14th century AD. Europe was still plunged in the dark age. The only two books known to the larger public were the Bible and a compilation of texts earlier stolen in Egypt, but known in Europe as the books of Aristotle*.
The church was supreme, all aspects of life were interpreted either through mysticism, or explained by the will of God. Famine, widespread women rape, cannibalism, political oppression, usury, illiteracy, and constant wars between the different European tribes were the matters of the day. – William Manchester in A world lit only by fire.
Diseases come and return killing thousands of people without any hope of a cure. The church has forbidden traditional medicine, and offered in replacement bottles of holy water for sales, confession of sins, and prayers as the solution to all problems.
In 1346, a new disease broke. It would be later known as the black plague. It killed almost half of the European population, and globally an estimated number of 75 to 200 million people.
Priests, bishops, nobles, knights all died in the same proportion as the ordinary men and women.
The Church suffered the most. The community driven nature of its monasteries, and their frequent gatherings made christians and church goers the preferred victims of the plague.
“Houses stood empty everywhere, entire families wiped out within hours of each other; bodies stacked in the street, trenches dug in churchyards with hundreds of corpses stowed “tier upon tier,” covered only with a thin layer of dirt. In some villages, everyone died. Crops were left untended, doors open, churches deserted; cows and sheep wandered free.
In Marseille, fifty-six thousand people died in a single month. Eight hundred souls died every day in Paris; among them, King Philip VI’s beloved wife Joan. In Avignon, Pope Clement VI bought a field just outside the city and consecrated the entire thing so that sixty-two thousand bodies could be buried there.
Corpses lay piled along the public way, burial trains jostled one another, and the dead were carried to their graves amidst commotion.”
“No one controls anything and they do not even ring the church bells anymore,” wrote Agnolo di Tura, from the Tuscan town of Siena. “Giant pits are being excavated for the multitudes of the dead and the hundreds that die every night. And I . . . have buried five of my sons with my own hands. . . . Everyone believes it is the end of the world.”
So many were dead; and no one agreed on what it all meant. The faculty of the medical school in Paris published a report blaming the plague on the conjunction of “three planets in Aquarius,” which had caused the “deadly corruption of the air.” King Edward III of England, mourning the loss of his fifteen-year-old daughter, blamed the spiritual wickedness of his people. In France and Germany, Jews were accused of poisoning the wells; hundreds were seized and murdered by angry mobs.
“We have lost almost everything,” wrote the Poet Laureate Petrarch, in a letter to a friend, “and found no rest. . . . Last losses are beyond recovery, and death’s wound beyond cure. There is just one comfort: that we shall follow those who went before. . . . The life we lead is a sleep; whatever we do, we dream. Only death breaks the sleep and wakes us from dreaming. I wish I could have woken before this.” – Susan Wise Bauer – History of the Renaissance world.
Devouty, piety, loyalty to the church or constant prayers provided no protection against the hideous plague. People faith has been shaken. From the clergy to the lowest man or woman in society, slowly answers were sought outside of prayer, dogma and the church. The Bible was not seen anymore as the ultimate book with all answers to all questions. The authority of the church was questioned, quietly first but with time more openly.
Additionally, the plague had shrank the rank of nobles, and the few who survived the plague was left with big amount of wealth and property. Previously, that amount of wealth would have been invested in church donations. But, for the first time Italian nobles and wealthy men have started investing their wealth in independent scholars, sponsoring “scientists”, artists, etc.
Tough subtle, almost imperceptible, that change in conscienceness would build up over a short period and lead to what would later be called the European renaissance, a huge intellectual and scholarly movement which swept through the whole Europe, with thousands of humanist working in synergy to reconnect Europeans with the glory of their roman and greek ancestors by bringing their excellency and thirst of knowledge and beauty back to the European culture.
In fact, the Plague awoken in a very high proportion ordinary europeans and nobles to the fact that faith in a heavenly God can’t preserve humans from diseases and catastrophe, and holy water and prayers were not effective cure to diseases.
Reason, logic, dialect, independent thinking and returning back to nature through science to find solution to human problems was the main paradigm altering effect of the Plague. From then on, the role of the role of church has been on the decline, and it played less and less role in the actual life of people.
The 14th century plague effect on Europe could safely be compared to the Chinese great famine of the 1960s.
“In 1960, China was experiencing their worst famine in history. At the time, China was overpopulated, impoverished, and running out of resources. People were malnourished, racked by disease and dying in the streets–worst than North Korea or Sudan today.
Africa by contrast, was the future: embracing western education, courting business, and accepting any and all Western Aid. It had oil, fertile farmland, abundant water, forests, minerals, and diamonds. Friendly people. Accepting of science, medicine and vaccinations. And NGO Aid came and became institutionalized. The UN poured resources in by the billions!
The Chinese leaders took a different tact from Africa. They denied any NGO, UN, or private relief organization access. The Chinese refused Aid and more was shunted to Africa. The Chinese suffered the famine and millions died.
But a valuable lesson was learned. Never again. And efforts were redoubled. And instead of aid, China worked on cultivating sustainable trade. Being a low cost producer for cheap trinkets for gum ball machines, cheap footware, clothing and housewares. Factory jobs, dirty jobs, tedious jobs–they sought the business at cut rate prices. They learned and moved up the value chain.
And China lifted 300 million from absolute abject poverty into sustainable working class. This is the single largest poverty reduction program in the history of the world! Probably the most significant Social Event of the 20th Century.
And today China is the 2nd largest economy in the world, growing faster than 90% of world economies, and poised to become the largest by 2016.(IMF 2011)
Africa has declined in the worst nightmare way. Accepting Aid, brought dependence, corruption, lack of accountable government and overall a learned helplessness. Civil war, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, hatchet genocide, major recurring natural disasters, piracy.” – Kill the NGOs
Disease like Ebola could have been a paradigm shifting opportunity for Africa like the plague and the great famine in China, but like often the western NGOS, and the International Aid industry would come to interrupt the natural learning through endured pain by patronizing the local authorities and populations, and therefore deepening their dependence on the mystic white man, savior of the humanity.
Africa should refuse aid, if it wants to change and develop. Trade and diplomacy should become our only way to relate to the outside world. Refusing aid would be hard, but nothing great has ever been accomplished without hardship in the first place.
I’m not hopeful that our current misleaders would have the courage to refuse aid, but demography is another natural bomb which would have the power of force a paradigm shift on us.
Like Steve Biko put it, “Black man, you are at your own”.
* Aristotle was advisor to Alexandre the Great. He accompanied the emperor to Egypt after the greek invasion of the territory