Feb 3, 2009 — “Fear, loathing, terror, scapegoating, victim-blaming,” the shunning of “so-called undesirables:” these were the responses of Christians to their Jewish neighbors during the Black Death, the plague pandemic that killed at least a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century. The mindset returned in our own purportedly enlightened times, too, when the first signs of AIDS emerged in the early 1980s.
The Yeshiva University Museum and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Alumni Association probed the links among disease and human activities and values in a symposium entitled “From Black Death to AIDS: Epidemics and Their Impact on Culture” on Jan. 20. Two distinguished members of Einstein’s class of 1982—Dr. Liise-anne Pirofski, Mitrani Professor of Biomedical Research at the college, and Dr. Ruth Oratz, a clinical associate professor at the New York University School of Medicine—presented their research and took questions from a large audience at the museum.
Pirofski began by noting that a civilization’s “sense of causality is driven by its available [research] tools.” Evidence from past centuries shows an inkling of the cause of plague, which results from the bite of infected fleas, often hosted by rats. For example, the Morgan Bible (which predates the Black Death) shows rats crawling over the bodies of victims of the Plague of the Philistines in the Book of Samuel. But disease was often ascribed to celestial influences or the malice of despised groups, including Jews.
It was not until the 17th century, Pirofski noted, that the cause of the plague began to be understood, with Athanasius Kircher’s observations through a microscope of microbes or blood cells.
Oratz focused on cultural artifacts inspired by the Black Death and AIDS, ranging from the illustrious examples of Boccaccio’s “Decameron” and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”—both built around the conceit of storytellers escaping plague-ridden cities—to everyday expressions.
The nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie,” she said, may be a remnant of the 1665 Great Plague of London. The “rosie” would be the plague’s “big scarlet boil”; the “posies,” fragrant flowers thought to protect against infection; and the ditty’s ending (“Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down”), a depiction of the burning of corpses and death.
Commenting on the early years of the AIDS pandemic, which she witnessed as a physician, Oratz recalled treating “young, healthy people covered with a different kind of stigmata” who died “hideous, horrible deaths.” She called AIDS “the plague of our time,” pointing out that HIV/AIDS will soon surpass the Black Death in the number of deaths caused. Oratz noted that early victims of the disease were depicted as “dissolute and undesirable” until celebrated athletes and entertainers began to succumb.
One of the museum’s recent shows, “Erfurt: Jewish Treasures from Medieval Ashkenaz,” which closed Jan. 29, displayed exquisite jewels and metalwork that were preserved, as fate would have it, because of the Black Death. Just before Jews in Erfurt, Germany, were massacred for their alleged complicity in spreading the plague, a Jewish merchant hid the treasure, which lay undiscovered until 1997.
Oratz ended her presentation with words of the late Susan Sontag, who described illness as “the night side of life” and inveighed against “punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted” about disease. Oratz and Pirofski both expressed hope about medical advances in identifying and treating illness, but warned that disease “will continue to challenge” all of us as individuals and makers of culture.