Today, we survive the Black Death. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The plague Yersinias
Pestis swept out of Asia in 1347. An
over-populated Europe had been damaged by 50 years
of famine. Now rats carried this disease off ships
in Genoa. In just four years it killed off 40
percent of the people in Europe. It took three
forms: "bubonic" plague hit the lymph system,
"pneumonic" plague attacked the lungs, and
"septicemic" plague assaulted the blood. But the
words "Black Death" encompassed it all.
After 1351, the Black Death went from the epidemic
phase, where the disease suddenly appears, to the
pandemic phase. During the so-called "plague
pandemic," the plague settled into the local
environment and kept coming back every few years to
whittle away at the population. From the first
famines in 1290 until the plague pandemic began to
recede in 1430, Europe lost three-quarters of its
people. The Black Death is far and away the
greatest calamity our species ever suffered.
And what, do you suppose, was left in its wake?
Well, it unraveled the tapestry of the feudal
system. It left many survivors wealthy. Manual
labor became precious. Wages skyrocketed, and work
took on a manic quality. When death rides on your
back, time also becomes precious. Minutes seem to
count for something. The Church-centered world
before the plague had been oddly timeless. Now
people worked long hours, chasing capital gain, in
a life that could end at any moment. The first new
technology of the plague years was time-keeping --
mechanical clocks and hourglasses.
Medicine had been a function of the Church before
the plague. Physicians were well-paid,
highly-respected scholars. They spun dialectic
arguments far away from unwholesome sick people --
not unlike some of today's specialists.
13th-century medicine, like the 13th-century
Church, had failed miserably in coping with the
plague. Both medical and religious practice now
shifted toward the laity. Medicine was redirected
into experimentation and practical pharmacology.
Medical books were now being written -- not in
Latin -- but in the vernacular, and by a whole new
breed of people.
Technology had to become less labor-intensive. It
had to become high-tech. For good or evil, the
plague years gave us crossbows, new medical ideas,
guns, clocks, eyeglasses, and a new craving for
general knowledge. And so the rainbow at the end of
this terrible storm yielded its pot of gold. The
last new technology of this ghastly 150 years was
the printing press. It finally melted what
Shakespeare had named the winter of our discontent.
It provided access to knowledge. And it started the
rebirth of Europe.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gottfried, R.S., The Black Death: Natural and
Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. New York: The
Free Press, 1983.
McNeill, W. H., Plagues and Peoples. New
York: Anchor Book, 1976.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
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