright?— I’m calling it here because the last few
months have been A Time and ya boi just needs a nap. So stay safe, read up on some plague history,
and make like our friend Il Medico by wearing a goddamn mask. Thank you for watching! The humor in this video will surely, well,
hopefully, be out of date within a couple years’ time. But for this present moment, we’d like to
thank our Patrons, whose gracious support has helped us keep the OSP wheels spinning
throughout the Everything that’s been going on. You guys are the best, and I’ll see you
in the next video.
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6i0u-flpTE

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