How Diseases Spread: Ways People Have Tried to Explain Pandemics Through History
Throughout the millennia, people have developed quite irrational ideas about how infectious diseases such as the plague and cholera have spread. Some of these notions – like the idea that the ancient Cypriot plague could be caught just by looking at the face of someone in distress – seem laughable, like something that the troop of Monty Python could have sprinkled in one of their medieval parody scenarios for television.
Yet even as waves of disease spread over and over population centers, it took centuries for science to fully understand the invisible world of microbes. Until that happened, people under siege during a pandemic tried to explain the overwhelming number of deaths they saw in different ways. Some have used simple observations, while others have turned to fervent beliefs. Others saw the cataclysm through the lens of their long-standing prejudices, while others treated the carnage through bizarre theories and superstitions. Here are just a few:
When masses of people inexplicably began to die, many ancient cultures first looked to a vengeful or merciless God or gods. In ancient Greek mythology, which often served as an allegory for real events, Homer wrote in The Iliad of the god Apollo rained on the Greek army with its arrows during the Trojan War, killing animals first, then soldiers. The arrows of Apollo came to symbolize illness and death.
But then, Throwing a piercing tree at the men themselves, He slaughtered them en masse – and the corpses burned down, Night and day, no end in sight. Nine days, the arrows of God swept the army. —Homer’s The Iliad, Translation by Robert Fagles
“For at this moment I will send all my plagues to your heart, to their servants and to their people; so that you know that there is none like me on all the earth. (Exodus 9:14)
“… The Lord’s anger was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a great plague.” (Numbers 11:33)
“Misfortune to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all the plagues of the desert. (1 Samuel 4: 8)
PHOTOS: Pandemics that have changed history
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Astrological movements and… bad air
Over the centuries, the plague arrived wave after devastating wave, taking many forms: from bubonic (which affects the lymphatic system) to pneumonic (which attacks the lungs), septicemia (which seeps into the bloodstream). Perhaps the most virulent event occurred in the mid-1300s with the Black Death, which killed more than 20 million people across Europe. While it was widely believed that fleas carrying bacteria were the main culprit, “experts” at the time found other explanations, particularly in astrology and widely formed ideas of “noxious fumes” such as fertile ground for the plague.
In 1348, for example, King Philippe VI of France asked the greatest medical minds at the University of Paris to report to him on the causes of the bubonic plague. In a detailed document submitted to the crown, they blamed “the configuration of the heavens”. Specifically, they wrote that in 1345, “at one o’clock in the afternoon on March 20, there was a major conjunction of three planets [Saturn, Mars and Jupiter] in Aquarius. “Adding to that, they noted, a lunar eclipse occurred at about the same time.
Quoting ancient philosophers like Albertus Magnus and Aristotle, Parisian medical researchers continued to connect the points between the planets and the plague: “For Jupiter, being humid and hot, it sucks the bad vapors of the earth and Mars, because it is immoderly hot and dry, then ignited the vapors, and as a result, there were lightnings, sparks, noxious fumes and fires in the air. ”
READ MORE: How a 17th-century Italian city weathered the plague
Earth winds, they continued, have spread harmful air widely, hitting “the life force” of anyone who has ingested it in their lungs: “This corrupt air, when breathed, necessarily enters the heart and corrupts the substance of the mind. there and rots the surrounding humidity, and the heat thus caused destroys the vital force, and this is the immediate cause of the present epidemic. ”
A few centuries later, these harmful vapors received another label: “miasma”. If he smelled, people reasoned, he must have been sick. This explains why, during the plague of 1665, some doctors put on beak-shaped masks filled with fragrant flowers – to protect themselves from infection.
And too bad for this playwright and poet William Shakespeare, like other Londoners in the early 1600s, rarely bathed and lived among rats, garbage, fleas and gutters filled with sewage. He too thought that the plague was an atmospheric thing. And taking the celestial explanation even further, he wrote that malaria, a separate epidemic caused by marsh mosquitoes along the Thames, was caused by the sun smoking the “vapors” of the marshes.
All the infections the sun sucks
Bogs, swamps, flats, on Prosper fall down and make him
By fast food a disease!
—The Shakespeare Storm
READ MORE: Rats Didn’t Spread the Black Death – It Was Humans
Conspiracy Theories and Straw Seizure
Pandemics have long engendered prejudice and mistrust, and fueled long-standing prejudice, as traumatized communities have sought to blame others as unclean or malicious propagators of the disease.
Throughout medieval Europe, the plague became a pretext for the scapegoat and the massacre of the Jewish people. Medieval Christian crowds attacked Jewish ghettos with virtually every wave of the disease, claiming that Jewish citizens had poisoned wells and plotted with demons to spread the disease. In a pogrom, 2,000 Jews were burned alive in the city of Strasbourg on February 14, 1349.
Meanwhile, in the 19th and early 20th century, The cholera sweeping Europe has become the subject of conspiracy theories based on the savage class, while the poor and marginalized accuse the ruling elite of working ruthlessly to knock down their ranks by spreading the disease and deliberately poisoning them. From Russia to Italy to the United Kingdom, dozens of riots followed, members of the police, government and medical establishments were murdered and hospitals and town halls destroyed.
In the absence of scientific certainty, pandemics have often inspired people to grasp responses based on what they immediately observe around them. With the Russian flu of 1889, bizarre theories quickly evolved into widely spread rumors. Newspaper, The New York Herald, hypothesized that influenza could travel on telegraph wires, after a large number of telegraph operators appeared to contract the disease. Others have speculated that the flu may have arrived on letters from Europe because the postmen had started to get sick. In Detroit, when bank tellers began to fall ill, some concluded that they had caught him while handling paper money. Other rumors include dust, postage stamps, and library books.
Eventually, science began to see the invisible and explain why people had died in the thousands. Of course, there were plague-related issues that would always require more power. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that sneezing not only spread the black plague, but also caused the expulsion of a person. Therefore, “God bless you!”