The For Fact’s Sake columns are – according to Google and the Duck ’n Fiddle’s Explanation of Everything – based in truth. Occasionally however, names and places have been changed to protect innocent people involved.

Atishoo! Atishoo! My kingdom for a tissue!

Without getting too morbid on the subject of pandemics, poxes and plagues, some research concerning their origins proved interesting enough to share.

Apparently there are two main culprits: Bubonic – injected into the bloodstream, e.g. by flea bites, or Pneumonic – air-borne and inhaled. We’re currently grappling with the latter, but let’s take a look back at how the gods periodically culled humans with new variations of plagues.

Man has suffered from deadly viruses since Adam, the first being recorded in Babylon in 3 000 BCE which wiped out a third of the local population. Then those Biblical plagues in Egypt were pretty rough going, but for the known world at the time, worse was yet to come.

Around the year naught, the Roman Empire was in full throttle, and they’d created trade-routes throughout Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor and beyond. A disease (bubonic), spread across the whole region via these routes, and lasted for 52 years, killing roughly 100 million people – a large portion of the then-known world’s population.

A few other pandemics popped up over the next few centuries (664 in England/Ireland), but the next viral tsunami was the Black Plague with its multiple sources of origin. One source is claimed to have come from the East.

Some corpses of missionaries returning home from Mongolia along the regular trade routes were exhumed, analysed and found to be infected.

With the fleas carried by rodents throughout the Empire’s spider web of trade routes, the plague flourished for 60 years, and continued to terrorise the world for the next four centuries.

In 1348 about a million people died around Florence alone. That same year, Pope Clement VI, who was living in France, organised a pilgrimage to Rome, and proudly mustered up one million devotees for the 500-mile trek. Only 100 000 returned.

By the end of the 14th century, 25 million deaths were recorded – about a third of Europe’s population. What became of the Mongolians is uncertain, but they obviously didn’t give up inventing things, because a more recent virus seems to have its roots in the same neck of the bamboo.

About 45 plagues were recorded between 1500 and 1720, the most notorious being in London (1666). Until then, nearly 70 000 Londoners had perished, and as a preventative measure – I hate to even mention this – they burned all dogs, cats, mice and rats, hopefully with all their accompanying fleas.

It was too little too late. In retaliation against this animal abuse, a conspiracy of cats set alight a shop in Pudding Lane which spread like… well, like wildfire. It raged for four days, reducing 80% of London to ashes. Other major outbreaks occurred in Marseilles (1720), and then of course there was the Spanish flu (1918), which didn’t even originate in Spain. Not directly involved in WWI, they were the only major European country able to maintain records of all the other countries’ deaths, and became the archive for information and statistics – hence the misleading label.

Descriptions and drawings from 1720 show doctors wearing thick clothing, gloves, and masks with sewed-in ‘beaks’ containing fragrant herbs to ward off the evil smells that carried the pox. Currently, we’re encouraged to follow suit, although thick clothing is optional, and inhaling ‘fragrant herbs’ is fairly common these days anyway. But most of us have become accustomed to wearing a mask, reduce nose-picking, and to stop French-kissing strangers on impulse.

Safety guidelines in various sports have been introduced globally, and one quaint precaution has bounced up in cricket. Occasionally we’ll see a fielder wearing two hats/caps. One belongs to the bowler, and for health/safety reasons, the umpire may no longer hold on to his cap while he’s bowling, as was the tradition since the Flintstones. Apparently, passing the virus on to a teammate is preferable.

Well, that’s just not cricket! Anyone for tennis?

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