A Post-Apocalyptic Plague Becomes Real

Many of us have watched the Walking Dead or read Stephen King’s The Stand.  But in Medieval Europe, a post-apocalyptic plague actually become real, and it had a dramatic impact on almost every aspect of life.

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Dance Macabre images became very popular in Medieval European art

We’ve discussed some of the myths around Medieval Europe, but those do not extend to the Black Plague. As a matter-of-fact, the impact of this plague tends to be frequently understated.

The Black Death or Bubonic Plague killed somewhere between 75 and 200 million people, or between 30%-60% of Europe’s total population. The plague peaked for four years in the 1300’s. During these four years, in some areas, such as Italy, the South of France, and Spain, it’s thought the death toll reached as high as 75%-80% of the total population.

If you put that into context, it means out of a family of five, one person would bury the rest of their family members.

There are stories of entire villages being wiped out, and years later, visitors finding cattle roaming free.

Apocalyptic, indeed.

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Not quite like this, but I imagine it was close.

This also happened fast. From the time a victim was infected until the time they died was usually no more than three to four days.

Death was awful as lymph-nodes swelled from the disease then burst.

There were many long-term consequences of this Plague that paved the way to the societies we have today.

  • Drastic Reduction in Labor – Labor went from being plentiful to being in very short supply. Landowners were suddenly forced to pay wages and make working conditions better. Serfdom was was all put abolished and feudalism crumbles. Wages paid to artisans rose, and with landowners becoming less wealthy as they had to share with workers, those who provided services become more wealthy. This offered a new fluidity in a previously very hierarchical society.

Decades later, when lords tried to revoke the improved conditions, there were peasant revolts that forced the lords to maintain the better conditions and pay.

 

  • Catholic Church Lost Some of It’s Hold – The Protestant Reformation stated in 1517 AD, approximately 150 years after the worst bout of Black Plague. The loss of power, however, is believed to have already started during the Black Plague. Distrust in God and the Catholic Church, which already in poor standing due to recent Papal scandals, grew as people realized the Church could do nothing to stop the disease or help their family.
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Beautiful, but it doesn’t feed people or save them from the Black Death.

 

  • Anti-Semitism Rises – Jewish populations became scapegoats, particularly as they suffered less from the Black Plague. We now believe this is because of better hygiene, but at the time, people thought they were poisoning Christian’s water. Many would flee east to Poland and Russia.

 

All in, if you want to find a very real account of what happens in the Walking Dead, take a look at Europe during the Black Plague. The accounts are gruesome and horrifying. I actually stopped reading them because my heart ached for those people, and there is literally nothing I can do for them.

 

How about you? Ever watched the Walking Dead or read The Stand? Could you imagine if we lost half our population today? Any other real-world examples of an apocalypse?

The Truth about Medieval Swords

Okay, A.S. Akkalon and Thomas Weaver busted me. I have been researching many things in the Middle Ages and the Roman era. I’ve studied a lot about politics and daily life. One thing I did not think to question was my belief in large, heavy swords being the norm for knights.

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She’s got nothing on any paladin I’ve ever played. And I’ve played a lot of them.

I am going to blame it on years and years of D&D, video games, and some bad information from the History Channel. I stupidly thought these were researched. I know. Stop laughing.

Here is the truth.

The weapons of the Middle Ages were light, strong, and well-designed. They were agile weapons designed to kill, and they did a fine job of it. They were not clumsy or heavy. They were not “clubs with edges”.

According to the Wallace Collection Museum in London that has dozens of actual swords from the Middle Ages, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any that weight more than four pounds. Most weigh less than three.

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Perhaps a bit more accurate. Picture from Pixabay.

Yeah. Three pounds.

Even the large “hand-and-a-half” swords rarely weighed more than 4.5 pounds.

All of these swords would be easily handled by a man who’d been training with them since the age of seven.

Perhaps popular media (and my RPGs) were thinking of special “parade” swords when they came up their weights. However, they only weighed up to eight or nine pounds, not the forty you regularly see in popular culture (or on the History Channel). Even so, you’d really have to be stretching to make this mistake. These swords were show pieces, not fighting weapons. Their blunt edges should bring home that point.

This idea is perhaps older than Hollywood. Hey, misinformation isn’t just for TV and movies.

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Land of more misinformation than even the Mythbusters can bust.

