The Black Death: A Chronicle of the Plague by Johannes Nohl (1882–1963) is an illustrative book that traces down the flux of plague and its effects in Europe over the centuries. It examines this malady from historical and sociological perspective. The major contribution of Johannes Nohl is that he does not rely on secondary sources but has researched the contemporary chronicles to locate the pathos and miseries that this epidemic afflicted on the populations of Europe over the centuries.
Scope of work is both intensive and extensive as he has provided an in-depth study that encompasses four centuries (1337-1720) and a vast geographical area from Western Europe to Russia and from Nordic ice-burgs to the Mediterranean Sea. In addition to being a historian, Johannes Nohl was also a psychoanalyst. So The Black Death: A Chronicle of the Plague is not a mere chronicle of the plague & its effects but also it further analyzes the socio-cultural, psychological and economic effects of this epidemics on the whole European civilization that persist in certain societies hitherto.
It beautifully blends the comprehensive accounts of the pandemic that caused almost 40 million deaths a single century during the fourteenth century alone with durable socio-cultural impact. The book also locates that how people countered these epidemics and what practical measures were adopted to tackle the problem at large scale. Nohl illustrate that Black Death changed the patterns of life and affected all facets of culture as people migrated from one geographical location to the other to escape themselves from this epidemic.
First two chapters, The Aspect of the Plague and The Precursors of the Plague describe the nature of plague as it was understood by the contemporary societies. Nohl has explored through contemporary chronicles that Plague was considered a celestial phenomenon as plague use to visit the European societies sporadically in the form of a natural disaster. Furthermore, Nohl explores that most usual route of these epidemics were from India to Central Asia and then to Europe through trade groups and in Europe it used to spread along with waterways in the shape of a natural catastrophe.
In the next two chapters The Medical Profession and Plague Remedies, Nohl discovers the available medical remedies in the medieval societies and how medical professionals reacted to it. Contemporary chironicles suggest that mostly people used to rely on religious conviction and pilgrimages rather than visiting a doctor. Most medical treatment was based on plant extracts. Availability and affordability of medicines were another problem due to mass scale spread and impact of the disease. Nohl looks into the various other socio-political aspects of the epidemic.
For example, aadministrative precautions mostly included individual and group exclusion from the community of the hale and hearty. A systematic effort in this regards was not possible as plague used to erupt abruptly, so it was administered intermittently. Nohl has not only provided the official and royal manuscripts and chronicles but to present the conditions and miseries of the general public, he has included chronicles of travelers, contemporary historians. These clearly manifest that plague had different effects of different social classes and each class was treated in a different way both socially and administratively.
In addition to socio-cultural and political effects, epidemic of plague had cast their disturbing impact on the worldview Christian community. Church responded in its own way to the pandemic. The Church labeled it as a reaction of sins and their only remedy was ritualistic deliverance that would purge the sins. So ritualistic practices were used to organize at the individual and collective level. Some other Christian followers were of the view that world is overtaken by the evil as Divinity itself was a friend of mankind and how it could afflict it with such pathos and miseries.
Another section of orthodox sect, The Luciferians were of the view that God had toppled down Lucifer, their lord, and had taken over heaven. So this is a natural response of this tragedy. (Nohl 1924, 161-163). Some other compared the disease as an Arial and celestial phenomenon that was beyond the strength and capacity of mankind. This view was further reinforced by the fact that prior to the Black Death, in 1117, the eruption of plague was coincided with a cosmic phenomenon that medieval mind was unable to comprehend. Nohl states in this regard that
In 1117, in January, a comet passed like a fiery army from North toward the orient, the moon was o’ercast blood-red in an eclipse, a year later a light appeared more brilliant than the sun,. This was followed by great cold, famine and plague, of which one-third of the humanity have said to have perished. Nohl further describes same coincidences in 1568, 1582 and 1606 when Netherlands, Prague and Vienna were badly affected with plague. This shaped the general mentality that plague is an extra human phenomenon and mankind had no control over it. The social fabric of the whole European society was transformed by these notions and beliefs.
Nohl depicts that beside human causalities, first social causality was breakdown of social order. There was “an incapacity to believe that so uncanny a disease as the plague could be attributable to natural causes” which led “the fateful misconception of [its] artificial production” (Nohl 171). This belief molded their worldview and they become more recluse and a believers in the fictitious remedial rituals. Nohl also illustrates an interesting but tragic fact that plague was intentionally passed on to others. He located the motive for this deliberate infection as infectants did not want to undergo the agonies alone.
Furthermore, it was common belief that one could liberate oneself of his contagion by transmitting it to others (Nohl 171). Nohl also provides evidences when someone infected his/her rival or enemy due to sheer malice and enmity. Sometime, Lutherans were blamed for this curse but more often Jews were labeled as propellants of this deadly disease. So they were persecuted on mass level to purge the society from this malady but it is a fact that Jews used running streams for their sanitary purposes unlike Christian who used contaminated public wells that were often a prime cause for dispersal of various diseases.
Toward end, the book has an interesting chapter, The Erotic Element in the Plague that relation sexuality with deadly disease. This book covers all aspects of Black Death pertaining to the contemporary medieval societies and all these are supported with the contemporary chronicles. It not only provides a synopsis of whole epidemic history but provides an in-depth analysis of the entire phenomenon. References Nohl, Johannes. 1924. The Black Death: A Chronicle of the Plague. Translated by C. H. Clarke. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers.