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Song of a Traveller: the courtesan's salon - [Book Reviews] Things I have learned about the Black Death
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[Book Reviews] Things I have learned about the Black Death
On the recommendation of my local history book friend, I have just finished two of his. One is a meditation on clear thinking and cognitive bias, the other is a story about preparedness. The former: John Kelly's "The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time". I was expecting something rather like "The Hot Zone" circa 1348. While Kelly delivers on the promised grisly history, I came away from that book with two conclusions. One: don't ever touch a marmot if you can avoid it. They sure are cute, but there is strong evidence that the worst and most virulent plague out there was originally marmot plague, opportunistically spreading to rats (via fleas) and humans if the preferred marmots were not available. The Black Death may have swept through Asia and Europe shortly after an alternative trade route to the Silk Road struck a more northerly path... and skirted several marmot colonies. Mongol natives knew to avoid staggering marmots, no matter how prized their fur. Itinerant traders did not. This is still a problem today. We have marmots in our alpine environment. I have no idea if they have marmot plague or not, but I don't really want to discover that the hard way. (I know New Mexico has bubonic plague issues occasionally. I want a marmot overlay map!)

Conclusion the second: people facing the prospect of a horrible death freak out and start hating on whoever they hated on anyway, blaming that for the doom. I knew that anti-Semitism in Europe was a serious problem, but I had *no idea* of the scale of it during the plague years, or the horrors that ensued. The last third of the book which covered this was easily ten times as depressing as the first two thirds. I can read about people facing natural disasters together and root for Team People, but when it's people turning on each other for no reason other than that they are afraid and want to assert a sense of control, that's hideously disheartening and depressing. So round after round of "we might die? Kill the Jews horribly, bet it's their fault somehow!" was just awful. Even when Pope Clement sent around a bull saying, effectively, "Perhaps you have noticed that the Jews are dying of the plague just as much as the Christians, maybe you want to think about that and stop committing sins against them, YOU IDIOTS", the Catholic population of Europe widely ignored him and just kept torturing away. Aaaagh. I have been in nowhere near that severe high-stress situations and attempted to spread calm and assert reason. Good leadership can do a lot. But I don't have better ideas on how to back scared people down from the mob-and-atrocity mentality, and I wish I did.

In conclusion: keep calm and leave marmots alone. Four despairings of humanity out of five.

The second book, on preparedness, was Roland Huntford's "The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole". This was engagingly written and thoroughly researched, with wonderful background pieces on both Scott and Amundsen. Scott is rather lionized as a tragic hero in British history, but this book makes a really convincing case for his failure in the Polar race being a highly predictable outcome of a thorough lack of research and an equal lack of preparedness. The British belief of the era that guts and improvisation were the keys to glorious success were ineffective against the terrain. The meticulous Amundsen comes off as a quiet, thorough planner, though at times rather on the paranoid side. He didn't even tell his crew they were goitg funding and a Type A control freak about everything else. Scott was rather the other way around... his money was locked up, but he just sort of guessed about dogs vs. skis vs. ponies in between socializing his way through Europe in preparation for his Glorious Expedition. Wonderfully written, and makes you not want to try any Arctic, ant or not, without a ludicrous amount of planning. Five staying in warm places with a cup of hot chocolate out of five.

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20 forks or fork, exec?
jaelle_n_gilla From: jaelle_n_gilla Date: October 30th, 2013 10:07 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah yes, Europe has a long tradition for pogroms. We didn't invent that in WWII, we already knew exactly how it's done from centuries of practice. :-/

One of the main problems I see is segregation. Jews in Europe (and elsewhere) have always had a knack for keeping to themselves and only intermarrying among their own. Christians in Muslim countries nowadays often do the same. Muslims in Germany do it too. Monotheistic religions suggest that "we are the chosen and all the others are hell bound" one way or another "so keep well away from them or you are doomed too". It's a great way to keep your own congregation together and under your control. The back draw is that "the others" have a perfect target of "those foreigners" to blame stuff on whenever something happens.

My survival lesson learned from all those history books and current news is: blend in. Screw religion, they are all lying to you anyway. Act decent and make friends with the majority so when things go south you can at least hide in the masses or at best even persuade them to not kill everyone else because then at least they feel like they've done something.

