Monday, August 10, 2009

Plague (Peste)

GHenry of Goldfish Broth dropped a plague reference a few weeks ago and it made me remember how much I like the subject. I've always had a keen interest in historical plagues and related archaeology.

The Bubonic Plague occurrences are some of the most horribly devastating, but fascinating, recorded events; even worse than the dreaded Swine Flu.

This cute little guy would be a prime suspect in an outbreak of plague occurring in the Southwest US.

It's a bit morbid, but one reason all this is interesting to me is that if we ever get into a situation where antibiotics are in short supply, or we have a drug resistant pandemic, we could all be in a very similar situation to our ancestors who saw the awful Bubonic Plague.

The crossroads of the East and West in terms of commerce in the Middle Ages was Venice. Along with Marseille and a few other busy shipping ports, Venice has frequently been a 'jumping off' point for infection. In Venice, most visitors know the story of the imposing church of the Salute situated across the Grand Canal from St. Marks square.

The year was 1630 and 46,000 people in the city itself and 94,000 in the lagoons had died in a most horrific way. The Republic of Venice vowed a bargain to build a church if the pestilence would take a hiatus. Strangely enough it did that very year, and the Venetians made good on their word by building a great church. There are also other older plague churches in Venice built as offerings, San Rocco (with its great Tintorettos), San Giobbe, and San Sebastiano.

At some point, the Venetians established the quarantine island of Lazzaretto Vecchio to place the infected who almost invariably died. So whether arriving in a ship as a lowly crew member or a wealthy lord from a palazzo, those with the signs of the disease were taken to the small island. The first graves were proper and they took time to wrap in cloth. But towards the zenith of the epidemic, those responsible for moving the dead (or almost dead) would just dump carts into trenches.

On this island in 2007, workers digging a foundation for a new plague museum uncovered mass graves. Archaeologists have found more than 1500 victims in just the areas dug so far. The new museum on Lazzaretto Vecchio is definitely on my list of things to see this Fall.

Another much older island now covered completely with water had been found in the 1960's with victims from the famous 1348 outbreak, San Marco in Boccalama. Near the same island in 1996, they found two 700 year old barges which might have been used to move plague victims to the quarantine island.

Don't be afraid to see the new Venice plague museum, or have fear of the catacombs in the major cities like Rome and Paris which undoubtedly would contain some plague victims. We are more resistant to the plague bacteria now because our ancestors were the ones who lived. Plus we have antibiotics to help out, for now. The World Health Organization reports 1000 to 3000 occurrences of plague each year.

Mi auguro che il museo di Lazzaretto Vechio sarà aperto da ottobre 2009. Storia della peste a Venezia è molto interessante.


  1. Interesting piece. I also find a sort of horrified fascination in epidemics and pandemics - reminds me that we are still very much subject to the vagaries of viral and bacterial population explosions.

    Archeologists in Venice should get a bit more respect for making their job just that bit more challenging.
    "Let's do a dig!"
    "In a canal!"

  2. Don't be afraid to visit a plague museum? Yeah, as if I would be afraid, afraid of tripping on my shoelace, smashing through the glass of an exhibit, managing to inhale a somehow-still-living piece of Bubonic skank before going to a football game, spreading it and killing off the world in a couple of weeks.

  3. Great post!
    The first epidemics of plague probably were not as catastrophic in the Netherlands as they were in many other parts of Europe, which is remarkable since the Netherlands was, together with Northern Italy, the most populous region of Europe. But the great plague of Britain is thought to have arrived with Dutch trading ships carrying bales of cotton from Amsterdam.

    Although it is not something I have experienced (thank Gawd!), bubonic plague = horrific.

  4. I would worry more about digging up some sort of nasty bud from the ground in these digs than the plague bacteria themselves.

    I would also tend to fear a breakout of the Hanta virus more than the plague, but that's just me.

  5. Yeah, I'd think I'd pass on that.

    Interesting to read, sure, but I'll keep my distance thanks. If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all. ;)

  6. It's funny that you've written a post on plagues as I'm reading a book about the terrible plague in South Africa during the early years of 1900. So many families were wiped out thanks to this unfamiliar and (back then) untreatable disease that turned out to be diphtheria. It's good to know they finally figured out the DNA strand for AIDS which, in some cultures around here, is also considered a plague.

    La ringrazio per la lezione di storia; non ho mai conosciuto tutti questi fatti interessanti su Venezia!

