Monday, February 03, 2014


Ever alert, the NPR web crawlers have just brought to our attention the “Justinian Plague”.  Extended quotes below, mostly from the government website “pubmed.”

Infez Med. 2012 Jun;20(2):125-39.
[The Justinian plague] 

. . . The so-called Justinian plague took its name from the Byzantine emperor of the period, and seriously conditioned the expansionary aims of the Eastern Roman empire towards Italy (which was occupied by Goths), and Northern Africa (where the Vandals had settled), during the first decades of its spread. 

Vandals attacking Rome

In the Eastern Empire the plague played a considerable role in reducing the tensions between Persians and Byzantines, especially on the Syrian and Anatolian fronts. It had a major demographic impact, reducing the possibility of recruitment to the Roman legions and leading to a significant drop in tax revenues, which were essential to sustain the state and its military machine. Finally, the plague also took its toll on economic resources (especially agriculture), indirectly leading to a vicious inflationary circle. In the space of over two centuries, plague epidemics paralyzed most trade and commercial exchanges. Furthermore, the Justinian plague, halting the consolidation of the influence of the Eastern Roman empire over some Western regions (including Italy and Northern Africa, which were ruled by Barbarians), supported the development and rise of a number of Roman-Barbarian kingdoms. It may therefore be suggested that the Justinian plague occurred at a very critical historical moment, which represents the real watershed between the Ancient World and the upcoming Middle Ages.
Barbarians in Italy

The Islamic Empire started its tumultuous and rapid expansion from the year 622 A.D. (the year of Mohammed's Egira). This rapid growth coincided with the epidemic spread of the bubonic plague in the Middle East. . . . The epidemic plague significantly contributed to the weakening of the Eastern Roman Empire, and the rapid decline of the Persian Empire, while during the early expansion phases of Islam, it indirectly favoured the nomadic Arab tribes which, moving on desert or semi-desert territories, succeeded in escaping the contagion more easily. . . .

The plague is an infectious bacterial disease having a high fatality rate without treatment. It has occurred in three huge pandemics since the 6th century with millions of deaths and numerous smaller epidemics and sporadic cases. Referring to specific clinical symptoms of pulmonary plague the disease became known as the Black Death. . . .The worldwide spread of the third pandemic began when the plague reached Hong Kong and Canton in the year 1894. 
Plague is one of mankind's greatest scourges, which has swept away millions of people over the centuries. The first available record of the occurrence of this calamity, in humans, is from the Bible, in 1000 bc, in the city of Ashdod. The first definitely identified pandemic originated in Egypt in ad 542 (the Justinian Plague) and is estimated to have caused 100 million deaths. 
The other night I very belatedly watched “And the Band Played On,” the Randy Shilts movie about the fight to understand and resist the virus we now call AIDS.  “Belated” because I’ve been thinking about this virus since it claimed one of the best of our young Canadian Unitarian ministers despite the efforts of his partner, an MD.   Rev. Mark DeWolfe and I shared an interest in landscape as a source of theology, particularly contrasting the garden with the wilderness.

I couldn’t find a photo of Mark, probably because it was the 80’s and churches didn’t have websites for the internet crawlers to scrape.  He was on the early AIDS drugs, the very harsh ones that had to be taken every four hours, and his pill dispenser had a little timer in it that beeped to remind him.  We sat at ministers’ meetings hearing it.  No one talked about it and no one knew what to do.  He died in 1987.  It remained for the gay male community to grab the situation by the throat and shake progress loose.

Here in Valier, MT., one might seem safe from plagues.  A 75-year-old antisocial female might seem safe from the kind of plague that reduced the Blackfeet from a powerful tribe to a vulnerable population.  (Smallpox.)  But as I write it’s Groundhog Day and it’s the worldwide prairie marmot and ground squirrel rodent populations that even to this day and even here carry the bacterial infection that caused the Justinian Plague.  It is a happy byproduct of Valier’s feral cat population that there’s probably nary a rodent left in town.  (The town owl helps.)  Antibiotics still work on bacteria.  People rarely die anymore.

But this is also a major flyway for migrating waterfowl that bring the flu viruses over from China where they seem to originate at the interface between pigs and poultry.  We have swine farms here as well.  They tend to be indoors -- but not all.  The nastiest flu I ever caught was from turning bales over in a stubble field where pigs ran free and the V of geese traced the sky.  Viruses, as the gay community knows all too well, are much harder to contain or treat.  

AIDS is not a sex disease.  It is a blood disease, specifically targeting the blood-borne immune system of cells.  In Russia their spreading and expanding HIV statistics are carried in the needles for intravenous drugs.  That’s the immediate cause -- but what’s the REAL cause, the ROOT cause, both there and in the other countries?  If everything is code and the viral code is interacting with the code of civilization itself, as is demonstrated by the Justinian Plague, then how is it SPECIFICALLY interacting with our culture?  How will the world be changed by the failure to grip and resolve the human conditions that make people want to take drugs or have unprotected sex?  And there ARE other ways for the virus to make the jump from one person to another, but fewer than we think.  We can control the transmission between mothers and babies.

It is what we THINK that shapes contagion, research, and simple kindness.  What are the cultureome diseases and how can they be managed for the health of our planet?  We already know their names: greed, stigma, hatred, exclusion, wretched excess, ignorance, uproar, poverty, demagogery, discarding unwanted people . . .  no need to go on.  But clearly AIDS is a social disease in a cultural sense as are many other things.  Everything is connected.

When Lewis and Clark were trekking across the continent there were many reasons for them to have sex along the way.  They were aware of contagion and carried (at the orders of President Jefferson) the vaccine for smallpox with which they inoculated the indigenous people if they were allowed to do it.  They tried to refrain from intercourse, but as we have finally shed enough prudery to admit, almost all but Clark caught “the clap” and VD/STD killed Lewis in sordid circumstances, full of syphilitic madness.  When the expedition was still on the prairie, they worried more.  But after they crossed the mountains and were in the Northwest, they thought they were so far from “civilization” that they were safe in an innocent land.  They forgot about the ships that constantly visited the Pacific Coast, even though they had hoped to go home on one.  It was harder to keep up one’s guard in a long winter rain-bound stockade on a river.  Depression is a major cause of contagion -- one stops caring about restraint -- and therefore enables plagues.

But now we wonder whether depression itself might be contagious, an organic disease caused by a code error in our cultureome.  We begin to see how interactive we are with the world, even in our sausage-casing skins meant to keep blood in and viruses out.  If we are constantly penetrated by gamma rays, microwave signals, and other code-altering but unsensed forces, then what about our media-lives, our politics, our families, our material culture?  Surely they change us and our economic arrangements.  Are we foregoing caring?  Discarding people?  Again?

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