Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Why did the Plague spare Poland?
The Black Death skipped certain parts of Europe - and that could be a lesson for today's coronavirus epidemic
- Calm down, we're not comparing COVID-19 to the Plague.
- Well, not literally. But this map raises an interesting question: Why were some parts of Europe spared of the Black Death?
- And can that tell us something about where the coronavirus will or won't spread?
The doctor will see you now
Engraving of 'Doctor Schnabel' ('Dr. Beak'), a plague doctor in 17th-century Rome, wearing the typical mask with which caregivers sought to keep the 'bad air' at bay that they held responsible for the spread of the disease.
Image: Paulus Fürst, ca. 1656 - public domain
The Black Death was a ruthless killer – and, if you were lucky, a swift one. Its more fortunate victims "ate lunch with their friends, and dinner with their ancestors in paradise," wrote Giovanni Boccaccio, who lived through the initial wave of the Plague as it struck Italy in the 1340s.
What does that have to do with the coronavirus? Not a whole lot, fortunately. Except that the brief of this little corner of the internet is to look for strange maps, and one map led to another.
The Plague was brought from China to Europe in the 1330s by rodents hitching rides with traders. The infection with the Yersinia pestis bacterium was typically transmitted to humans by fleabites. The Plague's three manifestations were bubonic (causing painful swellings), septicemic (infecting the bloodstream) and pneumonic (choking off breathing, and transmittable via coughing). Left untreated – as was necessarily the case in the Middle Ages – bubonic plague had a mortality rate of about 50%, for the other two, it's virtually 100%.
Bocaccio's Italy was hit hard by the epidemic. Cities like Venice and Pisa lost three-quarters of their population. The disease followed the traditional trading routes north, racing forward each spring as a new generation of fleas was ready to spread the infection.
The Plague afflicted most of Europe in a relatively brief period. It's estimated that it killed as many as 25 million – a third of Europe's population at the time – in just five short years.
Absent explanations and remedies, Europe's populations turned to God for hope, and victimized outsider groups as scapegoats. Some of Western Europe's worst anti-Jewish pogroms before WWII took place during outbreaks of the Plague.
In just a few years, the Plague had moved from its entry points on the Mediterranean as far north as Scandinavia.
Image: Andy85719 - CC BY-SA 3.0
This map shows the progress of the Plague, from its arrival in the Mediterranean:
- First afflicted (in 1347) were Asia Minor, and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, with just small bridgeheads on the European mainland: Marseilles and environs, Calabria (the tip of Italy's shoe), and the southern shore of what is now Turkish Thrace (i.e. European Turkey).
- By the next year (1348), the disease had achieved a firm foothold in Europe, reaching as far as the gates of Toledo and Paris.
- In early 1349, the Plague had overwhelmed London and Frankfurt, and was poised to pounce Vienna and Bucharest. Later that year, it reached as far as Ireland and Norway.
- Its relentless march north continued. In 1350, it hit Lübeck and Copenhagen, reaching high into Norway. In 1351 and thereafter, it swept further north, touching the entire continent.
But as this map indicates, the Plague spared certain areas (marked green on the map) on march of destruction:
- an area in Italy centered on Milan;
- small, contiguous parts of Spain and France, on either side of the Pyrenees;
- an area in the Low Countries around Bruges;
- a large area in Eastern Europe, stretching from Magdeburg to beyond Warsaw, taking in most of present-day Poland, plus some surrounding areas.
Why? First off, the map is slightly misleading. Green does not mean 'safe', just 'less deadly'. Milan, for example, only lost about 15% of its population. Horrific by today's standards, but a mere trifle compared to the almost wholesale extinction of Italy's other cities. In Poland and the other 'green' areas too, people did die of the Plague, albeit in much lower numbers than elsewhere.
Blues vs. Greys
Interconnected equals infected, and vice versa.
One main reason why Poland escaped relatively unscathed, was the decision by Poland's king, Casimir the Great, to close the country's borders – and set up internal quarantines.
This increased Poland's natural isolation, both from the outside world and between the settlements within the country – generally smaller and less connected than elsewhere in Europe. Prague to Krakow took eight days on horseback. People infected took between 24 to 72 hours to get sick. So the issue would 'resolve' itself well before the danger reached the Polish border.
Isolation plus quarantine certainly helped spare Poland from the worst of the epidemic. One more spurious explanation is that Poland had more cats than other parts of Europe, and thus less disease-carrying rats…
Milan's significantly lower mortality rate may also be down to the city's stricter quarantine measures: The houses of infected families were simply bricked up (with the infected left to die inside).
Like Poland, the French-Spanish area, corresponding to the then-kingdom of Navarre, may have benefited from its relative isolation. Why the area around Bruges – then a thriving port with connections to the Mediterranean – might have been spared, is more of a mystery.
So, what's the lesson, if any? Isolation definitely helps against infectious diseases. But that's about the only advantage of being isolated. Take this map of the spread of COVID-19 as of 11 am on 5 March. If you had to divide the world into 'fun' and 'no fun' halves, they would correspond quite well with the blue and grey zones on this map, respectively.
For example, one sure-fire way to limit your exposure to the outside world is to have a bloody civil war – see Yemen, Libya and Syria. Another is to be a destination as out of the way and unconnected as Paraguay, the Central African Republic or Mongolia.
If it's the price of living in an interconnected world, then perhaps there are worse things than having to fight off a slightly deadlier iteration of the flu. Praise globalization and pass the hand sanitizer – with your elbows, please!
Strange Maps #1014
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.