Influence Of The Most Deadly Plagues On Literature

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There have been multiple plagues in history that have had an enormous impact on everything, especially literature. The plagues influenced what authors wrote about and why they wrote what they did. Everyone was affected by the plague in some way or another. The plagues have had so much influence on literature.

There are three different types of the plague: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. The pneumonic plague is the least common type and also the most deadly. The septicemic is the second most common type of plague. The bubonic plague is the most common type of plague (Szalay).

The bubonic plague is caused by the bite of an infected flea. The flea became infected after biting an infected rat. People who had this experienced flu-like symptoms along with tender and swollen lymph nodes, could be visibly inflamed and very large. These were called “buboes.” Which is where the bubonic plague got its name.

When the disease entered the body, it would find the nearest lymph nodes, shut down its defense, and duplicate itself. If left untreated, the bubonic plague spreads to other lymph nodes and keeps duplicating. Fortunately, this form of the disease can not spread person-to-person (Szalay). The second type of plague is the septicemic plague.

The septicemic plague is a plague of the blood. People got this from flea bites or direct contact with a infected animal. If they contracted it from an infected animal, the disease entered their body through cracks in their skin. The disease enters the bloodstream and duplicates. Infected people experienced flu-like symptoms as well as extreme weakness, shock, and abdominal pain. They could’ve also experienced internal bleeding, which would cause the skin to turn black and the skin would die. This was mostly seen on the nose, fingers, and toes (Szalay).

The third type of plague is the pneumonic plague. Which is the most deadly type, and, thankfully the least common. This type of plague can spread person-to-person. It infects the lungs. This type usually is transmitted through coughs.

People contracted it from their infected cats, since cats are susceptible to the plague. Patients get serious pneumonia, with fevers, chills, weakness, rapidly developing cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, and watery or bloody mucus. This type of plague even causes respiratory failure or shock (Szalay).

There have been multiple plagues throughout the world. The first recorded plague was called The Justinian Plague. This plague started in the year 541 in Egypt in Pelusium on the Nile River’s northern and eastern shores. It spread north and east. Outbreaks went on for the next 200 years and finally ended in 750 (“Plague”). Eventually, this plague killed over 25 million people (“Plague”). The Justinian Plague affected much of the known world, at that time, such as the Mediterranean Basin (“Plague”).

People would get this plague from infected fleas. The fleas would bite infected rats and then become infected, then the infected fleas would bite people. Rats traveled on grain ships and carts to Constantinople. North Africa was the primary source of grain for the empire. Grain was stored in warehouses, which is perfect breeding grounds for fleas and rats (Horgan).

Some symptoms of the Justinian Plague are delusions, nightmares, fevers, and swelling in the groin, armpits, and behind the ears. The Justinian Plague only had the bubonic plague type. Some people fell into comas, others became very delusional. Some people died right away, others suffered for a few days. They didn’t have the knowledge we do today. They used treatment that most likely didn’t do anything. They had medical personnel, who couldn’t help much because they didn’t know what to do. They also used home remedies. There have been two other recorded plagues in history(Horgan).

The second plague is known as Black Death, Bubonic Plague, Black Plague, or Great Plague. This plague originated in China in 1334 and spread along the trade routes to Constantinople and then Europe (“Plague”). The Black Plague killed about 60% of the European population (“Plague”). This plague is considered a factor in creating the Renaissance in the late 14th century. The last recorded plague is known as the Modern Plague (“Plague”).

The Modern Plague originated in China in the late 1860s. This plague spread by rats on steam ships (“Plague”). It killed approximately ten million people (“Plague”). This was a bacterial disease which can be treated with antibiotics, and if caught soon enough, can be prevented. This plague is more likely to occur in rural areas, because they have exposure to wild rodents (Szalay).

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There were two strands of the plague during this plague. There was a bubonic strand, which spread through transportation of cargo, people, and rats. There was also a pneumonic strand, which was mostly confined to Manchuria and Mongolia (Szalay). Unfortunately, plagues still exist in 3rd world countries.

