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Jewish World Review July 30, 2001 / 10 Menachem-Av, 5761

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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When science stood still -- IF you're looking for summertime reading, let me recommend a short book entitled "In the Wake of the Plague -- The Black Death and the World it Made," by Norman F. Cantor. I grant you, neither the title nor the subject matter is the sort that you would normally consider for a summer day curled up in a hammock in the shade of an old tree. But, it is fascinating reading, and there is something to it that makes you think about the course the human species has embarked upon, and why. I recently interviewed Cantor for an episode of PBS' "Think Tank," and I learned a lot from a wise man.

The Black Death, believed to be bubonic plague, possibly mixed in with anthrax, killed between 30 and 50 percent of Europe's population from the years 1348 to 1349. Cantor writes that it "was the greatest bio-medical disaster in European and possibly world history." A contemporary Florentine writer referred to "the exterminating of humanity."

We still remember it, 650 years later. When children hold hands in a circle and sing, "Ring around the rosies/ A pocketful of posies/ Ashes, ashes/ We all fall down" they're reciting the symptoms, discoloration and mortality of the Black Death. (Do kids still play that game? Cantor recalls the ditty from his childhood in the 1940s, and so do I.)

But, Cantor believes, we also relate to the epidemic in far more important ways. The medieval social structure honored two fields of endeavor: the military, and, principally, the Church. Neither soldiers nor priests understood the bubonic plague's cause: infected fleas traveling on the backs of infected rodents, principally black rats.

In the early days of the Plague, the churches were full. Bishops put on their finest vestments and carried crosses and saint's relics through the streets. Franciscan friars were preaching that the pestilence was G-d's punishment wrought upon sinful people.

The astrologists had their own take on the matter. A special commission in France determined the problem: Saturn was in the house of Jupiter. Of course, nothing worked. In Cantor's view, the failure of the existing tools of humankind accelerated the birth of modern science and modern medicine. Medieval medicine, Cantor says, was not quackery. Surgeons could do work on limbs, although not internally. Many herbal remedies were known, effective for headaches, stomachaches and some infections. Some of these have been reappearing these days on shelves marked "alternative medicine."

Doctors didn't have microscopes nor did they understand that diseases could spread through microbes. But, says Cantor, they could have come up with microscopes. The science of optics was quite developed. People were already wearing corrective lenses. Researchers at Oxford University were developing the science of physics. Modern medicine could have come earlier.

Alas, it was a road not taken. One barrier was that the Church did not allow the dissection of the human body. Man was created in the image of G-d, and dissecting the body was regarded as blasphemy. The secrets of the opened body stayed secret for another 200 years.

Ironically, the Plague itself caused the delay of the scientific method. Work was underway at Oxford, but the disease decimated the scientific community. Thomas Bradwardine, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by the King, intended to use the Church's power and money to push academic research toward biological investigation. But two months after his appointment, the Black Plague killed Bradwardine. Such deaths put advances that Galileo, Copernicus, and others were to uncover later, on hold.

Over time, the European world repopulated. The impact of the biological disaster sunk in; science resumed its forward march. Something had to be done, and people decided they'd better try. We've come a long way.

But the tale is not over. As recently as 1918 more than 50 million people were killed worldwide by "The Spanish Flu," whose true biological composition is still not understood. New plagues and potential plagues are still with us. Pharmacology and biotech, public and private, are mostly staying one jump ahead (and currently wrestling with the scourge of AIDS). Government agencies, like the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, and others like it around the world, are doing work that was stalled 650 years ago.

It's a grim story, yet hopeful, informative and oddly pleasant reading. As a card-carrying world-class hypochondriac, I digested it more or less calmly. I didn't read "In the Wake of the Plague" as a day at the beach, but it could be.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and moderator of PBS's "Think Tank" is the author, most recently, of The First Measured Century: An Illustrated Guide to Trends in America 1900-2000 (paperback) and (hardcover). You may comment by clicking here.

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