Brief Views on the History of the Black Death

The start of the spread of the Black Death actually has a rather ignoble beginning. A group of Christian Italian merchants who had been expelled from their native city of Tarna had come to stay in the Muslim trading posts of Caffa. These two groups had a bit of religious difficulty with each other and soon a small skirmish turned into a full-on war. It was one year into the siege in which the Muslims (with help from the local Mongol army) were attempting to out-root the Christians from Caffa that the plague arrived- it killed so many in the Mongol army that they were forced to stop fighting. However, the Mongol prince came up with a successful plan... and it was at this time that the remaining troops loaded their catapults with the dead bodies of his soldiers that had died of the plague and were then thrown into the city walls. The rotting corpses tainted the air and poisoned the water causing death in the city. A few of the still able individuals with resources were able to gather in their boats and attempt to sail away to safety... taking local rats accidentally on board with them. These rats carried fleas infested with the plague and soon the sailors were dying as they traveled. No port would allow the boat to dock when it was seen the boats were filled with the dead and dying... and when they reached in Mecina in Sicily, they barely stopped long enough before they were sent out again. It was in this brief respite however that there was time for several rats to get ashore. This very brief encounter is what was thought to have brought the Black Death from the East to Europe. We now know that the Bobak marmot is the creature that has always brought the plague to people.... by coughing on fleas... which spread it to rats... which spread it to us. All the great human plagues can be traced back to this animal in Mongolia who are particularly susceptible to this illness.

Europe was in a rather bad position for a contagious disease to arrive on its shores. By the time that the plague arrived in Europe, overpopulation was the norm. The long wars that had weakened the people and their lands were not completely ended in 1348, famines and harvest failures had left people hungry and undernourished, and it goes without saying that the instability probably caused great amounts of stress and fear that lingered on in the people even in times of peace. Overpopulation, especially in cities, made it easier for the plague to spread as people interacted with each other and then more people, as the filth and sewage of the cities that was not properly treated and left everywhere which left the people at more risk... as the poor used the clothing and possessions of the dead and the dying. As people became more fearful and terrified, the rich would gather possessions if they could and would flee away from the towns with the plague... but of course they would travel with it in their possession continuing the movement and the spread... accidentally bringing more and more people and communities into the path of the plague. One of the other quick ways that the plague travels to new victims was by ships and usually within days of a ship docking the plague was found everywhere nearby. One a sad note as well, the Catholic church had labeled cats as animals who belonged only to witches or where familiars of Satan... so the cat population, which could have helped control the rat population, was extremely low in Europe at his time.

There are actually two types of plague and they are spread through the human population in slightly different ways. The two types of plague are respiratory/pneumonic and bubonic plague... neither of which were very enviable. Bubonic plague was characterized by boils and blisters as well as fever that would appear which would weaken the person and the blisters/boils would grow larger and more painful until by around the fourth day, the person usually died. Very few that came down with the plague would live to tell about it later so we have very few firsthand autobiographies- the few we do are hard and difficult to read. Pneumonic plague is characterized by high, consistent fevers and respiratory difficulty, bleeding and breakdown. Pneumonic plague is much deadlier than its sister bubonic plague.... as well as much easier to transmit to other victims. The disease was spread by the infected fleas which would then bite a human host. Pneumonic plague could also be spread through the expelled air of an infected person.

It would be remiss at this point to suggest that the only terror of this time was the plague. The group that became known as the flagellants certainly can be accused of making things worse for the majority of the people. The flagellants were a group of religious extremists who believed that by causing harm and self abuse to their bodies, they could stop the plague by this form of 'penance' and would purge the society around them of sin. The Pope at first encouraged these 'sects', but these groups soon condemned the Pope for the failure of the plague to cease... and the Pope realized that this group was a risk to public order and his position. The Pope would then write to all the leaders in Europe to ask them to deal with the flagellant sects. Fairly quickly, most of the flagellants would be suppressed and wiped out in the several kingdoms which did effectively wipe out the majority of the sect members across Europe. At one point, the flagellants accused the Jewish populations of poisoning the wells and causing the plague causing several pogroms and massacres of these minority populations. So these sects didn't tend to cause anything but harm.... the fear and terror, as well as social unrest and massacres that they caused in many ways could have helped spread the plague as people ran from the unrest to other areas or brought the sick more closely together to protect themselves from the more immediate threat.

One impact that the Black Death had on the medieval societies was how people reacted to the church and to how God was seen. The Black Plague had a huge impact on the Catholic church. The difficulties caused by the flagellants was a black mark on the church that was difficult for the organization to shake... especially as the flagellants started to use the Church as a scapegoat for the death and the plague. Far more difficult to shake however, was the new attitude that the survivors tended to keep- that the established church was not necessarily absolute in power. People still strongly believed in God and their beliefs had even been strengthened due to the suffering causes by the plague. But all hierarchy- whether church based or politically based- was seen with a look of skepticism that had never been fostered before in the minds of the common man. People started to question the church as well as the general order of the world and tradition. It changed the relationship between the surviving poor and the surviving rich as the shortage of labor would give peasants more bargaining power. Europe was no longer overpopulated.... and it would take well over one hundred years for Europe to truly recover from the devastation of the Black Death.


