Chance favors only those who court her.
Philip Ziegler's The Black Death.
There are a few things that truly define the wonderful, beautiful yet troubled abstraction known as Western Civilization. The shift from polytheism to monotheism would be one. The scientific method would be another. The printing press. Seafaring. Electric light to push back The Night.
One of the most significant is the Black Death, or more appropriately, the effects of the Black Death on how we think, how we behave, and what we believe in.
Ziegler's text, written in 1969, offers a comfortable readability and is not a 'dry history book', as the events of the Black Death that are not his primary focus. Rather, the real 'subject' of the book is the Plague's aftermath and impact. Things happened in Europe between the years 1348 and 1350 that were a lot more than just a body count.
The Short Review
Buy it and read it. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history. As someone who 'drones on an on about modules', I strongly urge DM's to read this and consider Gygaxian D&D, and Greyhawk materials, in this time period. A Gygaxian-flavored campaign is strangely like Europe before the spread of the Plague, even though much of the game's worlds fall within an 'ascendant/post-apocalyptic' symbolic base.
The Longer Review
Just some brief information from the book's text.
Chapter 1: Origins and Nature - A background of what the pandemic really was, and its three forms (attacking the flesh, blood, and breath). It mentions the ecological disruptions in the Far East, which combined with the Little Ice Age, caused a friendly stage for a pandemic. It is significant that the concept of an airborne disease clouded investigations into the cause and spread of the illnesses during the period, as only one of the three forms was truly airborne
Chapter 2: The State of Europe is a concise look at the stage set prior to the Plague's wrath, and it was already a grim stage. Civilization in Europe had, in a sense, stalled. Climactic catastrophes and conflict over resources were already putting 'the West' in peril. To quote the text:
“The most grave consequence was a series of disastrous harvests. There were famines in England in 1272, 1277, 1283, 1292 and 1311.” which, added to the overpopulation and under cultivation of resources was already a disaster in the making and Zeigler mentions the fallacy of considering the Black Death to be a natural counterbalance to overpopulation like a Malthusian Catastrophe.
Other chapters go into more detail about different countries and how they reacted and are listed below:
- France: the State of Medical Knowledge
- The rest of Continental Europe
- Arrival in England: the West Country
- Progress Across the South
- Sussex, Kent and East Anglia
- The Midlands and the North of England
- The Welsh Borders, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland
- The Toll in Lives
- The Social and Economic Consequences
- Education, Agriculture and Architecture
Of special note to our context of classic D&D are a few select chapters from the text's coverage of this horrible period of time:
- Chapter 5 - Germany: the Flagellants and the Persecution of the Jews covers the inevitable downward spiral mix of faith, desperation, and breakdowns of order. In reading about the Flagellants, you will see echoes of every 'evil cult' that ripples through classic D&D materials, only much more severe. The frightening parts of this chapter aren't the activities that took place during that time (including self-mutilation and attempts at resurrection of corpses) or the Church's eventual suppression of them. The horror is that these weren't 'evil' people at all - they represented a penitent fanaticism and an attempt to create the 'divine miracle cure' by cleansing away sin. In spite of the beliefs of the time, the data suggests that the Church did not fail, overall, to attend to the sick and the poor: records indicate the Church sustained very heavy losses of personnel to the Plague. Unfortunately, as the Clergy represented a pillar of social order that often contained the only educated persons for miles, their absence and dwindling numbers offered fewer hands that could write, fewer eyes that could read, and fewer minds that could inspire.
When even the penitent fanaticism failed, scapegoating of Europeans who were Jewish, Arab, or even lepers became common as lawlessness took hold. The Kosher diet was a very good defense against consuming contaminated meat, and persecution of Jews seen as 'suspicious survivors' swept through many of the areas ravaged by plague. Both of these horrors are useful reading for a game world that takes evil and brutality seriously.
- For anyone creating a medieval city, Chapter 9 London: Hygiene and the Medieval City is bound to be of great use to build more detail into the day to day living of the time period, particularly at a time of crisis. London was ravaged. I'll quote from this chapter:
“Not only had many of the efficient cleaners died or deserted their post and the machinery for the enforcement of the law been strained beyond its capacities but also technical problem of transporting something over twenty thousand corpses to the burial grounds had an imposed an extra and unexpected burden on the skeleton force which remained”
- In Chapter 17 The Effects on the Church and Man's Mind, Zeigler confronts the real object of his quest: what did the Black Death do the survivors? I offer below some quotes from the text:
“The villagers observed with interest that the parish priest was just likely, indeed more likely, to die of the plague than his parishioners. God's wrath seemed just as hot against Church as against people: a significant commentary on those preachers who denounced all their fellows with such tedious zest. [...] That the parson was mortal, everyone knew, that he ate, drank, defecated and in due course died. Often, indeed, he came from the same village as his flock and had relations living near him to testify that he was but flesh and blood. Yet, with his ordination, surely he acquired too a touch of the superhuman; remained a man but became a man apart? After the plague, his vulnerability so strikingly exposed, all trace of the superhuman must have vanished.”