Funny you mention Pope Clement. I remember when we had him in history lessons I thought that really he was one of the few logically thinking people of his time while everyone else apparently didn't. Then again - most people nowadays would rather stick with their opinion than submit to a logical argument...
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: October 31st, 2013 12:55 am (UTC) (Link)
I can't blame anyone one bit for that if they periodically get rounded up, tortured, and burned. (The descriptions in the book were really vivid and horrible -- I'd read about concentration camps and witch trials and all kinds of awful things before, but I was still caught off guard and totally sickened.) I wouldn't really want to go make friends with people who were liable to do that to me and talked a lot about how much they hated me either!

I had some of this problem when growing up Catholic... asking my Dad whether my non-Catholic friends were going to go to heaven and hearing that they were all going to burn in hell was one of the big things that turned me off the Church. Imagining an entire continent overwhelmingly comprised of people with that attitude is terrifying. So I think we need to get rid of that attitude wherever we find it, religion or not, whatever it is that makes people decide that these other people aren't *really* humans that merit respect, decency, and consideration and actually somehow it's their own fault for being $whatever_thing. Effecting that change is the thing that I don't know how to do. I can work to make sure I don't act like that, I can try to talk others out of it when I see them doing it, but I can't enforce it upon them without bringing the bigger stick myself... which comes perilously close to the abyss there, as etcet suggests downstream.

I can't say that my approach there is much of a survival strategy... trying to argue with angry mobs generally ends poorly. But I can't do nothing; I still want to talk them out of being angry mobs in the first place. (I want everyone to learn about propaganda and emotional manipulation and logical fallacies, too. I don't think anyone wants to put me in charge of education... so much of our society here is built on that. Ugh.)
jaelle_n_gilla From: jaelle_n_gilla Date: October 31st, 2013 07:38 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm totally with you on the blame thing. Don't get me wrong. The victims are not the ones to blame, the mob is. I have lost hope though that in times of stress it will be possible to control the mob and get rid of that atavistic behaviour altogether.

We've come a long way since the middle ages. Germans after WWII were brought up with the constant vigilance of "never let this happen again" and "see the signs" and so on. And still, when people are personally affected, e.g. in times when unemployment was high, you could hear them mutter again "it's all those foreigners taking our jobs". Never mind that no German at that time was willing to drive the waste disposal truck or clean public toilets.

I have lost faith that we can change human nature. It's deeply ingrained in our genes, it's what made the species survive in times when we were few and far apart. It doesn't work any more in overcrowded times but the genes take a long time to realize that. And, come to think of it, the way we work now, evolution will probably favour the worst behaviour and not the best.

Still, you are perfectly right that in our immediate surrounding we need to work against that, and argue, so long as people are calm enough to listen, and maybe, just maybe, some more people will think before starting the next pogrom. We can but hope.
tylik From: tylik Date: October 30th, 2013 10:13 am (UTC) (Link)
I've been hearing about the plague problems in the Southwest for years, and yet never have heard about PNW outbreaks, despite that vast numbers of people flocking into the wilderness. So I'd be fascinated to here that there were reservoirs of the black death hiding out in the marmot population, but also more than a little surprised.

You have read Connie Willis's The Doomsday Book, yes? It's, er, about as uplifting a book as one can reasonably write about plagues. Stunning, but, stunning.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: October 30th, 2013 10:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
Apparently it's happened, but not nearly as much as in the Southwest -- here's the CDC's plague maps and stats. Interesting reading!

Yes, I think that was the first one of hers that I read! I liked that, and then I was *so disappointed* in the stupid Titanic book. It crashingly failed to live up to my high expectations. So I haven't yet tried "Blackout" or "All Clear"; I understand that many Brits found them upsetting.
tylik From: tylik Date: October 30th, 2013 11:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, fun!

Hm. So, Blackout and All Clear totally leave Passages in the dust. But I'm not quite sure I'd go as far as recommending them. I enjoyed them a fair bit while I was reading them, and for the most part they are well constructed and well written. (And I do not personally have skin in the culturally sensitivity game, though I am certainly open to it.)

