Everything Has Always Been Terrible

A series in which I reflect on how, as the Buddha pointed out, life is suffering.

Plague of Justinian

It’s the original, the one, the only, first plague pandemic, and it got named after the man in charge, Justinian. For the next 200 years, this stuff, plague, would pop up and destroy, much like a mouse discovering where a teacher’s snacks are and gnawing through the bag of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies.

Justinian looking damn good in Ravenna do I have a thing for him oh my I guess I do.

I’m a fan of Justinian’s, only because he had a lot of gorgeous mosaics installed as he had Hagia Sophia built. They’re in Constantinople (which is in Istanbul, if you’ve a date).

Justinian was possibly the last Roman empire to speak Latin as his native tongue, and this makes me feel wistful.

But here’s the coolest thing about him: married this woman, Theodora, even though she was an actress. An actress! Justinian’s uncle had just changed the law so you could marry an actress.

He was an all-around friend to women, passing laws related to prostitution, women’s prisons, rape, and the rights of wives to keep their husbands from buying Teslas (or anything else that put them into great debt).

Yes, Justinian was on our side, ladies, as much as a leader from 1,500 years ago could be.

Justinian was living his best life. He was getting the empire back under (Roman) control.

Until, in 535, there was terrible drought and some other crazy weather in the empire. People think it could have been due to a volcanic eruption, or a comet strike. It wasn’t cool and people were freaked out.

And then in 542, the plague.

Bulbonic plague.

Historians are pretty unsure about exactly how bad it was, but it was bad. Maybe 15 million people died? Maybe 100 million? Maybe 25% of Europe’s population? Or maybe 60%? At this moment in history, it looks like scholars think this plague was exaggerated, was not nearly as bad as the Black Death.

It wasn’t great, though.

Justinian himself got plague, but survived. Like many other leaders we’ve discussed here, he had a problem with way too many dead bodies. One unique solution was to put them on boats and give ’em all a burial at sea. Other bodies were dumped inside old military structures and then they bricked them in.

Historian of the day Procopius wrote that people thought the disease was caused by a demon that would come to you in a dream, or right when you woke up. So some people were like, lock all the doors!

Procopius, who would be better looking if he saw the emperor’s barber, rather than the barber who cut the emperor’s barber’s hair. Unfortunately he lived before the invention of the two barbers riddle.

Locking your door and staying home was not a bad idea.

This round of plague technically lasted until the year 750. For 200 years, it waxed and waned.

So if you feel like covid has gone on forever, well, you’ll be dead long before covid competes with plague. That’s the good news and the bad news, I suppose.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this series, it’s that no matter how shitty things look right now, there are vast swaths of shitshow when you start looking at the past. At anyone’s past.

Everything Has Always Been Terrible

A series in which I recall that suffering in human life is something all humans have in common.

Ever seen professional medical portraits of a tongue progressing through a disease? Well, I hadn’t.

Cadiz Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1800

You don’t know until you know. Is the vague statement I am making to begin this entry. (Apologies to Perd Hapley.)

You look good, bro.

You don’t know if bad smells are the smell of sickness, and you don’t know that mosquitos are much worse than they seem (which is pretty bad). You don’t know that a cannon blast won’t clear the air. Or if vinegar and garlic are as protective as they are fragrant.

You don’t know who to blame, either, though in this case the blame was placed on Cuba. People went from Spain to Cuba, sure, and it turns out they also went back.

What’s wrong, bro?

Dr. Jose Maria Mocino was good enough to be honest about how useless doctors were: “I cannot disguise the fact, that in effect we found ourselves in disagreement about the nosological determination of the disease, about its etiology, about its pathological nature, and as a consequence about the therapeutic, preventative and hygienic matters it necessitates.”

That’s the kind of BS advanced study will teach you to write, friends.

Uh, bro…?

Like many doctors of the day, Mocino suspected that yellow fever had something to do with swampiness. Man you’re almost there. Who… lives… in a swamp… and has blood contact with people?

If only we could go back and fill people in.

Though it might create a disturbance in the space-time continuum.

o snap

Images above are from a study done by doctors Etienne Pariset and Andre Mazet in Cadiz, not in 1800, but in 1820, and I think you’ll forgive the slight move forward in time in order to enjoy such quality professional portraits.

I’m sure that guy was fine in the end.

Pariset wrote something called Mémoire sur les causes de la peste et sur les moyens de la détruire (On the causes of the plague, and how to destroy it). Which is a title I might use someday.

Etienne Pariset, with a big of “oh, yeah?” in his eyes.

Now I’m going to digress: Pariset did his dissertation on uterine hemorrhage, and then became head of the “mental illness” department of a hospital (periods make ya crazy, amirite ladies?). In 1810 he served on a committee to improve conditions for people with mental illness. Why did he go from mental illness to yellow fever?

Good question.

Oh, and he and was good friends with famed archeologist Jean Francois Champollion, who helped decode the Rosetta Stone.

One last bit: in 1845 he helped found the French Society for the Protection of Animals, serving as their first president until his death.

Pariset’s grave in Paris, in Pere Lachaise, where I went many years ago. I very well might have walked past it, because I got quite lost looking for Chopin’s grave.

Anyway, In five months in 1800, around 8,000 people died of yellow fever in Cadiz.

