Plague, Mythology, Nature and Science

by Ray Grigg

Even before the Black Plague of 1348, Western civilization had a difficult relationship with nature, traceable to the earliest roots of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The mythological eviction of our cultural ancestors from the Garden of Eden in biblical literature was, in all probability, an actual event resulting from the ecological degradation of agricultural lands in the area of ancient Mesopotamia — mythology transforms the details of an event but retains the essencial truth. These displaced people then went searching for the “land of milk and honey” they had lost because of their “disobedience”.

Their long quest to find the Promised Land took place in an environment much depreciated from that of their ancestors. The productive forests and grasslands of the Near East were now seriously compromised by centuries of unsustainable farming practices: depleted fertility, erosion, salinization and over grazing. The wholesale loss of vegetation subsequently changed the region’s climate, making the area hotter, drier and less habitable. The place of promise they sought was a remnant of the lush fertility they remembered and cherished.

The attitude to nature in Western culture, therefore, began with a feeling of displacement and punishment. Nature may have been loved in the abstract, as an ideal and a promise, but was doubted and suspect in reality.

This apprehension about nature was dramatically confirmed in 1348 when the Black Plague struck Marseille and Pisa. After travelling the Silk Road from its origin somewhere in Central Asia, Yersinia pestis probably arrived in Sicily in 1347 on a ship from the Black Sea. The contagion had already killed an estimated 200 million people en route, especially in China and India. Within five years of its arrival in Europe, by 1352, it claimed another 25 million lives — estimates are necessary because of sparse census information from that period.

Death rates in Europe averaged 40% to 50% of the total population; the highest were in France and Spain at 75% to 80%. Entire communities disappeared. Then a second pandemic arrived in 1360 for three more years of death, with intermittent outbreaks during the following centuries. France lost another million to the Plague between 1628 and 1631, and as late as 1771 an estimated 100,000 Russians died of Yersinia pestis.

The cause of Plague, of course, was unknown in the 14th century. In a wholly Christian culture, suspicion fell on Jews, Romani, beggars, lepers, pilgrims and anyone foreign. God’s anger became the de facto theological explanation. But why? Without a clear answer, this question had two principle effects: it increased religious zealotry and it vastly magnified the mythological apprehension about nature.

Until the Plague, nature was generally considered a necessary but tolerable burden to be borne by humanity. And to compensate for the loss of Eden, Christianity offered believers the redemptive promise of salvation. So nature wasn’t considered particularly dangerous. But the magnitude of the social trauma inflicted by the Plague radically altered this perception, burning an indelible fear of nature into the collective memory of Western culture.

The later outbreaks of Plague in the 17th and 18th centuries happened to coincide with the beginnings of modern science, entrenching in this new discipline the notion that a dangerous and hostile nature must be understood, controlled and subdued in the service of human aspirations and security. Ever since, science and its application in technology have been busily engaged in this task — with disastrous environmental consequences.

We are now as a culture trying to replace this dysfunctional mythos with a more sophisticated ecological one, but our deeply rooted attitude of apprehension about nature is extremely difficult to dislodge and reshape.