Plague studies

In the Wake of the Plague: the Black Death and the world it made

Norman Cantor <em>Simon & Schuste

A new academic discipline is about to be invented for the 21st century. It will probably be called plague studies. There is now a vast literature which imagines that the spectre of infectious disease is haunting modern society. In the west today, there is a palpable sense of physical disintegration, accompanied by prophecies of doom. Adding to the established fears of population explosion, global warming and asteroids hitting and destroying the earth, there is now apprehension about a new epidemic of infectious disease.

Apocalyptic thinking absolutely revels in events such as the outbreaks of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease. Such incidents are invariably endowed with a profound moral significance focusing on the alleged degradation of contemporary humanity. Typically, such epidemics are depicted as the result of thoughtless human interventions in the natural world. The message is that it is payback time, nature threatening to take its revenge on an arrogant species. The new plague literature adopts a messianic tone and promiscuously plunders the past for symbols with which to convey its message of doom. The burning pyres of animal flesh evoke a sense of medieval foreboding, and the phrase "We have been here before" trips off the tongue far too readily. Norman Cantor's In the Wake of the Plague is very much in the "we have been here before" genre.

In recent years, western culture's disillusionment with biomedicine has been reinforced by the consolidation of a culture of fear that believes humanity's continued existence faces an unprecedented level of danger. So Arno Karlen, in his Plague's Progress, projects a "massive global die-off", which might result from a "revised bubonic/pneumonic plague, a virulent new flu virus, a new airborne haemorrhage fever, or germs that lurk undiscovered in other species". Seen from this perspective, the Black Death is a subject for news and current affairs, rather than historical reflection. Cantor notes that one reason why he was prevailed on to write his book is because the "press considered the Black Death a timely topic".

The Black Death? A timely topic? Well, yes - if you consider this 14th-century catastrophe to be a dry run for our experience with "mad-cow disease" or foot-and-mouth. Cantor seems to adopt this cheerful perspective, and although In the Wake of the Plague purports to be a historical analysis, the reader is never certain whether it is about the breakdown of medieval society or the plight of 21st-century rural folk in Devon. What we have are two parallel worlds that occasionally move to overlap each other. As the author self-consciously points out, recent articles and stories about current diseases and pandemics "raise remarkable parallels or connections to the Black Death".

By reading history backwards, Cantor succeeds in unearthing a number of remarkable parallels between our unhappy experience with BSE and HIV/Aids and the medieval Black Death. However, these astonishing parallels appear to be the product of the modern cultural narrative of fear, rather than of any historical discoveries. Using imaginative speculation, Cantor offers an analysis of the plague, which resonates with contemporary concerns about microbes jumping from one species to another. The author questions the historical consensus that regards bubonic plague as being behind the Black Death. He raises the hypothesis that the culprit was not only bubonic plague but also anthrax, a virulent, anti-humanoid form of cattle disease. There is no scientific evidence to support this thesis, and Cantor makes no attempt to present any hard facts. Instead, he jumps ahead a few centuries to discover clues that might suggest that anthrax can be transferred from cows to human beings, and kill off millions. He does this not by exploring the epidemiology of anthrax, but by reawakening our anxiety about Aids. Cantor points to the claim made by some scientists, suggesting that Aids was transmitted to human beings through chimpanzees. If chimpanzees can transmit Aids, then presumably cows can pass on anthrax to people. Cantor also plays the BSE card. Again, he argues that, because mad-cow disease killed humans who ate infected meat, the transmission of anthrax via a similar route cannot be ruled out. He also mobilises another contemporary theme to sustain his argument: the evil of intensive farming. According to In the Wake of the Plague, prior to the Black Death, European people's passion for red meat created an enormous increase in cattle ranching. And because animals raised in crowded conditions are prone to cattle epidemics - yes, you guessed it - a virulent form of mad-cow disease was probably responsible for the Black Death.

Cantor has one last trump card up his sleeve - outer space. In case the anthrax story doesn't do it for you, readers are presented with a recycled theory that the Black Death originated in outer space. According to this one, first propounded by Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, comets occasionally expel large quantities of space dust containing bacteria, and this space dust falls to earth. And who knows, the Black Death may have had an ultimate, extraterrestrial origin. Certainly, by the end of the book, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the plague that wiped out one-third of Europe's population between 1347 and 1351 bears an uncanny resemblance to the latest offerings from Hollywood.

Yet in one sense, Cantor is right. Infectious diseases continue to exact a heavy toll on humanity. However, unlike in the medieval era, we are far from helpless in the face of such menace. With the notable exception of HIV/Aids, the infectious diseases that ravage modern-day populations are not ones that we cannot cure. Cholera, dysentery, malaria, tuberculosis and measles are diseases that thrive in poor societies, which lack the institutions and resources to contain them. Even HIV/Aids is now regarded as treatable, if not curable. There are no parallels today with the medically helpless medieval era. Yes, we screw things up, but what distinguishes our era is the speed with which medical science identifies the causes of disease and develops immunisation, treatment or effective preventive measures. The Black Death is history.

Frank Furedi's Paranoid Parenting is published by Allen Lane, The Penguin Press (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A spin too far