Earl of Bristol to the Citizens of Bristol, Fall 1348

Smile! It's another beautiful day.

Citizens of Bristol,

Settle down, settle down. Really, I never. Let’s all just take a deep breath. There. Doesn’t that feel better? When faced with a problem, it’s always best to stay calm rather than getting your undergarments twisted into an uncomfortable bunch between your buttocks.

This recent spate of influenza that has been going around is nothing to get excited about. If you’d simply put down your torches and be reasonable, you’d see it’s nothing more or less than the common cold. I myself had a touch of a runny nose last week and have since fully recovered.

Those hell-raising doomsday predictors running through the streets with painted sores and torn clothing are getting everyone riled up for no good reason. Their use of the word “plague” is especially exaggerated–a cough is hardly a plague, unless you make your living by singing.

Your concern is understandable, I know. I have no choice but to point a finger squarely at the Bristol court troubadour, who has used inflammatory language to spread a culture of panic and fear. Calling this mild virus the “black death” is bound to make people suspicious. Rest assured he has been hanged.

Go in peace, but please remember, flu season is nearly upon us, so don’t forget to push the fluids and wash your hands frequently with soap and water.

Yours truly,

Earl of Bristol

Analysis:

The Earl of Bristol, coincidentally named “Earl Bristles,” was in his time regarded as one of the most influential and important scientific thinkers of his day. This letter, originally found attached to an old atlas of Nepal, demonstrates exactly why. The Germ Theory of Disease did not enter the scientific lexicon until the early 19th century, and yet the Earl refers to a strain of microbe causing a horrific plague. He also appeared to have rudimentary knowledge of sanitation, as shown by his final exhortation to his subjects to wash up. How is it that such a reasonable and intelligent man would preside over a plague which wiped out a full 106% of Bristol’s citizenry over 4 days?

Scholars today tend to blame the citizens themselves. Bristol references pitchforks and torches in his letter, and we know from corroborating evidence that rioting was indeed a big problem in the area. These pitchforks and torches could not have been very sanitary, and passing them back and forth probably spread the disease further. In fact, the Earl’s brother, commanding a small cavalry division, saw an entire mob wiped out in 14 seconds when a priest sneezed on his torch and handed it to a friend.

However, there is some evidence that the Earl’s leadership is to blame. This letter indicates that he believed the Black Death was caused by the influenza virus, which is patently ridiculous. The Black Death was of course caused by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis, as every schoolchild knows. The Earl’s inability to properly classify as-yet-undiscovered microbes would certainly have changed the way the county reacted to the plague. Instead of prescribing a strict regiment of quarantine and antibiotics, the Earl’s government tried burning witches and hanging troubadours. Although initially successful, the bacteria mutated into a form that could infect regular peasants as well, and the plague was on. Also, it is important to remember that in England at the time, “soap” and “water” were luxury items not commonly available, and peasants had to make do with rotting rat carcasses and human saliva.

The troubadour referred to in this letter was never actually hanged. The Earl’s wife had an affair with the musician and helped to smuggle him out of the country on the eve of his execution. Fearing the Earl’s response, the executioner hung a pile of leaves in a burlap sack and painted a face on it, which was apparently good enough for the famously-nearsighted Earl. The troubadour, name lost to history, escaped to France, hoping to join the  royal court. Upon landing in Paris, he was killed and eaten by a pack of bears (who were completely plague-free, ironically).

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