Today we have a cheap vaccine for yellow fever, offering lifetime immunity without a booster. Good work, scientists. Sadly, on the African continent about 30,000 people a year die of yellow fever. This is due to a scarcity of vaccine, among other factors.

People are working on it. The UN World Health Organization hoped to vaccinate everyone by 2026, but I’m guessing covid may have set them back a bit. Their campaign is called EYE (Eliminate Yellow Fever Epidemics), and that strikes me as quite the misnomer.

Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I gently suggest that I’m not the only person to be frustrated, though it certainly feels that way.

Quebec Smallpox Epidemic of 1776

Death of General Richard Montgomery in the attack on Quebec on 31st December 1775 in the American Revolutionary War: picture by John Trumbull
The Battle of Quebec. American revolutionary, General Richard Montgomery, who definitely did not die in this elegant way, but boy does the painter make it look good.

Why isn’t Quebec part of the United States? Yes, it’s due to one of your favorite Terrible Things: smallpox.

Notorious baddie Benedict Arnold was up north in the winter of 1775-6. The rebels were trying to push the British back, and to add more territory to these United States, too, I guess. They had already won Montreal. They had about 2,500 soldiers, and about a third of them came down with smallpox.

Some might say rebels got smallpox from seductresses of the north, wily women who deliberately lay with American troops in order to infect them.

But maybe that’s just what those filthy disloyal American sluts claimed. I’m not sure.

British troops were much less affected by smallpox. Many of them had already had the disease and survived, or had been vaccinated.

American soldiers tried to inoculate themselves. Smallpox inoculation had been used since as early as 500 BCE in some places, but all the kinks weren’t worked out. Their attempts at inoculation often resulted in contracting a full-blown case of smallpox.

Thus General John Thomas ordered them not to try to self-inoculate. And then he died of smallpox.

In July 1776, another historical item of note was that the Americans left Canada, not because they were outgunned or outfoxed, but because smallpox had hit them so much harder. A huge number of American soldiers were killed by smallpox, rather than by British troops.

George Washington happened to have contracted smallpox on his only overseas trip, to Barbados. Going against an agreement of the Continental Congress, he ordered American troops to be inoculated in 1777.

Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I reflect on all the bad things that have happened to people, in order to gain perspective on stupid shit that goes wrong.

Middle East Black Death Epidemics

You know Aleppo, Syria, where things were recently terrible?

In October 1348, they had 500 deaths a day from the Black Death. THINGS HAVE ALWAYS

People in the streets of Aleppo were looking very poorly, with skin lesions and blood in their mouths, adn then they died.

Wild and domesticated animals were said to have also died by the hundreds. (Remember when cats or dogs might get covid? Jesus, thank you that wasn’t a thing. I would have chosen my cats.)

This guy Malik Ashraf, a Muslim leader, was attacking Baghdad. They said they had to quit because they were running out of supplies, but actually, the troops were falling ill with Black Death.

Here’s a fun story about Malik Ashraf: when his father died, he and his brother were trying to secure their claim to the throne. They found a slave who looked a lot like their dad, and had this slave “Dave” it until they could obtain power. Malik’s fake dad ultimately responded the way you might expect a slave who is asked to impersonate a king might: he stabbed Malik’s brother.

Black Plague spread through Mecca, leading to awkward conversations about if pilgrims, who were supposed to go to Mecca by Allah’s orders, had brought it.

Did these medieval people think God was punishing them? Even though they weren’t Christians? They sure did. Well it might be punishment for bad behavior, and it might be Allah was just pissed off.

I imagine that Islamic rituals of cleanliness were helpful during all times of illnesses, but in fact, Islamic law of the time required people to stay in areas where there was illness, and to dismiss theories of contagion. Oops.

They tried bloodletting, everyone’s favorite, since once the blood was out, the patient was always much quieter and did not complain. They tried cold water. And surgery.

Rural areas became ghost towns, as peasants who were theoretically required to tend the land left and never returned. In the cities, abandoned homes were looted. Everyone stopped paying taxes.

In Damascus, there were two months in which 1,000 people died every day.

Ultimately, a third of the Syrian population died.

Let me leave you with this encouraging story, which is set in the Ommiad Mosque. It was built in the 700s on the site of a Roman temple to Jupiter AND a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist, and it’s still there. During the plague, they had mass burials in the mosque. But they also came together to pray. According to Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, who was there:

the rulers, notables, judges and all different (social) classes gathered in the (Umayyad) mosque until they became crowded and they stayed the whole night. Among them were people who were praying, remembering (God), and calling out (to Him).” After the Morning Prayer, they all left together on foot and in their hands were Qur’ans (al-maṣāḥif). Ibn Batṭūṭa observes that the rulers were barefoot and all of the inhabitants of the city came out, “men and women, children and the elderly.” Among them were the “Jews with their Torahs and the Christians with their Gospels.” Everyone was crying, imploring and seeking intercession with God’s Books and Prophets. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa notes that after the event, God decreased the number of deaths in the city compared to others such as Cairo.

Sometimes people aren’t shitty.

The Umayyad or Great Mosque of Damascus. The site was first a Roman temple to Jupiter, then a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist, and since the 700s it has been an important Muslim place.