  7. You never cease to amaze me with your vast wealth of knowledge. We were actually talking about the plague this weekend- someone was telling me that the Pope actually consulted a scientist to keep him safe.

  8. Have you ever read Kristin Lavransdatter? It has some excellent plague moments in it.

  9. Yeah I hope those archaeologists are wearing thick gloves and face masks!!! You don't want to mess with the plague.

  10. Uh.... Hi Eric! I see we're deep thinking and educational this morning! Forgive me if I don't book a trip to your exciting destination any time soon? I will happily stay here, awaiting to hear your exciting stories, from a safe distance lol.

  11. The Jules,
    Thanks, I have to remember to add 'Outbreak' as one of my profile favorite films (even though some parts were a bit over dramatacized and fanciful to keep up the pace).
    I would donate time to a Venice canal dig in a heartbeat, so much history there.

    The idea does seem a bit scary, but then as long as you don't get the respiratory kind of plague and you catch it early enough, it would be ok.
    Maybe I won't go into the catacombs with the rats and such?

    Dutch Donut Girl,
    Thanks! From what I've read, so much of it has to do with the precise weather and temperatures required for the fleas and bacteria to live. I imagine the cold probably saved the Netherlands quite a few lives.
    Yes, if you really want to be freaked out, you can look up photos of actual plague victims. Any kind of hemoraging disease is just an awful way to die. I still get creeped out that the nursery rhyme 'Ring Around the Rosie' is actually a childrens poem about the plague.

    I agree, we are probably all a bit more resistant to the plague because we descended from the survivors. And Hanta and others like it are terrifying because there is not much you can do as you could with plague. But, if we were in a war zone where antibiotics were hard to obtain, I could see the plague making a comeback.
    At least people would know what causes it.

    Your luck can't be that bad, you are too pretty to have bad luck all the time.

    That is really interesting, I've never read anything about epidemics in South Africa. I'll have to look that up this week.
    Spero non troppo tanti lezione di storia... e stanci di leziones :)

    Thanks, how cool that you were discussing the plague. I think it's good to keep in the back of our minds that we are not always masters of our own destiny.
    I hadn't heard about the Pope turning to science for plague avoidance.

    I have not, but I absolutely will before I go to Venice in the Fall. I've read the Decameron dual language book to work on my Italian, but most of the stories don't deal directly with the plague.
    I hope that my Italian doesn't sound like someone from the fourteenth century now (when the Decameron was written) because I've been studying that one quite a bit.

    I agree, don't mess with the plague, even with a pill bottle of antibiotics and pitcher of water ready to go.

    Sorry, I didn't mean to get too educational, but it is archaeologically interesting to me since half the population of Europe died because of this.
    You can safely go to Venice, just don't go digging up old graves or playing with rodents. I'm paranoid about birds and pigeons. Uh-oh, Venice has lots of pigeons.
    BTW - Welcome back from your cool art convention!

  12. Fascinating - I used to live close to the mur de peste in France, a wall in Provence that was built to try and keep the plague being spread by people trying to come inland from Marseille

  13. Bring out your dead...I remember seeing monuments throughout Europe that were dedicated to plague victims. I'm glad I live at this time in history even though it probably just gives me a false sense of security.

  14. isn't the plague worse than leprosy!?

  15. Ah, if only it worked that way! Lol.

  16. No way can that cute little guy be responsible for something like that!

    I would totally get the plague, wouldn't I.

  17. Lulu,
    That is great, I saw parts of that wall when I was there. Serious business keeping out the plague...

    You are right, such a false sense of security we have.

    Mr. Condescending,
    Either of them would probably ruin your day, but it depends on if you want to die quick or slow.

    Really? Are you sure you aren't just a bit luckier than average?

    Yes, you probably would have if you lived back in the 14th century. Although you do have cats, which might have kept the rodent population down in your home.

  18. Very interesting, I didn't know all that. It's a scary thought, but I'll be we'll live to see something similar. What shall we offer to Obama??

  19. Nikki,
    We probably will see a pandemic at some point.
    Offer to Obama? All our tax money isn't enough? :)

  20. Ooo I'd love to visit that plague museum. I've always been fascinated with the horrible scourge diseases and their effect on history.

  21. Prunella,
    That's right, you mentioned that before I remember. Venice was 'ground zero' for several of Europe's plague waves.

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