In a fencing booklet from 1746, the author already talked about how heavy and unwieldy earlier swords were, stating they were designed basically for brute force. Perhaps the author felt that way as he was used to using a foil instead of a sword, but I’m going to guess a foil isn’t nearly as deadly on a battlefield or more soldiers would’ve used them.

In the 1870s, a historian describes earlier weapons as ponderous and requiring both hands. Getting back to the Victorian hubris Thomas Weaver spoke of where the Victorians assumed all things that came before them must be inferior.

There are other example, but the one thing we have to remember is that much of this was documented by people who were not swordsmen or otherwise trained in battle. Perhaps a man who has survived a half-dozen battles will find a certain sword light, well-balanced and agile when the scholar who has never left his library will find it heavy and unwieldy compared to his quill.

When I step back and look at this logically, of course it makes sense that knights and soldiers of the Middle Ages had finely-crafted blades that were light, sturdy and agile. War tends to bring about inventiveness as nothing drives innovation like survival.

I admit my ignorance on this, but I’ve learned and will go back and rewrite accordingly. Reminds me again to question everything.

How about you? Ever believe something you later learned was Hollywood magic? Any other common misconceptions held by the general public that could make me go back and rewrite?

 

More than Medieval Europe and Vikings

There is more to history than Medieval Europe and Vikings.

Bizarre, I know, but true.

I study history to get ideas for how to create a world that has at least a streak of realism. I mean, there will be dragons, but there’s still a civilization that supports them.

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Yes, there will still be knights.

While lots of stories use a bland version of Medieval Europe as their basis, my studies have taken me elsewhere. Sure, I am influenced by Regency and Victorian England. I read historical romance. This is almost a given.

While English history has influenced me, one of my favorite areas of study to create civilizations is ancient Rome.  And no, I’m not talking about the Rome Hollywood feeds us. I’ve decided almost nothing that we see on a screen, small or large, is real. It’s better to accept that. Really.

Here are three interesting things about Rome:

 

They Were Wealthy Enough to Avoid Expensive Sporting Events

Gladiators really existed. Sure, Hollywood told you that, but they didn’t really fight to the death. These were highly skilled combatants who were valued for their ability to entertain, and paid very well to do it. Much like our modern day sports stars. There were the occasional fights to the death, but these were usually prisoners sentenced to die.

Colosseum

What Hollywood didn’t tell you was that Romans really, really liked chariot races. Kinda like the ancient version of NASCAR. The Colosseum that hosted gladiators could hold 50,000 people. Yeah, 50,000. The Circus Maximus where the chariot races were held? That contained space for 250,000. One of the greatest chariot racers in all of Rome was Gaius Appuleius Diocles, and he amassed a fortune worth $15 billion.

 

Massive, Long-Lived Empire

Rome was a true empire. It spanned from Spain and Portugal, across northern Africa, and up to modern day Scotland. It also included parts of Germany, southern Europe, over to the boarders of Iran and Iraq. There is some evidence it expanded farther, and included the parts of the Arabian peninsula and delved further into Asia.

A large, expansive empire that managed to last almost a thousand years. The Republic lasted just over 500 years when the Senate granted Octavian the title Augustus. This began the Imperial age, which depending on who you ask, lasted approximately another 500 years.

 

Technological Marvels

Rome was a massive empire that reached technological pinnacles we can’t yet replicate. There are concrete dams in Spain still standing two-thousand years after they were built. They can’t get the concrete on the freeway I drive to work on to last more than twenty-years.

The vast distances required a way to communicate to keep the empire together. The Romans became famous for their roads. Wherever Rome went, the road system followed. These roads were paved, lightly arched so water drained off of them, and were flanked by footpaths, horse trails, and drainage ditches. The roads were built along accurately surveyed courses, and some were cut through hills, or constructed over rivers and ravines on bridgework. Sections over marshy ground would be supported on rafted or piled foundations.

As you can tell, they didn’t mess around.

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Not messing around is why some Roman roads are still is use some 2,000 years later.

The Romans took their roads seriously. Very seriously. They were very well built, and many were still used as main thoroughfares until they were paved over for modern cars. These roads had to be spectacular. It’s how the Romans transported troops. Supplies. And supported a state-funded courier system, allowing messages to make it across great distances.

 

As history so often does, it reminds us that people have been smart for a really long time. And it reminds us again that the feudal system is not all of European history.

 

How about you? Ever discover some interesting bit of history that changed your perception of the past? Or perhaps showed you how “creative” Hollywood can be with history? Maybe something interesting that you think I especially cool?