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”The black death” by Barbara Tuchman

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  • Pages: 5
  • Word count: 1119
  • Category: Death

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The bubonic plague was one of the most deadly catastrophes of the Middle Ages. It is well chronicled by many historians, although not many accounts are able to capture the reader’s attention so well as that of Barbara Tuchman. Historian Barbara Tuchman’s integration of animated writing and careful research serves to create a palatable and pleasing, although quite repulsive, essay. In her essay, “‘This is the End of the World’ The Black Death,” Tuchman writes about the bubonic plague. Her essay includes descriptions of the plague and the filth associated with it. Tuchman uses excerpts from the writings of historians contemporary to the plague in addition to her own writing to accurately depict the sense fear characteristic of that time period. She also expresses a sense of chaos due to the enormous losses inflicted by the plague. Tuchman conveys a sensation of impending doom to the reader using these descriptions of filth, fear, and chaos.

Tuchman accurately depicts the filthy environment that fostered the plague and the foulness of the disease itself. The thorough details that Tuchman presents with such relish are nauseating: the disease manifested itself as “spreading boils” and black markings on the skin indicative of internal bleeding; swellings oozing blood and pus the sizes of eggs or apples showed in the armpits and groins of the infected ones; “everything that issued from the body- breath, sweat, blood from the buboes and lungs, bloody urine, and blood-blackened excrement- smelled foul.” The disease festered in the closely packed cities; even distant villages were infected. Women, confined to the boundaries of the home, were more prone to the disease due to the fact that they were more exposed to fleas.

Morning light revealed new piles of bodies. In Florence the dead were gathered up by the Compagnia della Misericordia- founded in 1244 to care for the sick- whose members wore red robes and hoods masking the face except for the eyes. When their efforts failed, the dead lay putrid in the streets for days at a time. When no coffins were to be had, the bodies were laid on boards, two or three at once, to be carried to graveyards or common pits. Families dumped their own relatives into the pits, or buried them so hastily and thinly “that dogs dragged them forth and devoured their bodies.”

-Tuchman 220

Tuchman uses this to paint a picture of the ambient atmosphere; the plague seems to have eliminated all traces of hygiene that the people may have once claimed to possess. Bodies, when rotting in the streets, do not do much in the way of promoting health and general cleanliness. Tuchman cites one contemporary chronicler of the plague, Henry Knighton, who reported 5,000 dead lying in one field, spreading a hideous odor, “their bodies so corrupted by the plague that neither beast nor bird would touch them.” The dead, in addition to emitting an appalling stench, coloured the lives of the survivors with a touch of fear.

“Amid accumulating death and fear of contagion,” writes Tuchman, “people died without last rites and were buried without prayers, a prospect that terrified the last hours of the stricken.” A Franciscan friar of Piazza in Sicily, writes Tuchman, reported, “Magistrates and notaries refused to come and make the wills of the dying, even the priests did not come to hear their confessions.” In one city, the incessant tolling of the bells for the dead cast a pall of fear, causing the city officials to restrict mourning.

The catastrophic effects of the bubonic plague were not of the kind to spark chivalry and good-will into the hearts of men; fear of contagion made men shy away from each other. Fear made the people forget themselves; instead of mourning what they had lost, the survivors rejoiced, for they were still alive. Fear nurtured a kind of callous empathy. Tuchman cites one chronicler, Agnolo di Tura, who wrote, ” Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another, for this plague seemed to strike through the breath and sight. And so they died.” Just as the poor died, the rich and the authorities died as well. The death of so great a number of people in so short a time lent a hand in the lawlessness of the times.

With the death of the authorities came anarchy; chaos was the supreme ruler during the time of the bubonic plague. People turned phlegmy and abandoned their responsibilities, giving no thought to the future. The remaining survivors, rather than uniting and salvaging what was remaining to them, crudely abandoned their duties and burdens to the ravages of time and nature. For an economy so heavily dependent upon annual harvests for both food and seed, the suddenly dwindling numbers of workers was disastrous. Fields went unharvested, and cattle wandered freely. Nature reclaimed vast stretches of harvested land.

Lawlessness and debauchery accompanied the plague as they has during the great plague of Athens of 430 B.C, when according to Thucidydes, men grew bold in the indulgence of pleasure: “For seeing how the rich died in a moment and those who had nothing immediately inherited their poverty, they reflected that life and riches were alike transitory and the resolved to enjoy themselves while they could.” Human behavior is timeless. When St. John had his vision of plague in Revelation, he knew from some experience or race memory that those who survived “repented not of the work of their hands…. Neither they repented of their murders, nor of the their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.

-Tuchman 225-226

Tuchman uses this to portray the feelings of self-rule and self-interest reflected in the hearts of men. Structure had vanished, only to be replaced by turbulence and disorder. Order had been abandoned, and thus chaos was born. Chaos and his ever-present partners, fear and filth, united to oppress the hearts and minds of men.

Tuchman skillfully weaves together the elements of filth, fear, and chaos to create an undertone of doom. “The sense of a vanishing future created a kind of dementia of despair,” she writes. The essay gives one the feeling that the plague unravels the work of centuries with its widespread destruction. Chaos, coupled with fear and filth, creates a brooding sense that makes one feel as if the future holds no hope; the future has been snatched away and in its stead has come apocalypse. Her essay, so aptly named “This is the End of the World,” takes the reader on a journey through a period of time marked by a catastrophe so great that, indeed, one feels as if it truly is the end of the world.

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