History is studded with various disease outbreaks each having its own lasting effect on a specific time period. Perhaps though, one of the most infamous diseases to have occurred in history is the Black Plague of the 14th century. The Black Plague, or Bubonic Plague as it is also known, spread from Italy all throughout Europe leaving millions dead in its wake. The first outbreak was in China during the early part of the 1300’s, but the main spread occurred when rats carrying the plague were transported accidentally from country to country on trade ships. So, while rats are often blamed for being the main cause of plague in the Middle Ages, Bubonic Plague was also spread by the bites of fleas. Additionally, scientists and doctors today know that Bubonic Plague travels pneumonically. In other words, it can be spread through the air. This was likely one of the reasons the transmission rate of the plague was so high. While the disease was spread through air, Medieval Europe was notorious for poor sanitation and simple lack of personal hygiene. The prevalence of human and animal waste in the streets and contaminated water supply (and the stigma placed against taking too many baths) created a hot bed for fleas, leaving the population vulnerable to those carrying plague.
Citizens and doctors alike were completely perplexed by this illness. It seemed to leave no survivors. Common medical practices such as bloodletting, boil lancing, and “supernatural” rituals were performed but to no avail. No one had seen anything like this before and no one knew how to handle the devastation it caused. Feeling helpless, artists took to the canvas in an attempt to convey just what was happening to them.
In one specific case, a painting from the 14th century depicts two women holding hands with two skeletons while the four of them walk along a grassy field. The women do not seem particularly concerned with the fact that their partners in what historians now refer to as “the dance of death” are in fact, dead. The fact that the women appear to willingly be holding hands and associating with these skeletons seems to suggest a certain familiarity with them. Perhaps this reflects the familiarity people of the medieval times were forced to have with death itself. The disease killed loved ones and business associates alike. The painting suggests a relationship, and almost an acceptance, between the living and the dead which reflects the emotions of society garnered by the sheer number of lives lost during the plague.
Aside from evoking a sense of familiarity, the skeletons could be seen as menacing creatures. Also, as skeletons are often a symbol of fear, these two figures could be seen as menaces stalking the women; in other words, they could be the artist’s interpretation of the grim reaper. Going back again to the fact that the women seem comfortable with the dead, the dead figures reflect the general idea that “no one was safe from the plague”, and the overall confusion and mania of the times. Perhaps the skeletons in the painting represent friends of the women who died from the plague, therefore transforming them into literal versions of the grim reaper out to then strike the two women. Are the women aware that they are dancing with the dead? Many people were completely unaware and left to deal with the sudden loss of loved ones because of plague. Everyone was at risk. Medieval society had no way of telling who had the plague before it was too late, thus making one’s friend also one’s greatest enemy.
Read more about the Black Plague here
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