Brief views on the history of Medieval Britain - from Edward the Confessor to William the Conqueror

This post is a small series of chronological paragraphs that give brief images of around fifty years of history of Medieval England. I hope you enjoy and if you have time, take the opportunity to do your own research and enjoy the full view of the Bayeux tapestry. :)

The Normans are not originally from the country of Britain. The Norman people are actually descendants of the Vikings that came and conquered the land around the 9th century. As Charlemagne’s empire was disintegrating, one viking leader helped cement his power and rule over the land that became known as Normandy.... and it would be this ruler in whom one of his descendants would come to rule England as well – William the Conqueror.

While Edward the Confessor was considered (and is still sometimes considered today) to be the typical Anglo-Saxon king, he was very much a Norman king. When King Cnut died in 1035, there was a bloody civil war between the surviving elite and powerful in the English kingdom. Edward became the king almost by default as he was the only male member left of the Saxon royal family after this gruesome struggle. When Edward- forever known afterwords as Edward the Confessor- was now the sole 'ruler' of England in 1043 at the age of 36, he quickly found he needed some help from the few powerful people left in England as he knew almost nothing about the country. Edward's mother Emma was Norman who took him to Normandy to escape the wars between the Saxons and the Danes... and so this is where he grew up and lived for 30 years. This is the place and culture that shaped him- he spoke Norman French, learned a fierce independence... and lived in a word of almost constant warfare between the titled and their vassals and a world of Catholicism and piety. When he was king, he felt forced to accept the help and guidance of some of the powerful nobles of England, but there is also evidence to show that he also had Norman confidants as well. At his death in 1066, his crown was passed to Harold II... who would keep it for less than a year.

One thing that Edward had done to confuse the succession and to make a very strong statement to some... was to not have children. He had felt forced to marry Edith Godwin, but he would not sleep with her and so she would remain childless. This was the only way he appeared to find to get revenge on Earl Godwin (who had arraigned for Edward's brother to be murdered before Edward's reign) and the earl's scheming and interference. Another thing he appears to have done is to offer his throne to William of Normandy when he (Edward) died. If Edward truly sent Harold Godwinson to Normandy to give William the letter offering the throne of England (which it appears that he might have), that would also muddy the waters with the heir apparent bringing a letter giving away the 'birthright' so to speak and later with Harold's advancement to a knight when William would swear to protect Harold and Harold would also swear to be William's man. So Edward was to die without any truly clear successor. Whether that was truly his choice or simply indecisiveness we will not ever know for sure.

When Edward the Confessor died, there were two men who felt that they had legitimately inherited the throne. Harold Godwinson felt he had a best claim to the throne. He was the eldest son of the Earl of Wessex (Godwin) who had been the most powerful man in England during the reign of King Cnut and became the second in power during the reign of King Edward (to the King's anger and disgust). Upon his (Godwin's) death in 1053, his sons would continue the strong behind the scenes ruling of England.... and these sons included Harold Godwinson. One of the daughters of Earl Godwin named Edith had been forced onto Edward the Confessor in marriage which created another clear tie to the throne. So Harold had been the lead man behind Edward and with his family and political ties, he could easily have assumed and seen himself as the only legitimate ruler. Last, but not least, King Edward had touched Harold's hand on his deathbed... which Harold was more then ready to accept as a sign of Edward's approval and Harold's legitimacy to the throne. William the Bastard was well known to Edward as it appears they may have grown up together and even have been childhood companions. As he reached his adult majority, William quickly and methodically gained absolute power over the land of Normandy.... frankly, it sounds as if he was really darn lucky to have achieved his adult majority at all! According to some sources, Edward then offered the throne of England to his childhood friend William, the Duke of Normandy. As the King had 'offered' the throne to William, we can certainly see why he would feel that he had the most legitimate claim to if. William was also the supreme ruler of France.... Harold was simply a man who ruled in the 'silence' behind the actual king... William also had a faint family connection- he was related to the wife of King Cnut. Lastly, William also had the support of the Pope- a mighty support indeed.

