Sunday morning coming down: The Black Death, a bum rat and the Danse Macabre.


It isn’t the best BBC documentary I’ve ever watched, seeing as I tend to frown on period piece recreations. However, it is decently informative and thought-provoking in places, as when surviving peasants in England suddenly realize their economic prospects have vastly improved since the number of competing laborers was halved.

A more concise overview is here, including brief treatments of other pandemics:

This apparently precedes new research findings, as noted in this space last year.

They got a bum rat.

Rats were not to blame for the spread of plague during the Black Death, according to a study.

The rodents and their fleas were thought to have spread a series of outbreaks in 14th-19th Century Europe.

But a team from the universities of Oslo and Ferrara now says the first, the Black Death, can be “largely ascribed to human fleas and body lice”.

There’s much written about the Black Death in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, which remains an excellent introduction to the late medieval period. Not only that, but no discussion about the Black Death is complete without a reference to the Danse Macabre, a medieval allegory about the inevitability of death.

In the Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, skeletons escort living humans to their graves in a lively waltz. Kings, knights, and commoners alike join in, conveying that regardless of status, wealth, or accomplishments in life, death comes for everyone. At a time when outbreaks of the Black Death and seemingly endless battles between France and England in the Hundred Years’ War left thousands of people dead, macabre images like the Dance of Death were a way to confront the ever-present prospect of mortality.