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The Bright Side of the Black Death

The bubonic plague left its mark on the human population of Europe, showing that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Pat Shipman

The Black Death was so extreme that it’s surprising even to scientists who are familiar with the general details. The epidemic killed 30 to 50 percent of the entire population of Europe. Between 75 and 200 million people died in a few years’ time, starting in 1348 when the plague reached London. The pandemic moved fast: It often killed a host within days of their first developing the high fever, the telltale rash, and the repellent buboes or swellings in the armpits and groin, which turned black and burst, expelling pus and bacteria. The disease spread through families, houses, villages, towns, and cities with terrifying speed and staggering mortality. This tragedy launched a socioeconomic and evolutionary transformation in Europe that changed the course of history.

So many were struck down and so rapidly, that it was long thought that the Black Death killed indiscriminately. Certainly the disease took men, women, and children, rich and poor. But was it a selective form of death? Anthropologist Sharon DeWitte, who is currently at University of South Carolina, felt the answer could be obtained by studying skeletal remains of plague victims and comparing them to other medieval skeletons buried in normal, nonplague cemeteries, and she tackled that question for her dissertation work at Pennsylvania State University. (Disclosure: I was at Penn State at the time, but I did not serve on DeWitte’s PhD committee.) Because of its severity and the existence of documentary as well as biological evidence, the Black Plague looked like a perfect case to investigate the influence of pandemic disease on human populations.

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