In some ways, Harold Godwinson sealed his doom before he ever took the crown. This cane be seen in his treatment of his brother Tostig. Harold's brother Tostig was the Earl of Northumbria and was not considered a 'good guy'. Earl Tostig was so infuriating to his subjects that his actions eventually provoked a rebellion. The local nobles who won the fight declared Tostig an outlaw and named another man as a replacement for the Earl. Harold was sent by King Edward to try and solve the crisis and Harold soon realized that the answer to the solution came in one of two tough solutions: he could support his younger brother and potentially start a civil war... or he could throw out his younger brother and hope that in the future these nobles would support him for a bid for the crown. He chose the later solution- making a bitter enemy of his brother which in the end would cost him his life. (This choice might have also been a bit more difficult as it is suggested that Tostig was a favorite of King Edward so when Harold made this choice, it may have been expressly against the wishes of the King.) This 'ill treatment' by his brother would not be forgiven by Tostig. Tostig would bring the king of a nearby country (Harold Hardrada) and a large army back with him to England in an attempt to remove his brother Harold from the English throne.

Harold Hardrada (or Harold III) was the King of Norway and his reputation was as a unconquerable, ruthless warrior- no one wanted to tangle with this individual! Harold was also the owner of a slight claim to the English throne himself- the Norman ruler before him had made an agreement with the English ruler that they would give their lands to the surviving leader (it is believed. ) When the English ruler died, Magnus of Norway did not press his claim and allowed Edward the Confessor to take the throne. King Harold decided to use this 'fact' to press his suit.... although it is thought that Harold would not have actually pressed his claim without the encouragement of the revengeful brother of England's king (Tostig). Unfortunately for both King Harold and Tostig, this battle would end with the loss of both of their lives... and the temporary success of King Harold of England.

In the year 1066, England suffered quite a political upheaval. This was the year of the famous 'Battle of Hastings' and the year that the rule of the Saxons ended in England... to be taken over by the Normans (also known as Vikings). The English King, Harold II, died on the battlefield fighting the Duke William II of Normandy (also known as William the Bastard although he was never called this to his face. :) If you had been a powerful or rich personality before the battle, you were now a Saxon whose property and money had been taken by the new government and part of the race of the 'conquered'... which meant that you were also considered of a lower status than the Normans. This change really altered the way of life for most of the English people. Many were displaced and many died of battle, plague, famine, etc... For instance, it is known that about half of the English nobility died at the Battle of Hastings. In the next few months and years, King William and his army pillaged and ravaged the rest of the country into an almost total submission. Many parts of these cultures were different from each other which would also have affected the native English- surnames were used by the Normans while Anglo-Saxons used place names.... the idea of keeping estates intact and leaving it to the eldest son was also a Norman tradition. The Normans had different verbal accents, ways of looking at other people and at property, and would use available resources to depress and control the Saxons over all other Normans... including resources such as the legal system that the Saxons had developed before they were conquered. It was truly an occupation in the usual sense of the word. (I wonder if it felt a little bit like how some of the Iraqis might currently feel... or some of the population of South Africa a few decades ago...? I am not sure I could really understand this feeling as I have never lived it...)

William I, also known as 'the 'Conqueror', 'of Normandy', and (quietly of course) 'the Bastard', was truly nothing like many of the other known conquerors such as Cnut. While Cnut tried to change nothing about the culture or the lives of his subjects in England so his rule didn't really effect very many people in his kingdom, William would have found that task impossible even if he was willing to try it. He, for one, had promised land and spoils to his army which would cause the expected numbers of refugees and displaced people in England. After the Battle of Hastings, the next few months were spent with the stereotypical 'rape and pillaging' in an attempt to truly subdue his new 'subjects'. Over time King WIlliam built huge castles all over the country where loyal Normans well placed to help control any rebellious subjects and keep down revolts- these places could be seen as places for terror and torture to anyone who ran afoul of William or his allies. When he considered it necessary, intentional famine and massacres were also tactics used by William and his armies to quell and subdue revolts. In a phrase, King Cnut's presence was really never felt in England.... while you probably could never forget or get through your day without a thought of King William.

William of Normandy was really one of the first leaders who recognized that knowledge was really power. He used his power to gain information which was collected into a book called the 'Doomsday Book'. This king used his power and the fear he gave his subjects to force them to accept Norman culture. He made huge changes in the way that buildings were made and built cathedrals and other building in a fairly massive style in comparison to the past. He ruled over some changes to the English language as well as shifts in the nobility and their power. By his death, he had put his mark on most of the institutions of medieval England.

This book was a large grouping of all the information of the English 'kingdom'. It took almost six months to collect the information from across the country- which is amazing considering the time and a brief nod to the remnants of the government and civil service that the Saxons had left behind. Each village and group had to document everything they had – every animal, every assets... quite literally everything so that nothing could be hidden from King William. Housed in two 'books', everything written in this book was considered law and there was no appeal to the tax assessors. This helped King William heavily tax his subjects because it was so much more difficult for his subjects to 'hide' any assets. The book even lists the worth of the documented assets so that it would be difficult to change the worth later. This book also gives the king information about the numbers of men, slaves, etc... giving him very valuable information for potential military service, etc... These books were called the Domesday book because it was said that 'the book's decisions were as final as the last judgment'.


