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How Ingenuity Saved The Life Of A Pope And The Political Structure Of Europe

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'Oh, happy posterity, who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable...'

- Petrarch

The Black Death that affected almost the whole northern hemisphere between 1333 and 1352 was the result of environmental and climatic changes that took place because of natural causes; Greenland became much colder, central Asia suffered long drought periods, famine and migrations, both of people as well as animals, and it was near the lake Issyk-Koul where the first cases of this particularly virulent occurrence of bubonic plague took place. When people in Europe heard histories of what was happening in the Middle East and China they were astounded: the far east was too far away indeed, but as rumours of wholesale destruction approaching began to reach the Mediterranean ports, locals began to feel increasingly uneasy.

It was during this period of time that, as glaciers grew on Greenland's coast and the plague invaded Europe, nothing more was heard of the settlers left behind. Ships reaching the southern ports of the continent, coming from Arab lands and the Caspian Sea were forbidden to touch land, as their dying crews seek safe haven from place to place before vanishing from the world.

The plague, produced by Pasteurella pestis, can be transmitted in various ways, but it is normally carried by fleas that live in the furs of rodents and other small animals of the kind that mass migrated to populated areas when their natural habitats suffered the aforementioned droughts and other disasters such as the invasion of locusts, floods and so on. Thus, we can argue reasonably that environmental changes can in fact cause serious epidemics: what would happen if due to the present change, animals inhabiting the central African in places like the Congo and Burundi start migrating in the same fashion? Those are the places were the Ebola virus lives in reasonable isolation, so what would happen if that isolation seal is broken?

These infections are as destructive as any mass destruction weapon that you can possibly imagine, and while cures can be developed they can indeed take humanity by surprise: and a surprise was what the people of the fourteenth century suffered. In Europe was quite know the fact that an incredibly violent plague was affecting the far east even a couple of years before it reached the continent yet, no cure or preventive measures could be put into practice until it was to late. Moreover: the state of medical knowledge at the time was such that it was impossible to do something about it: only in the case of one or two researchers, a serious effort was made to find answers transcending the common myths of God's punishment and a 'miasma' or invisible, poisonous cloud.

The plague killed with such speed that not enough people alive were left to bury the dead; rates of over one thousand deaths per day in any city of the time were just average. People fled in panic, leaving behind their own friends, brothers, sisters, neighbours and even children, and as they ran away they took the plague with them to other places. In Europe, only the central part of Poland and a few, very small pockets of land were spared: this was the only time in history when almost every human being left was a survivor that had seen how at least one close relative or friend died in terrible agony, for a bubonic infection causes pain beyond imagination.

Gui de Chaillac was Pope's Clement VI physician: he studied the plague by studying patients that actually got it, watching its symptoms and evolution. He made the first credible description of it and of course, also got ill because bubonic plague is very contagious; but however slim the odds in his favour were, he was among the few who contracted it and survived. And he did even more: he saved the Pope by prescribing a preventive method that probably worked; indeed, being the Pope the single most important person in Europe at the time, it was imperative to keep him alive at a time of very serious travel restrictions due to the raging plague, which would have prevented effectively the election of a new head of the Church: that would have spelled chaos and political disaster added to the human tragedy that was taking place already. For the medieval mind, the fact that the Pope himself could fall victim to God's fury would have been utterly devastating.

What de Chaillac prescribed was incredibly simple and indeed, based on facts: he told the Pope to isolate himself and stay surrounded by fire: the heat and flames in all likelihood purified the air around him, killing the fleas that normally transmit the plague and scaring away any rats or rodents. So despite the fact that medieval medicine was indeed primitive, the method proposed by Gui de Chaillac actually worked.

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