Unfortunately, like in any crisis, those of heroic nobility really do give their lives for their beliefs, and those that remain are, perhaps, less likely to die to save their neighbor. This affected the medieval Church, in addition to the massive amounts of wealth that were willed to it from wealthier patrons (in some cases, whole families were wiped out, leaving no heirs).
Further, monastic orders took a huge hit during the Plague. While there was a certain safety to 'run for the hills', a monastery's cloistered environs had no hope of stopping certain types of the plague, particularly infected livestock.
In general, much anti-clerical philosophy is borne of this era, and Medieval man felt the Church had failed him. Without free flow of information and record keeping, the isolation of villages from each other meant that any information was hearsay, if any came at all.
Socially, the massive decline in the numbers making up the labor pool caused a massive shift in the relationship between landowner and laborer. This culminated in the Peasant's Revolt, which Zeigler sees as a direct result of this shift. Indeed, our modern definition of 'social unrest' or 'revolt' could be spawned from this.
(On a personal note, I found this chapter to be integral to understanding the spawn of Colonization and the search for the New World (relating to my C1 posts). It's almost like, unable to combat God's Wrath, those that 'conquered' the New World had, in fact, found 'Eden' and committed a terrible revenge against the 'Adam and Eve' that they found there.)
In Chapter 13: The Plague in a Medieval Village, Zeigler hits what I consider the high point: an attempt to theoretically model a real village during the spread of the Plague. It is classic 'worldbuilding' and presents the imaginary village of Blakwater. A few quotes from the text:
“It was entertaining to listen to the tale of travellers in the same spirit as, to-day, one might crowd to hear the words of an astronaut; but only the romantic or the reckless actually want to go to the moon and the inhabitant of Blakwater was no more likely to want to go to London or to Calais.”
“Though Roger himself made a point of keeping the domestic animals out of the house this was by no means an invariable rule. In some of the houses goats, sheep and sometimes even cows lived jumbled up with the family, spreading their fleas amid the soiled straw and adding their smells to the rich compound which the medieval household could generate without such extra help.”
“[...] on the fringe of the village, a ramshackle hovel provided shelter of a sort for poor Mad Meg; deformed from birth, shunned by her contemporaries and now grown crazed in squalid loneliness. Some said that she was a witch and the children used to enjoy chanting rude slogans outside her hut but nobody seriously believed that she could make successful mischief.”
“With the parson's death and the steward away the steward's clerk was the only villager left who knew how to read and write.”
You get the idea. What happens to these... characters reads like a good piece of background text for an adventure, and yet plumbs the depths of horror in a world without access to the magic that is so integral to tabletop fantasy and its roots in pulp writings.
The subject of this book relates directly to your gaming for a few reasons:
Gaming and gambling have a long history, but by the 1400's were becoming almost epidemic. Rolling the bones - pitting fate against Chance, became extremely popular in Europe after the Black Death. Gaming continues, but it's interesting that despite the adversity D&D suffered decades ago, no one attacked it as a 'game of chance', even though players really do put their fate in the hands of dice rolls.
While many classic D&D adventures seem like 'natural snapshots', I would submit that, from a historical perspective, they reflect the 'pre-Plague' Europe hovering at the edge of disaster and needing heroes while also being 'post apocalyptic and ascendant'. Is Greyhawk a schizophrenic environment or a conflicted one? I believe it's neither and part of the 'glow' of the classic adventures is, in truth, a dual-themed game world: a place existing before one disaster, but after a previous one.
Finally, note that most of the multitudes that were slain by the Black Death were peasants, raised without education in a time of faith and living in small villages rich with folklore. Did their parents, in an attempt to keep them close to home and safe, fill their imaginations with 'monsters in the forest' or 'goblins in those caves by the creek'? They have no grave markers, and in some cases, no records of their existence. Did they, working the fields by day, dream of being heroes?
If so, then the popular fantasy theme of 'a nobody rising to become a hero' may be something imprinted on us from this terrible period of time. What did a peasant child dream of in 1348?
Are you playing out the dreams of the lost and nameless dead? Are you silently fulfilling their wishes when you role up a character?
Something to think about in a New Year.