Sometimes I wonder... 1 Nephi chapter 2

I have been thinking a bit about Nephi lately... or I guess a specific chapter actually. I have been stuck on it so much that I am getting behind in my reading for Sunday School. For some reason, 1 Nephi chapter 2 has been something that my brain seems to focus on these days and I find myself being pulled back from the next chapters to stare at pages 4-5. A few verses have really been on my mind and I thought I would share them and my thoughts about them.

1 Nephi 2:11-12

11 Now this he spake because of the stiffneckedness of Laman and Lemuel; for behold they did murmur in many things against their father, because he was a visionary man, and had led them out of the land of Jerusalem, to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious things, to perish in the wilderness. And this they said he had done because of the foolish imaginations of his heart.
 12 And thus Laman and Lemuel, being the eldest, did murmur against their father. And they did murmur because they knew not the dealings of that God who had created them.

To me, these verses make quite a few statements that are really worth pondering. I don't know if it has anything to do with my current place in life. But I feel like many people have more of a clue about what is happening in my life than I do. And some of these people are protecting and caring for me... and some of them are not. And I am finding myself falling into murmuring- I do not feel like I am murmuring against my father... rather that I am plagued with self pity, loathing and ingratitude towards my situation. But the verse ends, “because they knew not the dealings of that God who had created them.” I will admit that the more I think about it, I don't know my future and I feel like things would be easier if I knew how they ended. I wonder if I feel sad/angry and I feel like complaining because I 'know not' the dealings of my God. But I also look at this verse and think... “well, why didn't they ask?” And I keep thinking about it... Why didn't they ask? I can't imagine that Heavenly Father wouldn't have answered a sincere prayer. And Lehi and Sarah and even some of their siblings were praying for Laman and Lemuel. It seems clear that something was holding them back. Was it their perceptions of their situation? Was it their lack of trust and conviction in their father? Was it there trust in friends and other people? A biological problem/mental illness that made it more difficult for these two to feel trust and security in their world... many anxiety disorders, narcissism, etc... Where they really closer to the stereotype that we see at church- angry, mean, selfish, and grasping...? A combination of many things? I will never know the answer – I can only answer these questions for myself and my life. Which brings me to this verse...

16 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers.

This opened a few interesting thoughts to me. One thought is that Nephi originally felt like his brothers- that his father was a little 'strange', etc... so to speak. Another thought is that he did have a sincere desire so he took the time and effort to ask and was given an answer which helped him to understand God better... as well as his earthly father. So I wonder... is Nephi different from Laman and Lemuel only due to his “great desire” for knowledge? Did he ask because he trusted his father in all things and so he felt he needed to ask God to understand a situation that he didn't comprehend? Did he trust God enough that he was willing to ask? I guess I wonder the true circumstances whereas Nephi made a different choice from two of his brothers and why they made the choice that they did. I wonder how many times he had to pray... as I do not always feel like I got an answer I could understand without lots of pondering and a few prayers. Enos certainly had a great desire and his prayer was long and pleading and sincere- longer than I imagine most prayers ever are. The verse suggests that Nephi got his answer, but doesn't tell us how long it took until he got it.

Maybe I find these verses so interesting because I feel like I see an view of Nephi and his brothers that I have never really seen before. I have read the Book of Mormon so many times and I have certainly listened to the stereotyping of scriptural people that many members practice in church. (Which I will admit I try to ignore the comments because I just can't see everything in black and white. Like many people I know and myself, I do not find my testimony threatened if my heroes are not perfect and I find many prophets more interesting and worthy of study when I do feel they are human and not just 'good' two dimensional characters.) I will admit that until I read these verses over and over during the last few weeks, I found that I had never considered Nephi at all like his brothers Laman and Lemuel. But this reading seems to suggest to me that the only real differences between them are really the choices that they made. All three men appear to have questioned their father.... but for whatever reason, only Nephi searched the depths of his mind and heart to ask God about his father and what his father was seeing/saying.... An interesting lesson to say the least!

What are your thoughts?


2012 Poetry Corner #1 : New Views

A heavy heart is quite a burden
More than a barrow of rocks
It does no good
Only extends the grief
And makes it hard to breathe

To lighten the burden is just as hard
The task is great and daunting
But good will come
The grief will end
And growth will begin again

So surely it's best to let it go
Even though both choices feel just as hard
For one will show
An ending sweet
The other- a grief observed....


Still Here...

Sorry my friends... I have let the last month slide away with so much on my mind and my plate. Court, family, struggle and all sorts of stuff as well as school. I will be back on track in he next few days. And here is a nice picture that made me smile... I am just finishing my medieval history class so it seemed a perfect way to end the class- with a smile and laugh. :)