OUR history seems to be full of incurable diseases that have spread throughout the world at regular intervals through the centuries.
The latest is the ebola virus, which is currently causing major problems in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. The first outbreak of this killer bug was discovered in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976. And this latest episode has claimed almost 3,000 lives, making it by far the most serious outbreak of the disease.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a total of 1,716 cases were reported between 1976 and 2013. So far, it has been confined to sub-Saharan Africa.
One of the problems with ebola is that it can take up to three weeks’ incubation before it shows, and there is no known medicinal cure. It is contagious and can be passed from person to person, but the main culprit is the bodily fluids or blood of some animals, principally monkeys and fruit bats (which eat fruits or suck nectar with their long tongues from flowers, which in turn pollinating other flowers). These animals have a habit of biting fruits, taking the juice and seeds and spreading them and any virus they contain to other locations. A person handling these is liable to get ebola.
It was this present danger that reminded me of one of our worst experiences, which was the Plague, otherwise known as the Black Death. And it’s this subject I will deal with in this article.
Like ebola, the Plague had no cure and was so severe it even threatened to wipe out mankind. If we think about these illnesses, we would have to ask ourselves why does this happen? I am no medical expert, but looking at diseases which impacted heavily on the human population, there seems to be four main reasons. The first is poor or no hygiene. Secondly, the movement of non-domestic animals, particularly rodents, many of which exist in sewers and then make their way aboard ships or by other means travel, carrying their diseases to new destinations. Thirdly, the movement of undocumented live animals, such as chickens or cows, from country to country. These are untraceable because the authorities do not have records of how or where they were born or reared. Finally, the superbug, which is counteracting our antibiotics, while little or no new products are being produced.
The Black Death, which affected much of the world in the mid-14th century, caused horrendous casualties. This disease was truly fatal and was almost impossible to stop. It was caused by a bacteria called yersinia pestis, which was carried by fleas, which lived on the black rat, which resided and travelled on most sea-going vessels.
So why or how did mankind survive this plague? Possibly because ship rats could not tolerate the cold, and although they were the dominant rat through the warm period of the middle ages, they could not survive the cold weather, which became predominant from the 16th century. Perhaps this is the reason that mankind survived the Plague, or maybe we became immune to the disease. Although the brown rat is everywhere, they were much later arrivals than the black rat, not reaching these islands until the early 1720s.
Strangely, not much was written about the Plague, but we will try to trace its path and the devastation it caused.
The Plague entered the country via the usual route, carried by the black rat, or even the merchandise which had been soiled by the carrier on ships from God knows where.
John Clyn was a Franciscan monk based in Kilkenny, and we have to depend on his account, as it is the only one we have. The disease appeared first in Howth or Dalkey in 1348 and spread through Dublin and on to Drogheda by late July or early August. It had reached Bristol in England sometime between late June and early August, which suggests that it came to Ireland directly from the continent, with Bordeaux being the suspected route.
The Dublin/Drogheda disease spread rapidly in the early months but, given the slow overland travel of the time, there is no doubt that there were other points of entry. This could have been overland from the ports along the rivers from market town to market town, especially in the east and south, where shipping from England would possibly have carried the disease before it was spread by our own vessels.
The Plague was contagious and could be passed from human to human, it also took a pneumonic form (air-borne) and as it was invading virgin territory where there had been no possibility of building a resistance to it, the disease thrived, spreading rapidly and accumulating a larger death toll.
Back in Dublin, the plague raged between August and December, setting the pattern of terror that would spread throughout the country. And it brought unprecedented mortality rates. Clyn writes that because of fear and horror, men were seldom brave enough to perform works of mercy, such as visiting the sick or burying the dead.
Meanwhile, it is believed that survivors seized the property and belongings of widows and minors, while others responded by attending pilgrimages or by prayer. Public functions were cancelled, as signalled by a break in the sermons of Edward Fitzralph, then Archbishop of Armagh, who did not preach between 11 May 1348 and 25 March 1349, and from then to his departure from the country in June 1349. There are no parliamentary records from May 1348 to June 1350. The same goes for court records.
The disease was so contagious at this stage that whoever touched the sick or the dead was immediately infected and died. This obviously meant that whole families were wiped out. It was so bad that towns and villages were left without inhabitants. Penitents and clergy suffered the same fate and were buried together. Friars and abbeys did not escape either. In Drogheda, 25 Franciscans succumbed to the disease, while 23 of their comrades in Dublin suffered the same fate. The Plague was a non-repentant enemy, and those dying from it suffered terrible deaths caused by boils, abscesses and pustules (small bumps filled with fluid or pus). And although these bumps could appear anywhere, they were more common on the back, neck, chest and face, and no medication available at the time could cure them or stop their spread.
Friar Clyn’s writings leave no doubt that both the bubonic and pneumonic strains of the virus were virulent in Dublin, due to the proximity of the population. A person knew they had contracted the disease if eruptions appeared in the groin area or under the armpits. These were caused by flea bites and signified the bubonic strain. Violent headaches and spitting blood were signs of the pneumonic strain. This form of the disease is believed to have been more common in urban areas, while the rest of the country would have been more susceptible to the bubonic version, due to the movement of rats and the fleas, which either resided on them or separated and spread their own devastation.
By the end of 1348, the plague had reached counties Louth and Meath as well as Kildare. Christmas Day saw it take hold in Kilkenny. According to Clyn, the reason the Plageu took so long to reach his city was that it was carried by river traffic on the Barrow rather than overland from Dublin.
If we deviate from our own situation for a second to give you an idea how virulent the Plague was, we will cross the water to Bristol, the second-largest city in England at that time (population, 10,000), which was almost completely wiped out by the disease within a short period. Where people were so crammed together, the Plague spread rapidly and most died within two to three days, and many survived less than a day once the disease struck. Bristol’s case was mirrored by many medieval towns both in Britain and here, as hygiene at the time was non-existent, as described in Holt and Rosser’s 1990 book The Medieval Town, which highlights conditions such as filth fuelled by the contents of chamber pots running in open ditches in the streets, fly-blown meat and stinking fish, contaminated and adulterated ale, polluted well water, unspeakable privies and epidemic disease, which did not recognise rich from poor, who all suffered the same fate.
But let’s return to Kilkenny and take note of the words written by Brother John Clyn, which reads as follows: “I, Brother John Clyn of the Friars Manor in Kilkenny, have written in this book the notable events which befell us in my time, which I saw myself or have learned from men worthy of belief. So that notable deeds should not perish with time and be lost from the memory of future generations, I seeing these many ills, and that the whole world encompassed by evil waiting among the dead for death to come, have committed to write what I have truly heard and examined; and so that the writing does not perish with the writer, or the work fail with the workman, I leave parchment for continuing the work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future and any son of Adam can escape this pestilence (disease) and continue the work thus begun.”
Herr the narrative concludes. It is followed by a note in another hand, which states “Here, it seems, the author died.”
The Plague returned in 1361-64, 1368, 1371, 1373-75, 1390, 1405 and into the 15th century. Though none of these occasions saw the same devastation as the original plague, it still claimed many victims.