But... there was also some things about them that were a tad insipid and sentimental, and, far worse, to my mind, they don't actually make any sense, in the end. The main thing driving the plot is only ever explained in a hand wavy thematic way, and whether it's implied theism or sloppy world building I found it unsatisfying. It mostly worked for me emotionally, but did not bear thinking about... which means, that beyond the first few minutes after I put down the book, it did not work for me emotionally.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: October 31st, 2013 01:01 am (UTC) (Link)
I probably won't bother, then. I did like "To Say Nothing Of The Dog". (And yeah, my cultural sensitivity issues with England are not any that are likely to be touched on in the context of the book. I'm already moderately familiar with the good things and the supremely screwed up things that the Irish did in that time period; I'm unlikely to be personally upset at portrayals of England of the time.)
randomdreams From: randomdreams Date: October 31st, 2013 03:00 am (UTC) (Link)
In most of the southwest, the large majority of plague cases are associated with prairie dogs, or more specifically, outdoor cats that contract the plague from prairie dogs and bring it home to their owners.
Yersinia Pestis has three different modes of living in humans (pneumonic, bubonic, and septicemic, depending on where it's living, basically) but they're all acute and move quite quickly to the death part. There's evidence that prairie dogs, at least, can have chronic infections. In parts of northern and western Colorado the CDC and local governments have put up fences around particularly problematic prairie dog villages with "warning plague danger" signs on the fences, which is offputting to visitors.
I wasn't previously aware of marmots being a plague vector. I'll be reading about that!
etcet From: etcet Date: October 30th, 2013 02:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
"I don't have better ideas on how to back scared people down from the mob-and-atrocity mentality, and I wish I did."

I have an answer, but you won't like it. Nor would they. *despairs*
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: October 30th, 2013 10:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, "nuke the site from orbit" is not better. :/ I want to show them that they're being jerks, not ascend to Sith Lord myself.
etcet From: etcet Date: October 31st, 2013 12:01 am (UTC) (Link)
docstrange From: docstrange Date: October 31st, 2013 01:12 am (UTC) (Link)
Project budget approved. Proceed.
project_mayhem_ From: project_mayhem_ Date: October 31st, 2013 04:13 am (UTC) (Link)
At least you didn't say anything about a two-meter exhaust port. *flees*
etcet From: etcet Date: October 31st, 2013 12:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
that would be the size of the hole in the wall made after she kicked you or I through it for making that remark.
katestine From: katestine Date: October 30th, 2013 04:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Funny enough, my next book review is about plague books, Doomsday Book and Plague VSI.

Marmots are fugly, so I don't know why anyone would play with them.

My takeaway from "Race to the South Pole" at AMNH a few years back is that training counts: Scott did it for money (and sport?), Amundsen had been wanting to do it his whole life and trained accordingly. My other takeaway was calories count: both parties had budgeted the same number of calories per person per day, which works out better for the people wrangling sled dogs instead of the people who are sled dogs.

Speaking of sled dogs, you may enjoy this short story.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: October 30th, 2013 10:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hah, Doomsday Book got a mention upthread too. That was the first of hers that I read.

I think they're kind of cute. I wouldn't try to go chase one and cuddle it, but if I were a fur trapper and freezing my butt off on a steppe I bet they'd look pretty warm. I'll add it to the list of ways I would have died in the Middle Ages.

According to the book I read, Scott did it for ambition and to advance his career and social reputation... and he wasn't very capable there. Not substantially different from doing it for money, but you might like the read. And regarding their diets, yeah, that was a serious turnoff for me as I sit here in civilization. (I totally reserve the right to utterly change my opinion if I found myself there. Heh. I remember how good the five year expired protein bar soup was! When it's what you have, it's what you have.)

Thanks for the link, I'll check it out!
yarrowkat From: yarrowkat Date: October 30th, 2013 04:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
we do have marmots in the high country here. you only see them above timberline, i think because it is too hot at lower elevations. the one person i know who has contracted the plague (a co-worker at the university, who ended up having most of her fingers & toes amputated in order to survive, and who is still a brilliant painter in spite of not really having any fingers), caught it from interacting with a coyote on her ranch in the east mountains. (around Tajique, if you want a map -- not high enough for marmots, but not impossible that the coyote's range included some real high country).
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: October 30th, 2013 10:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, we also only get alpine marmots. They're not just hanging out on street corners in Cap Hill... we have raccoons for that. [grin] Urban stripy gangsters.

I'm sorry your co-worker had such a rough experience, but glad she survived and went on to make art. Eek.
marzipan_pig From: marzipan_pig Date: October 30th, 2013 07:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
This entry isn't locked - not sure if that was or wasn't your intent?

"Conclusion the second: people facing the prospect of a horrible death freak out and start hating on whoever they hated on anyway, blaming that for the doom"

During the Rwanda thing, as a way to handle the awfulness of it I reflected on WHAT it would take for me to kill a bunch of my neighbors. I did come up with something and I'm not sure I couldn't here too but WOW.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: October 30th, 2013 10:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yep, most book review posts are public on purpose.

I still have not been able to bring myself to see Hotel Rwanda.
20 forks or fork, exec?