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Understanding the Plague’s Past, Present, and Future

/ Published February 19, 2013

Mention the plague, and most people associate it with the Black Death, a pandemic that killed off half the European population between 1347 and 1353. What people may not know is that the European outbreak actually began in Central Asia in the 1330s and that it affected Asia and the Middle East as much as Europe.

Even fewer realize that there was an earlier pandemic of plague more than eight centuries before the Black Death or that the bacterium that causes the plague persists even today on every continent except Antarctica.

Lester K. Little, Dwight W. Morrow Professor Emeritus of History at Smith, points out that the plague is not just a thing of the past; it is still very much present in the world. A specialist in the social history of religion and religious movements in the European Middle Ages, he continues to conduct research into the global impact, history and potential of the plague. Earlier this year, he convened a short-term research project on the plague through Smith’s Louise W. and Edmund J. Kahn Liberal Arts Institute.

Anne Berman ’15, a student writer for Insight, sat down recently with Professor Little to discuss his teaching, his research and the book he edited, Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541–750 (Cambridge University Press, 2006). This collection of essays by 12 scholars examines the history, archaeology and epidemiology of the so-called Plague of Justinian, the first historically documented pandemic of bubonic plague in history. They also talked about his Kahn Institute project, Plague: Past Present and Future, and the interdisciplinary nature of the ensuing exploration of the pandemic.

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Professor Little’s office at Smith is spacious and secluded, in what was once (perhaps fittingly) a patient’s room in the original college infirmary, now known as Mason Hall. I am here to ask him about the plague, a topic that he is deeply passionate about. He tells me that in the 30 years he taught medieval studies at Smith, he always gave his students readings that mentioned the plague but didn't extensively research it himself until the 1990s.

Little has always focused on the connection between religion and society, exploring questions such as who gets to define morality and how ordinary people experienced religion in medieval times. “My teachers back when I was in school probably would have said, ‘You can't know that! You're dealing with a largely illiterate society....You'll never be able to get at regular people’s experiences with religion.’ But in the last few decades, there has been an explosion of evidence to the contrary.”

The bacterium Yersinia pestis, cause of the infectious disease known as "the plague," has never been wiped out.

As an example, he points to the saints and how they each have a life story or legend, which could be read by a priest or used as material for a sermon on the saint’s annual feast day. These are more than just myths and fairy tales, Little says—they can tell us a great deal about what these people believed.

Little has also made comparative studies of religious reactions to catastrophes. “When something like the plague strikes, already-religious people tend to shift to either of two ends of the spectrum. In one case, they become intensely pious, more pious than they've ever been. They used to go to church once a day? Now they go ten times. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, they figure that all of their praying has been for naught, and they abandon the whole idea.”

Today, Little emphasizes, although the actual plague—a specific infectious disease caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis—still exists, public reaction to it has diminished. So much so that the term “plague” is often used as a metaphor to refer to things that are oppressive or to bad news that travels at a speedy rate—as in “news of the plant closing spread like the plague.”

“In the 1980s it spread from southern China, thanks to the steamship, to ports in the rest of Asia, in Africa and in the Americas, including San Francisco. Since then it has become well established in all of the West Coast and Rocky Mountain states,” Little confirms. Although plague can be found in rats in North America, humans here are rarely infected these days, he assures.

Lester K. Little, Dwight W. Morrow Professor Emeritus of History

About three decades ago, a few scientists and historians raised doubts that the many versions of the plague throughout history were caused by the same bacteria. They began pointing out the differences between them, “arguing vociferously, making up diseases that it might have been. I started to realize, though, that they just weren’t making much sense,” Little says. The descriptions and symptoms of plague were too specific; there were no other known diseases with swellings of the lymph nodes and the other symptoms unique to the plague.

Then in 1988, some molecular biologists in France published findings—confirmed by several other groups in Europe—which settled, in Little’s opinion, the matter once and for all. Until their study, there had been no way of testing what people who had died long ago had contracted because the plague poisons the blood, which disappears from the body as it decomposes. It occurred to these French scientists, however, that a small amount of blood cells stays in molars forever. They were able to use the tiny amount of powder found in the teeth to determine whether bubonic plague was the same in cases hundreds of years apart. The results came back: DNA of Yersinia could be found in human remains from mass graves, confirming what scientists had always suspected but had never known for sure—that those buried there had died of plague.

In 1994, India experienced an outbreak of what appeared to be bubonic plague that killed around fifty people and sickened almost 700. The areas affected typified where modern-day breakouts of plague are most likely to occur, Little says: poor, densely populated communities where proper medical care is expensive and difficult for many people to obtain.

Death comes for the Fool in Hieronymus Hess’s The Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre, c. 1845.

Because Little felt that new knowledge of outbreaks of the plague and advances in scholarship called for a more interdisciplinary examination, he organized a short-term Kahn project, “Plague: Past, Present and Future.”

For the Kahn project, held last fall, he brought together scholars of English literature, Islamic theology, religion, art history, Renaissance history, modern Latin American history, chemistry, botany and dance. Among those participating was Kenneth Gage, chief of flea-borne disease activity at the Centers for Disease Control, “who we were wildly fortunate to have” and, Little explains, “was able to give a detailed explanation of how the disease kills and spreads.”

The scholars examined not only the details of how the bacterium that causes the plague attacks its victims but also the future potential of the plague, and whether it could ever be used as an agent of bioterrorism. It is unlikely, Little says, that the pandemic plague will be a biological weapon.

“A weapon of mass destruction using Yersinia pestis cannot be dismissed as impossible, but so far no one has figured out how to make one that is efficient,” he notes. “And while use of such weapons for a biological attack by large, powerful states also cannot be dismissed, the more likely attacks, as shown by recent experience, will come by way of small groups of terrorists using explosive devices.”

Other unique perspectives came from those representing an eclectic mix of disciplines. For example, Candice Salyers, a lecturer with the Smith dance department, discussed the Dance of Death (danse macabre), a frequent theme in art depicting the universality of death during the Black Death in Europe. She explains that the Dance of Death was commonly illustrated as a line of people from all social classes and walks of life standing hand-in-hand, with every other figure a skeleton.
“The story visually reminds us that we are all going to have the same death, and death is the greatest metaphor for social leveling,” Little says. This theme of the Dance of Death has lasted for centuries and is a cultural part of the plague’s history.

A botanist discussed elements in certain plants that were medicinal and useful in treating the plague; an art historian, with a specialty in Islamic architecture, talked about an elaborate mosque in Cairo built in the 14th century with money that came from the estates of plague victims; and a mathematician described the epidemiological modeling used to determine who is susceptible and how the plague might spread.

All in all, Little notes, “Given the encompassing nature of the disease, there are few areas of scholarship that the plague does not touch.”