There are a few ways that one could contract the plague. It is airborne, an infected flea or rat could bite you, and it spread very easily through port cities. No one knew how to cure or prevent a plague; they didn’t have the knowledge or technology we have today. They would try bloodletting and boil-lancing (Black Death). Bloodletting is when they would drain your blood, thinking the diseased blood would get out of the body. Unfortunately, they would take too much blood and the infected person would die.

Boil-lancing is when they would pop open the sores and let all the puss and everything drain out. They would also try burning aromatic herbs and bathing in rosewater or vinegar (Black Death). These things didn’t cure people, but maybe it distracted them so they felt less pain. When treating sick patients, the doctors would wear masks.

Doctors wore what are now known as plague masks. They wore these to protect themselves against getting the plague. They believed the plague was an airborne disease. The point of the long beak was to fill that space with sweet smells. They wanted to avoid what they called “bad air” or air that was infected with the plague. However, there is no evidence these masks were actually used. The Bubonic Plague usually killed a person in six days (White).

The first symptom was a blackish pustule, or pimple, at the point of the flea bite. After that, wherever you got bit will start swelling up. Next, below the skin hemorrhaging occurs, causing the purplish blotches. Those blotches are called buboes, and that’s how the Bubonic Plague got its name. The hemorrhaging causes cell necrosis and intoxication of the nervous system. This leads to neurological and psychological disorders (The Black Death 36-37).

Many people were affected by these plagues, especially authors. One major author, whom everyone knows, was affected greatly by the Bubonic Plague. William Shakespeare’s son died of this plague. His writings were all during the Bubonic Plague. His plays sometimes couldn’t be performed (Applebee et al).

If more than fifty people died a week from the plague, the theaters were shut down (Pollard xii). During several plague epidemics, theaters were shut down for as long as a year. During Shakespeare’s life, the plague was ongoing. It affected his writings and his plays. It might contribute to why he wrote about death and the afterlife as much as he did. “As we have many pocky corses…” (Hamlet 249). Shakespeare is talking about the Bubonic Plague and how when people died from this their bodies decayed quickly. Another author greatly affected by the plague is Geoffery Chaucer.

The plague entered Europe when he was about ten years old. Geoffery Chaucer is the author of The Canterbury Tales. This is a group of stories told by various characters all traveling together from London to Canterbury, running away from the plague. Two stories were told completely.

“The Pardoner’s Tale” is a story about three rioters who try to find Death and kill it. They want to kill Death because Death is killing their friends. “He’s killed a thousand in the present plague,” (Chaucer 144). Chaucer is personifying Death here, saying that he has killed a thousand people during the plague. In the story the rioters who go looking for Death are found by Death because they got too greedy. The other story that was told completely was “The Wife of Bath”.

This story was told on the travelers way to Canterbury. They were taking this journey because they wanted to outrun the plague. On the way several people told tales. In “The Wife of Bath” no one mentioned died of the plague. This story mostly talks about marriage and such. However, the plague did affect it because if the plague wasn’t happening they wouldn’t be trying to outrun it, hence the story wouldn’t have ever been told.

Another story that deals with the plague is “Federigo’s Falcon” by Boccaccio. This story belongs to a collection of tales told by ten characters. These characters were also trying to outrun the plague. It is assumed that the husband and son of Monna Giovanna in “Federigo’s Falcon” died of the plague. Another story that involves the plague is “On My First Son” by Ben Jonson.

Ben Jonson’s son died of the plague at the young age of seven. He was heartbroken when his son died. “Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;” (Jonson 459). He was thankful for the short time he had with his son. Jonson wrote this poem because his son died of the plague and he was devastated. A very well known nursery rhyme is about the plague.

Many young children sing this song and have no idea what the meaning behind it is. Scholars believe the ring-around the rosie is referred to a red circular rash caused by the plague. The posies represent the kinds of flowers people would carry around with them to ward off the disease. The ashes and falling down referred to sneezing and dying of the plague (What is the Real Meaning).

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